Oscar Directors: Boorman, John (“Deliverance”)–Career of Ups, Downs, and More Downs

Known as one of the most independently minded directors, Boorman once said: “filmmaking is the process of turning money into light, and then trying to turn it back into money again,” an epigram that has defined the trajectory of his vastly uneven career.
It’s hard to think of another major director who has had so many ups and downs. David Thompson has observed that Boorman is “as commercially unreliable as he is artistically unpredictable.”
In My Country

Boorman’s latest, “In My Country,” is one of his most dogmatic and simplest films. Inspired by real-life events, it chronicles how the dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa began an odyssey, in which the cruelest acts could be healed with love and compassion. Adapted from “Country Of My Skull,” Antjie Krog’s compelling account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, “In My Country” marked Boorman’s return to directing for the first time since the 2001 thriller, “The Tailor of Panama.”

In 1996, the South African government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate abuses of human rights under apartheid. The hearings served as a forum for those accused of murder and torture to be confronted by their victims, and, by admitting their guilt, be granted amnesty under Ubuntu, the native custom of forgiveness. Covering the sessions are Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), journalists who through their reportage inspire both the world and themselves with extraordinary stories about courage and redemption.

The film, which had premiered last year in Berlin Festival to negative reviews, ended recently its short theatrical run. Sony intends to do better in July, when the DVD edition comes out, with special featurettes like Boorman’s commentary and interviews with Juliette Binoche, the producer, and writer.

Born in Shepperton in 1933, Boorman is an outsider-filmmaker par excellence.
After an inauspicious start in the dry-cleaning business and writing film reviews for magazines and radio, Boorman entered British television in 1955 as an assistant editor. He worked his way up through TV, where he distinguished himself as an innovative documentarian. In 1962, he became head of the BBC documentary unit in Bristol. Boorman made his debut as a director in 1965, with the whimsical, loosely structured “Catch Us If You Can” (aka “Having a Wild Weekend”), starring the pop group the Dave Clark Five. The film was distinctive and original enough to earn Boorman recognition as an innovative stylist.

After additional work for the BBC, including a documentary on D. W. Griffith, Boorman came to Hollywood to direct two features starring Lee Marvin, “Point Blank” and “Hell in the Pacific,” both of which revealed skill at tight dramatic construction and sustained narrative pace.

Point Blank stars Lee Marvin as a gangster obsessed with getting revenge on the organization that had once wronged him. A stylish exploration of the increasing de-personalization of life in the modern urban world, the film became one of the era’s definitive statements, occupying a place in the Hollywood New Wave next to such classics as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch.”

“Point Blank” is Boorman’s acknowledged masterpiece, an urban thriller that presents a portrait of America as jungle, a complex of organized crime. It uses city’s sites–the prison, sewers, apartment buildings, and used-car lots–metaphysically. The actual and the imaginary are perfectly joined in point blank, an account of Marvin’s remorseless hacking away at the syndicate, but also his dream in the instant he dies. Marvin’s character become a spectator of his own story, triumphing as he dies.

The film’s multi-level structure and multi-nuanced tone showed the scope of Boorman’s artistic ambitions and gifts. In addition to the incisive portrait of violence and businesslike crime, of lives harrowed by anxiety, “Point Blank” ends on a note of mystery. When Marvin doesn’t come forward to claim his money, he has abandoned violence and finally dies. Boorman’s sinister view expresses modern man’s dilemma in dealing with all organizations, not just crime.

Boorman again collaborated with Marvin on the allegorical Hell in the Pacific (1968), in which he cast the actor as a WWII soldier stranded on an island with a Japanese soldier (Toshiro Mifune). Hell in the Pacific was tempered with by distributors who were baffled by a seemingly war picture, albeit one with strong metaphysical overtones.

Leo the Last

Boorman returned to England to direct “Leo the Last,” (1970), a surreal tale of culture clash starring Marcello Mastroianni as an Italian aristocrat in London. “Leo the Last,” a pretentious Brechtian parable of the relationships between the haves and haves not, was made for the arthouse circuit; the film earned Boorman the best director award at Cannes.

He then came back to Hollywood to make the harrowing survival drama, “Deliverance” (1972), a nightmarish meditation on the uselessness of civilized conduct in the face of primitive instincts. The excellent physical realization of “Deliverance” is marred by stereotypical characters and blatant message. The visual account of journey four city guys take down the river, and the irrational hostility of the hill people are stunning. But the film’s central idea, juxtaposing the Bit city with the wilderness, was so familiar to make it seem shallow too.

