Oscar Directors: Boorman, John–Few Great Films, Many More Mediocre Ones

John Boorman: Few Great Films, Many More Mediocre and Weak Onesdelivrance

One of Britain’s most acclaimed directors, John Boorman, who is 81, is known for making films of visual flair and taut narrative.  But a closer look reveals that his critical reputation is based on five films, made in a career spanning half a century; he made his debut in 1965.

 

 

The rest of Boorman’s relatively small oeuvre (19 films) consists of mediocre or truly bad pictures, such as “The Exorcist II: The Heretic” and “Zardoz.”   (See my evaluation below)

The independently minded director 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 uneven career, defined by as many downs as ups. In his film dictionary, David Thompson has observed that Boorman is “as commercially unreliable as he is artistically unpredictable.”

Queen and Country

Boorman’s latest, “Queen and Country,” which just premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Fest to decidedly mixed review.  It’s a disappointing sequel to the charming and autobiographical “Hope and Glory,” which received a Best Picture nomination back in 1987.   The movie marks Boorman’s fourth appearance at the Cannes Film Fest, though it was relegated to “Directors Fortnight,” a side bar usually showing first or second films by new directors.

As I pointed out in my review, “Queen and Country” is so rambling and lacking in focus that it’s hard to understand what motivated Boorman to revisit his alter-ego, Bill Rohan, as an 18 year old guy.  “Hope and Glory” was set in 1943, during WWII, when Bill was 9; “Queen and Country” jumps ahead  nine years, finding Bill dreaming his life away at the riverside home of his family, eagerly waiting to be conscripted into the army during the Korean War.

In My Country

Boorman’s three preceding films were also greeted with mixed response from critics. “In My Country,” made in 2003, is one of his most dogmatic and earnest films.  Inspired by real-life events, it chronicles how the dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa began an odyssey, in which the cruellest 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 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 of Boorman’s commentary, interviews with Juliette Binoche, and so on.
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 feature 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, sustained pacing, striking imagery, and penchant for ambience.

Point Blank 

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

“Point Blank” is Boorman’s acknowledged masterpiece, an urban thriller about human life as a jungle.  It’s a crucial portrait of America as 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 becomes a spectator of his own story, and he triumphs 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 both abandoned violence and finally dies.  The implication is sinister and expresses modern man’s dilemma in dealing with all organizations.

Hell in the Pacific 

Boorman collaborated with Marvin on the allegorical “Hell in the Pacific” (1968), which 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 didn’t do what to do with a war picture that had strong metaphysical overtones.

Boorman returned briefly 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 rich man and his relations with the poor, was made for the arthouse circuit; the film earned Boorman the best director award at Cannes.

Deliverance

He then came back to Hollywood to make the harrowing survival drama, “Deliverance“ (1972), a nightmarish meditation on the inefficacy of civilized conduct in the face of primal and primitive instincts.  The splendid physical realization of “Deliverance” is marred by narrowly defined characters and a rather blatant message, but the film, arguably Boorman’s masterpiece, holds up extremely well. The detailed visual account of the four city guys’ journey down the river, and the irrational hostility of the hill people are stunning.  But the film’s central idea and juxtaposition of the city and the wilderness were so familiar that they seemed shallow too.

“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 set in alienating urban milieu, 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.

Decline

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.

Comeback

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 five 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 disappointing political thriller “Beyond Rangoon,” both in 1995.

The General

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 the Cannes Fest, 30 years after winning the same award for “Leo the Last.”

Tailor of Panama

Based on John le Carré’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, a mixture that does not bode well for commercial mass appeal.

Boorman’s considerable filmic talent might 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 features have been genre films.   Boorman is a major filmmaker with a minor career.  Of his 19 films (see chart), only five or six are really strong, for which he will be remembered.

John Boorman’s Filmography

2014: Queen and Country                      Mediocre

2006: The Tiger’s Tail                            Weak

2005: Memoirs of Hadrian                   Weak

2004: In the Country                              Weak

2001: The Tailor of Panama         Strong                    

1998: The General                             Strong

1995: Two Nudes Bathing                      Mediocre

1995: Beyond Rangoon                          Mediocre

1991: I Dreamt I Woke Up                     Mediocre

1990: Where the Heart Is                       Mediocre

1987: Hope & Glory                          Strong                    

1985: The Emerald Forrest           Strong                    

1981: Excalibur                                       Mediocre

1977: The Exorcist: The Heretic          Weak

1973: Zardoz                                           Weak

1972: Deliverance                            Strong

1970: Leo The Last                                Weak

1968: Hell in the Pacific                        Mediocre

1967: Point Blank                            Strong

1965: Catch Us If You Can

(aka Having A Wild Weekend)             Mediocre