Catch Us if You Can (1965)
|A John Boorman season runs at BFI Southbank throughout April 2013. An exhibition of Boorman posters, designs and props is on display in the Mezzanine gallery.|
John Boorman was given a chance to direct, as a showcase for the Dave Clark Five, his first feature. The film reveals a sense of fantasy, humour and visual invention while anticipating future work. Two young people flee the synthetic glitter of the publicity world in search of an ‘elsewhere’ that finally proves inaccessible. During this quest, the director plays with illusion and reality, from a fancy dress ball to the shoot of a TV commercial.
Point Blank (1967)
John Boorman’s American debut remains a landmark crime movie, mixing fast-paced, hard-hitting Hollywood action with European stylistic experimentation and cool, existential enquiry to lastingly intoxicating effect. Heading up a slew of actors who can only be described as ‘iconic’, Lee Marvin is cast to career-best perfection as Walker, an old-school gangster left to die in Alcatraz after an otherwise successful heist. Like some anachronistic avenging angel, he returns to seek out those who betrayed him and retrieve his share of the loot from the outwardly respectable, strangely faceless ‘Organisation’.
Hell in the Pacific (1968)
Two ‘larger than life’ stars, archetypal images of their countries of origin, embody this Beckettian fable (humour included) of two men on an island, neither speaking the other’s language. An American marine and a Japanese officer at the end of World War II play successively the role of master and servant. The only other protagonists are the air, earth, water and fire, which Boorman directs with utmost power.
Four city men go for a weekend of river adventures in the Appalachians. The expedition turns into a nightmare after they meet two hillbillies and steer their canoes through turbulent rapids. James Dickey’s novel is the source of a terrifying cinematographic experience where Boorman debunks the myth of regeneration through violence so dear to the old west. As with earlier Boorman protagonists, Ed (John Voight) – in his quest for his own identity – lives out a bad dream.
Set in 2293, where a self-contained world is peopled with the Brutes, the Exterminators and the Eternals. Zardoz is a dystopia, a pessimistic view of a possible future, and a cautionary tale coloured by Boorman’s concern for the evolution of humanity. Shot – like Excalibur, The General and The Tiger’s Tail – near his house in Wicklow, it is the most baroque of all his films, where he gives free rein to his imagination in flamboyant hues, and features Sean Connery as the embodiment of a life force.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Conceived as a sequel to The Exorcist, The Heretic was the big commercial disaster of Boorman’s career, disappointing audience expectations of the gruesome effects of the original and providing instead a metaphysical thriller. Science and religion, a psychiatrist and a priest combine efforts to save a sick child while, in the heart of Africa, a magician offers an answer. Shot on spectacular sets, the film is reminiscent of the great German Expressionist cinema.
From a very early age, Boorman was influenced by the Grail mythology, which informed a number of his films. He finally decided to adapt the Arthurian legends and audaciously dealt with the complete cycle, focusing on the romantic triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot along with Perceval’s search for the hidden chalice. The splendour of the visuals is never divorced from the energy of the narrative, and the mixture of the epic, the tragic, the elegiac and the comic proves exhilarating.
The Emerald Forest (1985)
Like several other Boorman films, The Emerald Forest is about a clash of cultures. The child of an American engineer is abducted and raised into adolescence by an Amazonian Indian tribe, and refuses to return to white civilisation. The father, a builder of dams, believes in technology but comes to recognise the natives’ point of view and his own responsibility. Once more the director proves that he is a great painter of landscapes, with a fabulous bestiary and a quivering nature.
Hope and Glory (1987)
It took 20 years for John Boorman to write and direct an autobiographical film: the war years that he lived through as a child of seven in suburban London by the river Thames. As expected, the point of view is strikingly original, the Blitz being perceived by the young boy as a cheery experience, all fireworks and plunder in the ruins of houses. Warm and funny, and a key to his cinema.
The General (1998)
Shot in colour but printed in black and white, and inspired by the life of Martin Cahill, the film sees Boorman for the first time depicting contemporary Ireland. Awarded the Best Director prize by the Cannes jury presided over by Martin Scorsese, the film – like its main actor, the astonishing, Cagney-esque Brendan Gleeson – has a biting humour, a plebeian truculence and a compulsive energy. Cahill, a modern gangster, is both a seducer and a scoundrel.
The Tailor of Panama (2001)
Collaborating with John Le Carré, Boorman adapted his novel and stayed faithful to its iconoclastic spirit. After Beyond Rangoon and The General and before Country of My Skull, the film is part of a political tetralogy, and presents itself as a cruel satire of a general paranoia without forsaking the complexity of its main character. Facing Geoffrey Rush, Pierce Brosnan relishes his part as an anti-James Bond. An enthralling divertimento.
Country of My Skull (aka In My Country, 2004)
Like The General, a film inspired by true events, but this time with a portentous subject: the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions investigating abuses of human rights under Apartheid. This probably explains Boorman’s rare adoption of classical form. Surveying the confrontation of an Afrikaner radio reporter in opposition to her family and an African-American journalist ill at ease with black Africans, Boorman once more makes the search for identity one of his themes.
Film notes by Michel Ciment