“Lord Jim is a silly book; it reads like a story in Boys’ Own” – Graham Greene.
Joseph Conrad wrote : “If you want to know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. But what storm can fully reveal the heart of a man ? Between Suez and the China Sea are many nameless men who prefer to live and die unknown. This is the story of one such man. Among the great gallery of rogues and heroes thrown up on the beaches and ports, no man was more respected or more damned than … Lord Jim”.
Peter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia (no one does dying duck in a thunderstorm better), came to Cambodia to make the movie version. The year was 1964. Screenwriter/director Richard Brooks had bought the rights for $6500 in 1958, and was in love with the story. You know how it goes – Jim, English mate on a merchantman carrying Asian pilgrims on the Haj to Mecca, disgraces himself and so must seek redemption through death in the wild Malay islands.
What’s Angkor doing in Malaya? Never mind, this is Hollywood. Cast and crew stayed at the Auberge Royale des Temples, built in 1909 in front of Angkor Wat where today the tourist busses and tuk-tuks park. Brooks spent well over half a million dollars building new air-conditioned rooms. “That hotel!” raged O’Toole in an interview afterwards. “More expensive than Claridge’s! Ten flaming quid a night [$28] and a poxy room at that. Nicest thing you could say about the food was that it was grotesque.”
The stars included James Mason (“Lolita”) and the Kurt Jürgens (“The Spy Who Loved Me”). The heroine was Dalia Lavi, just 16 – she got into the movie business through Kirk Douglas, who spotted her in the street when she was ten and offered to adopt her and take her off to live with him. Her parents declined, but he gave them a generous donation that allowed her to study ballet in Sweden. Director of cinematography, Freddie Young, the cinematographer on “Lawrence of Arabia”, shot scenes in the Bayon temple and Preah Khan (the HQ of the movie villains), at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and in the surrounding jungles and rivers. And from the look of this very atmospheric still, on the moat at Angkor.
The temperatures were over 40º Celsius and there were no bars or good restaurants in Siem Reap, Pub Street being still a muddy alleyway (as indeed it still was when I first visited in 2001 – how time flies), but there were lizards and bats and mosquitoes, and dysentery and heat-rash, and snakes hanging from the branches of the trees. One of the crew members was bitten by a cobra and died. The local cops were unpleasant and the officials expected bribes.
There was also Prince Sihanouk, growing ever more anti-American over US support for anti-Sihanoukist rebels. Spontaneous demonstrations were scheduled in Phnom Penh for the second week of March 1964, and a mysterious Frenchman advised the movie-makers to get out early. Brooks rushed the project through, shooting 18 hours a day, and left just before 10,000 people marched through the streets of Phnom Penh shouting the usual slogans and attacking the US and British embassies. Sihanouk himself denounced the recently-departed film-makers as capitalist invaders. As a royal spokesperson later explained:
For a film producer, even one of real talent, what is Cambodia? The ruins of Angkor… and that is all. So, a run-of-the-mill script is hurriedly written, one or two flashy stars are hired, one adds a mixture of eroticism and violence, advance promotion dwells on the same hold hackneyed themes (…scorpions lurking in boots… the poverty of the people… etc.) and the whole plot is put in motion.
Graham Greene would no doubt nod. Let’s let Peter O’Toole have the final say:
If I live to be a thousand, I want nothing like Cambodia again. It was a bloody nightmare. I really hated it there. How much so you can judge by the fact that after six months in the Orient I hadn’t picked up a single word there, whereas after nine months in the desert on Lawrence I was speaking Arabic pretty well.
• Stills at A Day for All Nights cinema blog