Imagine a movie where the hero turns into a coward and switches back to a hero. You begin to question your own yardsticks of what makes a hero and what makes a coward.
I have seen this US-British co-produced film three times over the past 30 years and each time I loved it and wanted to see it once again. What has attracted me each time are the spoken words and depth of the subject (you could say it was the screenplay) more than the direction. The subject of the film must have attracted director Richard Brooks who was essentially a screenplay writer who later became a director. He knew the merits of a strong script with philosophical lines taken from Joseph Conrad's book Lord Jim. Coppola was to use the related original material (Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another related tale narrated by Conrad's fictional character Marlow) in his Apocalypse Now for the Brando scenes several decades after this film was made and mostly forgotten.
What Brooks does not realize is that lines like "it only takes a split second to make a coward a hero or turn a hero into a coward" and "every sinner wants a second chance at redemption, without realizing he is damned for ever" are philosophical lines that one expects to hear from very literate individuals. Here, in Lord Jim, the lines are often spoken by the dregs of society. Jim, of course, we are told by the narrator (Jack Hawkins' Marlow) was philosophical, dreamed of heroism, and was a gentleman.
The film is made up of three distinct segments: 1. The "sinking" of SS Patna 2. The liberation of Patusan ("Patna" + "us" make up the name Patusan, remarks Jim to his love) and 3. The battle with a group of scoundrels (led by James Mason's 'Gentleman' Brown) with some fine speeches on honor, death, and fear.
Each segment could stand alone but together the film adds considerable worthiness that exceeds the action and plot, the elements that most viewers use to judge a movie. The lesser characters in the film add color and counterpoints to the script. Christian Marquand's French Captain who defends Jim's "cowardice" with the words "fear can make us do strange things" or Paul Lukas' Stern who compares his dead butterfly collection with the "wonderful, perfect human beings that God created" or the native who wonders why some pray to one god instead of a host of Gods are a few examples of dialogs that force you to reflect on what you heard.
The film's subject covers several religions. The fervent Muslims on the way to Haj survive the storm. The Christian Jim prays to his God. The Buddhists pray to Buddha. And the natives pray to their array of gods (a touch of Hinduism?). Yet, the film is not a religious film. But faith in God is underlined at every stage.
Conrad was Polish and a seaman before he became a writer. Brooks is an American. O'Toole leads a cast that is predominantly British. Daliah Lavi is Israeli, Marquand is French, Jurgens is German...The film is truly international.
Brooks not only wrote and directed the film but this was the first film that he produced. The film proved to be ideal for O'Toole reprising his roles of Lawrence of Arabia and Becket, roles that draw thin lines between cowardice and heroism and consequent attempts to redeem oneself. The film is not great cinema--but will remain for me a major literary work (Lord Jim, with many ties to Heart of Darkness, both works of Joseph Conrad) adapted for the screen with some delightful performances from O'Toole, Mason, Wallach, and Marquand and commendable photography by Freddie Young.