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After spending months in the desert playing T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Peter O'Toole enjoyed the mostly stage-bound shoot of Becket (1964), in which he portrayed King Henry II. Both roles resulted in Oscar® nominations for Best Actor. It seemed O'Toole could do no wrong. Now ready for some adventure again, he signed on to play the title role in director Richard Brooks's Lord Jim (1965), a lavish three-hour epic based on Joseph Conrad's intricate 1900 novel.
The story (which had been filmed once before by director Victor Fleming in 1925) follows an officer in the Mercantile Marine who commits an act of cowardice aboard a ship, the Patna. Discharged, he attempts to redeem himself by taking a shipment of explosives to Patusan, a remote island in the Far East. Deep in the jungle he finds a warlord known as the General terrorizing the population, and he attempts to restore peace and stability. A notorious river pirate named Gentleman Brown, however, threatens to shake up the peace once again.
The character of Lord Jim is an enigmatic antihero functioning in an exotic foreign land and comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia were inevitable. The threat of typecasting loomed large and O'Toole was aware of this danger but went with the part anyway. He stated in a Playboy interview at the time that he accepted the role "because it was the only chance I'd ever had of doing a Western - or an Eastern, if you like. He was a simple, silent, guilt-ridden fellow who rides into town like Shane. I just fancied the idea."
Lord Jim is introverted to the point of near silence, with often just a line or two of dialogue at a time. "Jim never talks unless he absolutely has to," said O'Toole during production. "With Jim, talking is like lowering a bucket down a deep well. It takes a long time to come up. And when it does, you're not sure what's in it... I love playing inarticulates - it's a great challenge."
When the picture was finished and proved to be a box office bomb, however, O'Toole sang a different tune: "I was so wrong for the picture. When I play reflective types, I tend to reflect myself right off the screen. It was a mistake, I let everyone down. It would have been better with someone else." He even said he might have been smarter to have taken on one of the roles played by James Mason (Gentleman Brown) or Eli Wallach (the General). Said O'Toole: "I was in danger of becoming known as a tall, blond, thin dramatic actor, always self-tortured and in doubt and looking off painfully into the horizon. Lord Jim was my come-uppance. It was a mistake and I made the mistake because I was conservative and played safe. And that way lies failure. I should have taken the challenge of another part - the General perhaps - but not Jim, who looked at times too much like Lawrence." O'Toole claimed never to have watched the completed film of Lord Jim.
Most reviewers criticized Lord Jim as plodding and lifeless, though time has been kinder to the movie. One element that did reap praise was the brilliant cinematography by Freddie Young, who also shot Lawrence of Arabia. Another was James Mason's performance as Gentleman Brown. The actor later quipped that the best thing about the picture was "that we all got to visit the Far East in a style consistent with the demands of our respective agents." Mason sure needed a trip. He had just gone through an ugly divorce in which his wife received an enormous settlement - one which, he said, "wiped out all the money I ever made in Hollywood, [and] the only reason I was ever there was to make money."
Lord Jim was shot in Hong Kong, Singapore and Cambodia - primarily around Angkor Wat, where technicians built schoolhouses, shops, a stockade and a tribal palace. Conditions were often uncomfortable and dangerous, with much time spent in insect-laden jungles and on barges. Rising political instability in Cambodia exacerbated the situation. O'Toole complained during production that the crew was being exploited by local politicians, and when he reported finding a snake in his soup, Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk banned him from ever returning - not that O'Toole would have wanted to. He later recalled, "There was a pulse of political violence beating just below the surface. In fact, we got out just in time. They burned down the British and American embassies the day after we left."
Following Lord Jim, O'Toole made a conscious effort to shake up his pattern of epic dramas. His next films were the comedies What's New, Pussycat (1965) and How to Steal a Million (1966).
Producer: Richard Brooks
Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, Joseph Conrad (novel)
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Film Editing: Alan Osbiston
Art Direction: Ernest Archer, William Hutchinson
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Peter O'Toole (Lord Jim), James Mason (Gentleman Brown), Curd Jurgens (Cornelius), Eli Wallach (The General), Jack Hawkins (Marlow), Paul Lukas (Stein).
by Jeremy Arnold