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By Sherrie Li
Near the end of John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur, as King Arthur makes ready for the apocalyptic battle in which he knows he will be killed, he tells his faithful knight Perceval, "I am the stuff of future memory."
This may be my favorite line in all of Boorman’s work. Not only does it serve as a perfect epitaph for a romantic king — it defines every Boorman hero, right up to and including the crime-happy protagonist of his latest film, The General. All of Boorman’s people are preoccupied at some level with their future existence, their spiritual integrity at the edge of this or that abyss. It’s true of the sleepwalking thug in Point Blank(1968); the sleepless Georgia businessman in Deliverance(1972); the immortals who rule the world of Zardoz (1974); the psychiatrist who probes the spirit world in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977); the father and son who fight the rape of nature in The Emerald Forest (1985); the elders and children who keep playfulness alive amid war’s horrors in Hope and Glory(1987); the warring family members who zestily uproot each other in Where the Heart Is (1990); the American doctor recovering from the murder of her husband and son in Beyond Rangoon (1995). There are those who say Boorman is overly preoccupied with masculine virtue; I would argue that he is more interested in the notion of Afterlife. Honor, chivalry, clarity of purpose, as he views them, are smaller mysteries that only deepen the larger one of what next, and what life is for.
"I’ve spent more time on films I haven’t made than on those I have," says Boorman without bitterness. Like Merlin in Excalibur, who foresees his own demise but cheerfully shrugs, saying, "It’s the way of things," Boorman has no time to waste mourning might-have-beens; he prefers to be energetic and act forcefully in the service of the immediate and the possible. As a 25-year resident of Ireland, the director followed the colorful adventures of Martin Cahill, the Dublin career criminal who called himself the General. "What was fascinating about the General was, he took on everybody: the IRA, the police, the church — he stood alone against them. By the end, he was standing very alone."
Boorman has likewise always managed to go his own way, sometimes with astonishing results. London during World War II has never been more powerfully or magically evoked than in Hope and Glory, nor has the dreamy pre-Christian antiquity of Excalibur. Even when a film comes out "malnourished" (his word for Zardoz), it does so with the grandeur of an artist making a labor of love. Looking back at a career that’s included filming in white-water rapids for Deliverance, African tundra for Exorcist II, Amazon rain forest for The Emerald Forest and Burmese jungle for Beyond Rangoon, he grins. "Every other picture I’ve made extended me to my very limits. I’ve always had this puritanical idea that if I’m not using every fiber of my being to make a picture, I’m not giving it enough. With The General, I didn’t feel that at all. The film became all the better for the absence of strain."
Jon Voight, who went downriver with Boorman to make Deliverance and remains his close friend, co-stars in The General as the stolid Dublin police inspector who is Cahill’s loyal nemesis. "When John showed me the script," the actor recalls wryly, "I had only one real objection. I thought the role of the detective wasn’t strong enough. But I had to ask, ‘Who in the world are you going to cast as Cahill?’ No matter what I bring to the detective, the film is this other character. It’s a tour de force role that requires every sort of thing, including genius. Boorman tells me, ‘Oh no, don’t worry, I’m casting a fine young actor in that part.’"
Voight points to Brendan Gleeson, who has entered the room, and is already needling him. "That first day on the set," Voight continues, "I walk into him. I said, ‘Oh shit, it’s you! I know you — you’re the General!’ You just look in somebody’s eyes, you know what they’ve got." Gleeson chimes in, brimming with mischief: "For my part, I was in awe of the fine Icelandic accent Jon had worked up for his audition. A marvel of an accent, situated halfway between L.A. and Dublin."
At Cannes this year the buzz was: What balls! Boorman makes a film in black & white, with an unknown in the lead. Boorman nods: "I went for black & white simply because there was nobody to tell me not to. I thought, fuck it, you know? I’m doing this picture on my own. I’m not getting paid. I’m going to make it the way I wanted to make it." As a money saver, Boorman elected to shoot The General using color film while lighting for black & white — a technical subtlety that creates more dynamic juxtapositions of light and shade. The film was then converted to black & white in a special lab in Paris. "That’s how we got those velvety blacks."
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