John Boorman once snuck out of his parents’ house and took a canoe up the Thames to Magna Carta Island, across the river from what’s now called Runnymede. The little isle is one of the chief suspects in the case of King John and the Uncertain Location of the Sealing of Magna Carta.
A famous passage of that blessed charter refers to the “Law of the Land.” This is not the law of the people, or the law of the King, or even the law of the Church. There’s a sense that the common law is not mere human custom but part of the very hills and rocks. This mystic vision inspired artists from William Blake to J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s also what motivates director John Boorman, and what unites his rather eclectic body of work.
It leaps off the pages of his memoir, “Adventures of a Suburban Boy.” Boorman rails against the semi, against Le Corbusier, against the world of the displaced “Commuter,” severed from history with only pens to push. “The past was wholly annihilated. Everything must be new and newly made, preferably in chrome and Bakelite. Oh, how they broke free of the weight of tradition!” The forms of religion he inherited gave no answer to his suburban discontents. Protestant and Catholic alike, the only churches and ministers Boorman encountered had “fallen from grace” — a phrase he uses at least seven times in the book.
Nature gave Boorman’s soul solace. He had a spiritual experience swimming in the river Thames, a sort of baptism. This sense of the numinous has marked his work ever since. As he sees it, Boorman hasn’t really had a career. Rather, he has been on one long quest: to find grace and transcendence — the Holy Grail — and capture it on film.
Take his enduring, iconic autobiographical comedy “Hope and Glory.” There are a few of these hopeful details, what Boorman calls “acts of faith in a precarious planet.” His family’s life on the river, and his grandfather teaching him how to punt a small river boat. His sister’s marriage, and the birth of her first child. The Blitz couldn’t suppress those clear notes of hope. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Boorman film without Arthurian overtones. “The Land and the King are one, my son!” says his father before the King’s Christmas Address.
“Excalibur” had the Lady of the Lake. “Deliverance” was about as strong of a man versus nature film as you can get, set on a river that people want to dam, to damning consequences. “Leo the Last” is, at its heart, about a king who has to tear down his corrupt administration. Boorman even made a sort-of-documentary, “I Dreamt I Woke Up,” about water and his home in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains. John Boorman is alternately played by himself and the always arcane John Hurt. The Hurt Boorman comes out whenever a touch of mystery strikes, when a part of the landscape dear to Boorman’s heart “comes alive.” There are trippy appearances by the legendary Green Man, reanimated Bog Men talking of their execution by the Druids, and an Irishman who starts to levitate from hearing some particularly choice piping.
Boorman is absolutely at home, walking his grounds with a Benedictine Monk to oversee some stone carving, and narrating a montage of types of trees he’s planting on the estate. Of the lakes and rivers near his home, which “leak magic” — he swims in them every day. It echoes the family’s toast in “Hope and Glory”: To the River!
Twenty-seven years later, that autobiographical comedy has a sequel. Boorman’s “Queen and Country,” which just had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival and was just acquired for U.S. distribution, takes place about ten years after the first film. Boorman’s stand-in, Bill Rohan (played by Callum Turner), is now serving his National Service duty as a young sergeant. He’s doing his bit to fight the Korean War by teaching soldiers how to use typewriters.
The film is mostly a joy. There are two narrative threads: Rohan’s experiences on the military base where he works, and his private life of family and romance. His time on the base is overcast by a domineering Sergeant-Major Bradley (played by an incredible David Thewlis) Percy Hapgood (played by an annoyingly manic Caleb Landry Jones), Rohan’s co-sergeant and best friend, flits in and out of both. And again, The River plays a supporting role.
The final shot of “King and Country” is of young Rohan making his first experiments with a camera, directing his girlfriend in several takes as she swims in the Thames. She starts to drown, and he runs into the river to save her. Once he arrives, she opens her eyes and grins — only joking. They embrace. Cut back to the camera. It rolls continues to roll while Boorman splashes happily off camera. Then it comes to a stop with a loud click.
The veteran Director is now 81. He has said this is likely to be his last film. It’s hard not to see that final shot as the perfect moment to end an illustrious career, and as a clear signal from a man who’s never been opaque.
I hope that Mr. Boorman is enjoying his retirement. I think we’ll know where to find him.