The 7 Essential Films Of John Boorman

Though it was overshadowed at the time by sexier fare, one of the bigger events of last year’s Cannes Film Festival for cinephiles was the arrival of “Queen & Country,” the first film in eight years from 82-year-old director John Boorman (it’s a 27-years-later sequel of his Oscar-nominated “Hope & Glory”). With that film now in theaters and following a Film Forum retrospective of his work last month, we’ve looked back at the career of one of the most fascinating filmmakers of the last quarter-century.

Never the most prolific of helmers (he’s made only seventeen features over a fifty-year career), Boorman’s also been tricky to pin down: there’s little on the surface that links the Nouveau Vague crime flick stylings of “Point Blank” to the big-budget excess of “Excalibur” to the sweet, modest “Queen & Country” (read our review of the latter here), to say nothing of the searing survival tale “Deliverance.”

Yet his films have been united by a quality that we can only call Boorman-esque: striking visuals, a sure rhythmic editing hand, a strong sense for place and atmosphere and a keen eye for casting. Even when his films don’t work, they’re always fascinating to watch. So we’ve picked out seven movies that we’d term to be true Boorman essentials as a brief primer to his career. Take a look below and let us know your favorites in the comments. And for Boorman, check out what he had to say at a Masterclass at the Marrakech Film Festival a few years back.

“Point Blank” (1967)
A prime example of cinema so pure it improves over time, Boorman’s second film “Point Blank,” would have been a breathtakingly audacious picture from a veteran; from a sophomore filmmaker, it’s close to unprecedented. Loosely based on the pulp novel “The Hunter” by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) and famously a flop on release, the movie now feels almost insolently cool, a revenge thriller so hard boiled and pared-back as to be quasi-existential. Indeed, alternate readings of the film put its New Wave-influenced irregular chronology and stylized environments down to it being part of an extended peri-mortem dream state. But whether or not you take it at face value, there’s no denying the magnificent craft on display. As bleak and brutal as it is —it’s the tale of a man methodically tracking down and exacting punishment on his betrayers in an early, bravura sequence in Alcatraz— the singlemindedness of Boorman’s film, mimicking that of its relentless, usually silent, implosive main character, is also reflected in the uninterrupted, clinical lines of his precise and often utterly barren locations. It contains the quintessential Lee Marvin performance —according to Boorman, it was Marvin’s playing a certain scene with Angie Dickinson completely silently, forcing her to answer questions that he never vocalized that worked so well it caused Boorman to rethink his approach to the script and the film. There is a sense that it’s a film about silence, emptiness and negative space: “Point Blank” is a straight-up genre picture that subtracts frills, flourishes and (literally) flowerpots until all that’s left is the essence —the idea of a pulp revenge thriller. Most films are structures built from the ground up; “Point Blank” is a sculpture.

“Hell in the Pacific” (1968)
Recently discovered classic, spectacular hit, box office bomb, irredeemable turkey: Boorman’s filmography may not be lengthy, but it checks every conceivable category of critical or commercial success or failure, including “often overlooked gem,” aka “Hell in the Pacific,” his third film. Released the year after “Point Blank,” also starring Lee Marvin and served in a similarly spare style with minimal dialogue, evocative framing (from DP Conrad Hall) set to a deliberately intrusive Lalo Schifrin score, the film also boasts perhaps the best Hollywood performance from the great Toshiro Mifune. When you so closely associate an actor with a great filmmaker, as one does with Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, the experience of seeing he or she outside that context, especially in a film that so even-handedly favors that character, is revelatory. The allegorically simple story of a Japanese naval officer (Mifune) and an American pilot (Marvin) stranded on an island at the height of WWII, Boorman’s film examines clashing masculinity deftly, all but ignoring the familiar beats of the across-the-barricades narrative, instead letting a gruff chemistry build as the film evolves into an elegant survival story. But it was an even bigger commercial failure than “Point Blank,” for which its similarity to the Frank Sinatra film “None but the Brave” was blamed, along with an abrupt ending that leaves many feeling cheated. But that finale is perhaps a measure of the film’s effectiveness till then: amid all that underplayed formal rigor, the thread of humanity that links the two men is as fragile and beautiful as a flower blooming on a battleground, and it almost hurts how much you want to protect it.

“Deliverance” (1972)
Returning for his second Hollywood feature after the experimental UK detour of “Leo The Last,” Boorman delivered what might be his best known film and certainly is his biggest combined critical and commercial hit: a seminal, three-time Oscar nominee that was the fifth biggest box office hit of 1972. That’s all the more remarkable given that “Deliverance” is an extremely tough, almost bleak picture featuring brutal violence, male rape and plenty of moral ambiguity. Based on the novel by James Dickey (who also penned the screenplay but also reportedly feuded with the filmmaker, even breaking Boorman’s nose in a fistfight), the film sees four friends, played by Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, go on a male-bonding canoe trip together in on a river in Georgia, only to come into conflict with the locals, one of whom rapes Beatty’s Bobby and is shortly thereafter killed by Reynolds’ Lewis. An unsparing and gripping tale of men trying to survive nature and men who are closer to nature than them, the film’s at its most interesting when examining issues of modern masculinity, with the big city day-trippers turning up to the wilderness full of confidence only to discover that they’ve bitten off far, far more than they can chew. It’s a film that falls neatly between Western and horror flick, and Boorman niftily walks that line (aided by his excellent cast: was Reynolds ever better than he is here?) with his quietly observational but wire-taut approach that never intrudes, making his subjects seem all the more helpless.

