Sunday, July 02, 2006

Lord Jim and Peter O'Toole

If you thought Tomb Raider was the first big-budget movie to be made in Cambodia, think again. In 1963 the swashbuckling tale of Lord Jim was filmed in and around Angkor Wat and starred Peter O'Toole, James Mason, Eli Wallach and Daliah Lavi, as the token love interest. In its day, Lord Jim, adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel, cost a massive $10 million to make and filming took place in Hong Kong before the cast and crew moved to Angkor. In an interview for Time Magazine in January 1964, Peter O'Toole, who was hot box-office property after the runaway success of Lawrence of Arabia, was clearly not enamoured with his experiences in Southeast Asia. Here's some extracts from the interview:

Then the company moved on to Cambodia. For all the anti-Western ferment in the Southeast Asia country, producer-director Richard Brooks had managed to get permission to shoot location scenes in jungles and around the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat. To accommodate his large cast and crew, Brooks had to spend $600,000 to add a 47-room wing onto a little hotel near the location. "That hotel!" rages O'Toole. "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." Soon everyone was set upon by dysentery, giant stinging insects and prickly heat rash that made clothing unbearable. Then came the snakes, which seemed to have a particular curiosity about show business. Walking down the middle of a jungle road, O'Toole came face to face with a huge black cobra. "They say no snake can travel faster than a scared human," he recalls, "but I ain't so sure. The snake went like hell, but luckily away from me." Another cobra slithered onto the set and dropped to the floor of the makeshift ladies' rest room. As screeching pandemonium broke out, a grip rushed to the rescue, killing the snake and stretching it out to its awesome seven-foot length. Then, an almost identical cobra appeared, eluded its chasers and presumably lurked in the shadows through the night's jittery shooting. One feminine member of the crew discovered two snakes curled up inside the commode - but did not linger to figure out what kind they were. Of particular dread was a snake called the 'two-step'. "It bites you, you take two steps," explains O'Toole, "and then you die. One day there was a nasty cop around and he had one curled around his foot. Flaming lovely discretion shown by the snake. It didn't bite the guy, so justice isn't total."

Peter O'Toole and Daliah Lavi in 1964

Almost as annoying as the snakes were the Cambodian officials, many of whom seemed to think the movie company had come just for the privilege of paying bribes. One day Crown Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia's pro-Peking ruler, showed up. "He started yelling the usual anti-British crud," says O'Toole. "I walked up to him and said, 'I couldn't agree with you more. I'm Irish meself.'" A mysterious Frenchman appeared on the location one day and darkly advised Brooks to get his company out of Cambodia by March 12. Unlike Caesar, who paid no heed to the soothsayer, Brooks for some reason believed the man. With O'Toole's concurrence, the work schedule was doubled and the daily shooting went on from noon until nearly dawn. The scheduled 12 weeks was thus cut to nine and the company left the country on March 3. One week later the US and British embassies were attacked by mobs (O'Toole is convinced that some of the trouble-makers had worked in the film as extras.) Prince Sihanouk took to the national radio to denounce the movie company as 'Western imperialist invaders.' "If I live to be a thousand," says O'Toole, "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."


Jinja said...

Lord Jim (the film), Apocalypse Now, and Street Fighter all have climactic battle sequences inside a temple complex. Maybe they were cribbing each others' plots?

Andy said...

Jeremy Arnold wrote this about Lord Jim for Turner Classic Movies:

- When the picture was finished and proved to be a box office bomb, however, Peter 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."


Lord Jim was screened on BBC tv in the UK on 13 August 2006. The film director obviously had the run of the Angkor ruins judging by the later scenes from the film. It looked like the main camp was centered on the temple of Preah Khan, unless someone knows different! Angkor Wat featured briefly only twice in the whole film, as did The Bayon.

Andy said...

The following extract is taken form the New York Times in March 1964:

"After 'Lord Jim'," said Peter O'Toole of his new movie, "the kids on my street are finally going to call me a real actor. In this one, I work like a son-of-a-gun--pulling a jinriksha, sliding down ropes and even stoking on a boat we used in Hong Kong--the only coal-run boat left in the Far East."

The actor was relaxing here in his hotel suite during a convenient stop-over for the "Becket" premiere after seven grueling weeks of Oriental exteriors for the screen version of Joseph Conrad's classic novel. The ambitious Columbia project, an eight-year dream of scenarist-director Richard Brooks, is one of the most far-flung and exotic-sounding in years, already stretching form Hong Kong harbor to the lush jungles of Cambodia with three months of studio work now set for London's Shepperton Studios.

West Meets East

Hong Kong, with its sampan-cluttered waterfront, is a not uncommon movie locale these jet-propelled days. But none of the 100 actors and technicians, according to Mr. O'Toole, were prepared for the colorful, first-hand impact of work at the site of the centuries-old temple of Angkor Wat, near Siemreap, Cambodia, where, with government clearance, the movie visitors recreated the author's mythical village of Patusan. To the astonishment of helpful jungle natives, who provided the movies population, the film folk added schoolhouses, well stocked shops, an assembly hall, a stockade, a tribal palace and bamboo-stilted straw huts along the mile-square moat enclosing the ancient temple.

Braving 120-degree heat, continually dodging scorpions and poisonous spiders, the "Lord Jim" visitors had brief, contrasting sanctuary in their nearby living quarters, the newly built Auberge des Temples, with air-conditioned rooms, French cuisine and white-clad native servants. As elephants splashed and trumpeted in the lily-padded waters of the temple moat, carpenters erected the "new" village of Patusan, where Mr. O'Toole and such colleagues as Curt Jurgens, Eli Wallach, Jack Hawkins, Paul Lukas, Akim Tamiroff, and the Israeli actress, Dahlia Lavi.

"We wasted very little time," mused O'Toole. "We couldn't with the monsoon season approaching. Back at Shepperton we'll match all our interiors. There'll be an 'inside' storm at sea--an impossibility in the jungle, of course," he added, smiling. "the ship itself will be completely constructed, also a courtroom, for one key sequence."

Jeff said...

Andy - got an electronic copy of the Time Magazine piece? Would like to write an article on this. Thanks!

Andy said...

sorry Jeff, I don't have it to hand despite having a good look around online myself. I may've got it from another article and copied the text, to be honest I can't recall now, as I've slept since then :-)
if you email me, I'll give you some interesting news.