Near the end of John Boormans 1981 Excalibur, as King Arthur
Near the end of John Boormans 1981 Excalibur, as King Arthurmakes 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 Boormans 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 Boormans people are preoccupied at some level with their future existence, their spiritual integrity at the edge of this or that abyss. Its 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 wars 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.
"Ive spent more time on films I havent made than on those Ihave," says Boorman without bitterness. Like Merlin in Excalibur, who foresees his own demise but cheerfully shrugs, saying, "Its 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 thats 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 Ive made extended me to my very limits. Ive always had this puritanical idea that if Im not using every fiber of my being to make a picture, Im not giving it enough. With The General, I didnt 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 Cahills 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 wasnt 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. Its a tour de force role that requires every sort of thing, including genius. Boorman tells me, Oh no, dont worry, Im 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, its you! I know you youre the General! You just look in somebodys eyes, you know what theyve 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? Im doing this picture on my own. Im not getting paid. Im 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. "Thats how we got those velvety blacks."
On Deliverance, Boorman spent three months in the lab merging black & white and color, shot by shot, to give an otherwise too-pretty river the right sense of menace. "In Point Blank," he recalls, "each scene was defined by a single color. The story starts in blues and grays, and by the last scene its all reds." Did the producers of Point Blank, which since its release in 1968 has become a cult movie, tell Boorman he was nuts? "The head of the art department wrote the head of the studio," he recalls, slipping into an American twang. "He said, Theres a scene here in an office, where there are seven men. Theyre all wearing green suits, green shirts and green ties. The walls are green and the furnitures green. Were going to be laughed right out of the theater. And yet," says Boorman, "if you look at that scene, youre not aware of any uniformity. Some greens grade off into browns, others into black, blue, even white."
Boormans loving tribute to Point Blanks late star, Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait, has been airing on pay-TV channels over the past year, and the director warms instantly to the topic of his friend. "We had long conversations about who Point Blanks hero, Walker, should be, and I learned a lot about Lee. The critical thing was his World War II experience in the South Pacific. Hed killed people, hed been badly wounded in an ambush. Point Blank was very much about him, a man who comes back from the dead and tries to connect to normal society. That was what he brought to it. Because Lee had lived it, you felt Walkers internal struggle with peculiar force."
Which brings us back to the afterlife: Point Blank hints that Walker never survived the attempt on his life in the films first scene; that his adventure to settle old scores may be nothing more than a wishful dream as he lies dying. Plainly, Boorman was conscious of this layer. Was Marvin? "Keenly," says Boorman. "It informed every choice we made. Im always looking for a mythic dimension. The movies I like always have this other dream level."
Myth is a vast word thats often too vaguely used. How does Boorman define it? "A story so basic, so powerful, it comes out of the very roots of folk memory and shapes the larger patterns of our imagination. Arthurian legend is one I revert to. Arthurs father, Uther Pendragon, is an archetype of the beginning of humanity, while Camelot and Arthur represent our civilized peak. Yet civilization is also the loss of magic, the loss of connection to nature and nature is the Grail. Lose that, and you have wasteland. To find the Grail is to rediscover that lost connection. In Point Blank, Walkers nemesis, Yost, is a Merlin figure, a master manipulator who keeps to the background. Walker is a knight, a Perceval if you will, searching for the Grail."
Asked if a specific myth underpins The General, Boorman cites a more obscure figure out of Arthurian legend: the Green Knight. "He arrives in Camelot, a mysterious figure, but a strictly destructive one. He turns everything upside down in the place. Thats Martin Cahill: a figure who disturbs a society, yet reveals everything about that society because of the combative way he challenges it at every level."
While it was being made, The General attracted a great deal ofunwanted controversy in the Irish press, because so many of Cahills victims were still alive. Boorman wasnt worried: "I took care at every step to make it clear what a brute he was." He also took care to show Cahills death in the very first scene to cast a shadow forward through the film. "Whatever the Generals up to, you know hes going to pay the price, and that wins him a healthy sympathy."
Had Cahill not been born into such deep poverty, had he not been forced to scrap and scrabble for his existence from early childhood, he might have become a great Irish leader on the order of Michael Collins. Boorman agrees: "He was brilliant, no question. Hes exactly that archetype you find in Ireland the rebel, the chieftain. He had all the wit, humor, cunning and sense of organization. Have you seen Neil Jordans The Butcher Boy? That boy could easily have grown up to be Martin Cahill." (Indeed: Eamonn Owens, young star of The Butcher Boy, plays Cahill as a boy in The General.)
"Halfway through filming the picture," recalls Boorman, "Cahills sister turned up. She told me he always knew he would be killed by a bullet. He simply had this notion, throughout his life. He also knew, she said, that someone would make a film about him after he died. He had a strong sense of his own mythology, a very clear picture of himself in the world. He had clear, twisted but serious beliefs that he lived by. That gave him strength."
Boormans career has known several peaks, and The General constitutes one of them. Projects Boorman has been developing for years may now fall into place: an ambitious future fantasy called Broken Dream, a fresh adaptation of Rudyard Kiplings Kim. Given the ups and downs hes known, how does Boorman keep his faith that there will be a next? He replies with a story. "I spent some time with David Lean just before he died. He was just weeks away from shooting Nostromo in Australia when he had fallen ill. He told me: I hope I can get well enough to make this picture, because I feel Im just beginning to get the hang of it."
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