What if redemption isn’t enough? When shame is buried so deep inside the psyche it can trigger no release? That’s the central theme of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel.
The title character’s shame comes from, as a young officer, abandoning a ship he believed was sinking only to later discover it had been rescued with a cargo of pilgrims to point the finger of blame. He is branded a coward and kicked out of the East India Trading Company, plying his trade among the debris of humanity.
You might think he later redeemed himself by foiling a terrorist plot at great risk to his own life. But that cannot erase his shame. Nor can helping revolutionaries overthrow a despotic warlord (Eli Wallach), enduring torture and again at great risk. What other sacrifice must he make to rid himself of the millstone round his neck?
Writer-director Brooks had a solid pedigree in the adaptation stakes – The Brothers Karamazov (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) – but sometimes you felt the writer got in the way of the director. That’s the case here. There was enough here to satisfy the original intended roadshow customers, great location work, grand sets, length, a big star in Peter O’Toole, but there is no majestic camerawork.
There are good scenes but no great sweep and the result is a slightly ponderous film relieved by stunning action, some moments of high tension, the occasional twist to confound the audience and ingenious ways to mount a battle.
James Mason as a hired killer has many of the best lines – “heroism is a form of mental disease induced by vanity” and “the self-righteous stench of a converted sinner” – all in reference to Jim. Everybody has great lines except O’Toole, he is very much the introverted persona of Lawrence of Arabia, a part he can play with distinction, face torn up by self-torture, fear of repeating his original sin of cowardice and convinced he will be cast out again should people discover he had abandoned hundreds of pilgrims.
Apart from the storm at the outset, the central section in the beleaguered village is the best part as Jim finds sanctuary, love and purpose, and conjures up the possibility of burying the past.
Part of the problem of the film is the director’s need to remain faithful to the source work which has an odd construction and you will be surprised at the parts played by the big-name supporting cast of James Mason, Jack Hawkins and Curt Jurgens.
Many of the films made in the 1960s were concerned with honor of one kind or another and, despite my reservations about the film as a whole, as a study of guilt this is probably the best in that category, in that this character’s conscience refuses to allow him an easy way out.
Brooks had been toying with making this picture for nearly a decade, having purchased the rights in 1957 for $25,000 from Paramount which had made made a silent version in 1925. but, like MGM, which also passed on the project, Paramount considered a remake too great a commercial risk. Columbia, which had just signed the director on a multi-picture deal, took the gamble and handed Brooks a $9 million budget. Albert Finney was briefly considered for the title role. Given the movie was being shot in Super Panavision 70, one of the widest of the widescreen formats, Brooks hired Lawrence of Arabia alumni for the technical department – cinematographer Freddie Fields and prop master and set designer Geoffrey Drake.
You can catch this on Amazon Prime.