Nonetheless, “Deliverance” enjoyed critical and commercial success and became one of the decade’s most memorable films. Hailed for its depictions of the dark realities of human nature, the film was nominated for 3 Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, and became a classic. The scenes depicting Ned Beatty’s rape by backwoods rednecks were recognized as some of cinema’s most memorable.

The success of “Point Blank” and “Deliverance,” both uniquely and intensely American sagas (one urban, the other about the wilderness), brought Boorman to a position of eminence. Yet unlike John Schlesinger, he never became an American director, or settled into making genre films.

In the 1970s, Boorman went through hard times, and two of his films were resounding flops. The Sean Connery vehicle, “Zardoz” (1973), and the sequel, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977), were artistic and commercial disappointments. Though shot amid the wild beauty of Ireland’s Wicklow, where Boorman lives, “Zardoz” was a mythic film with no context. Long in the making, “The Heretic” was recut and withdrawn from the screen after terrible reviews and contemptuous response from viewers.

In the 1980s, he entered a wild period in which he made visually extravagant but narratively preposterous movies. “Excalibur” (1981), a visually lavish adaptation of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur,” displays a true sense of pageantry. The film was sort of a comeback, enjoying positive critical and commercial reception.

Boorman reasserted himself as a stimulating visual stylist in 1985 with “The Emerald Forest,” a factually based adventure about a father’s search for his kidnapped boy, played by Boorman’s son, Charley, who had appeared in several of his father’s films. Boorman wrote “Money Into Light,” a diary of the traumatic three years he spent making The Emerald Forest in Brazil’s rain forests. The critics extolled the film for its ravishing scenery and Boorman’s use of visuals. “Emerlad Forrest,” a tribute to John Ford’s “The Searchers,” boasted breathtaking imagery that compensated for the slender story.

Boorman’s narrative strength was most evident in “Hope and Glory” (1987), a gentle, warm semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood during the London Blitz. “Hope and Glory” captured charmingly a child’s innocent delight at the disruption of the Blitz (“Thank You, Hitler,” he says when classes are cancelled). Hailed for its unforced exuberance, the film was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay and was cited as best of the year by the National Society of Film Critics.

He followed it with “Where the Heart Is” (1990) and “I Dreamt I Woke Up” (1991), a short about the highs and lows of his. After another short, “Two Nudes Bathing,” and the political adventure “Beyond Rangoon,” both in 1995, Boorman directed “The General” (1998), the story of real-life Irish crime lord Martin Cahill, boasting an extraordinary performance by Brendan Gleeson. Praised as Boorman’s best film in years, the film didn’t find its audience, but it won the direction award at Cannes, 30 years after winning the same award for “Leo the Last.”

Based on John le Carr’s 1996 book, “The Tailor of Panama” was a semi-successful attempt at a new breed of contemporary spy thriller, again showing Boorman’s forte in sophisticated and cerebral entertainment. By now, the pattern has become familiar by now: Disappointments like “Beyond Rangoon and “The Tailor of Panama” are followed by a brilliant film like “The General,” preceding yet another weak picture, “In My Country.”

Boorman has shown strong feeling for atmosphere, complex action scenes, exotic locales, and contemplative, soul-searching stories. But he has not yet shown the ability to develop complex characterizations. His work continues to show tension between commercial entertainment, arthouse inclinations, and allegorical pretentiousness. Boorman’s natural inclination is toward a deliberately cerebral cinema, for which there is limited audiences, not only in the U.S.

Genre Director

Boorman’s considerable talent may never be fully realized. He is a visionary filmmaker, but his interest in new kinds of narratives doesn’t conceal the fact that his most accessible films have been genre variations.

John Boorman is a major filmmaker without a major career. Of his 17 films (see chart), only five or six are really good. Boorman continues to depend on critics and film festivals–Cannes has premiered at least half of his pictures. He’s one of a few directors of international reputation who still matters. Indeed, almost every film he has made becomes notable, an eagerly awaited event by his loyal following.

Boorman is still capable of major surprises. If the past is any indication, there is no way to predict where his next film would come from and what particular shape it would take.