“Zardoz” (1974)
After a giant, critically acclaimed hit, a filmmaker will often get the chance to make their big expensive passion project. Sometimes it pays off in style, and sometimes it comes across as a giant, ill-conceived folly. “Zardoz,” Boorman’s follow-up to “Deliverance,” is decidedly in the second category, but it’s also a fascinating film that’s gained reappraisal over the years. Though Boorman certainly made superior films, it’s certainly should be considered as one of his most important works, for better or for worse.  Both written and helmed by the director, it’s a truly bonkers sci-fi picture set in a post-apocalyptic world where immortal Eternals rule over the Brutals, with the law laid down by Brutal Exterminators like Sean Connery’s Zed on the orders of a flying head called Zardoz. Riffing on “The Wizard Of Oz,” and satirizing the bourgeois hippies of the sexual revolution (the Eternals have been sex-free for a millennia before encountering Connery, clad memorably in one of cinema’s most ridiculous costumes), it’s silly, self-indulgent, on-the-nose and entirely singular. A filmmaker without a big hit (or an insecure star: this was only Connery’s second post-Bond role after exiting the franchise with “Diamonds Are Forever” ) would likely be too self-conscious to make something like this bizarre film, but as mockable a mess as “Zardoz” is, it’s a fascinating mess that you’re glad exists. What else would we screen on the wall at warehouse parties otherwise?

“Excalibur” (1981)
Returning to the idea after spending some of the 1970s on an ill-fated attempt to make a film of “The Lord Of The Rings,” Boorman finally got around to a King Arthur project he’d been toying with for over a decade with “Excalibur,” a big-budget, visually-lavish attempt to cram much of the myth and legend into one two-and-a-half hour movie. It’s semi-successful, but like its cousin in folly “Zardoz,” this film is a fascinating watch that both anticipates the modern-day trend for gritty big-budget reboots of fables and proves to be something much more distinctive. Based loosely by Boorman and co-writer Rospo Pallenberg on Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” but borrowing liberally from other Camelot-themed works, this true epic ranges from Arthur’s conception (via rape and magic) to his final battle against incestuous son Mordred. Yet its sweeping scope is part of the problem: the episodic structure feels like a race through the lore rather than a true examination. Spotty casting doesn’t help either: the film provides early breaks for greats like Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne & Ciaran Hinds, but the central trio of Arthur, Guineve and Lancelot are played by the miscast and uncharismatic Nigel Terry, Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Clay, who are much less skilled at selling the clumsy dialogue than many of those better known actors. Yet it’s still compellingly watchable: Boorman gets the pastoral folklore better than most attempts at the story, it’s never less than beautiful to look at, and on a scene-by-scene basis, it’s legitimately compelling, especially when Nicol Williamson’s Merlin is involved. It might not work as a whole, but perhaps it never could (the idea of Boorman being allowed to tackle the material as a “Game Of Thrones”-style series is tantalizing).

“Hope & Glory” (1987)
After years spent with flying heads, round tables and emerald forests, it’s satisfying that Boorman’s second Best Picture and Best Director nominations came for the strongly autobiographical “Hope & Glory,” one of his warmest, most personal and very best films. Set during the London Blitz in the Second World War, it follows 10-year-old Bill Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards), a thinly veiled surrogate for Boorman himself, as he grows up in the London suburbs, dodging the risk of nightly death, watching his sister fall for a Canadian airman, discover secrets about his mother, and generally comes of age. Stunningly and meticulously recreating the period without ever feeling like a museum piece (Boorman and his team built a half-mile long suburban street with seventeen houses, one of the largest sets in British cinema history and then gradually destroyed it with ‘bomb damage’ over the course of filming), the film is nostalgic but happily unsentimental. It might have the trappings of a comforting BBC period piece, but Boorman made “Point Blank,” and there’s more of “The 400 Blows” than Masterpiece Theater to his reconstruction of his childhood, even if the film remains charming throughout. That’s partly thanks to excellent performances from the whole cast, few of whom were ever big names outside or even within, the UK —“Ryan’s Daughter” star Sarah Miles, who’s particularly excellent here, being the most notable exception. “Queen & Country,” which picks up the story, is a fitting follow-up but it doesn’t quite recapture all the magic of this lovely little film.

“The General” (1998)
Boorman may be English, but his longtime residency in Ireland is evident in this authentically grimy, occasionally raucous biopic of the notorious/beloved Irish crime lord Martin Cahill, also known as The General. Accurately capturing the vast contradictions inherent in a man who was simultaneously a feared gang boss, a loving family man, a violent thief and an impishly anti-authoritarian trickster, Boorman’s film also illuminates the weird impulse within the wider Irish public to embrace and protect this scoundrel. Unfolding in unglamorous black and white, in middle-class kitchens and sewer shafts and grey suburbs, it’s also a showcase for an understated cat-and-mouse game between a definingly terrific Brendan Gleeson as Cahill, and as the cop on his trail a dogged Jon Voight, here reteaming with his “Deliverance” director and turning in one of his best late-career performances. Somehow the familiar “policeman gaining a grudging respect for his adversary” narrative is given a fresh coat of paint, in part down to the simple groundedness of Boorman’s approach, making “The General” at times oddly moving as the net closes in and the audience is caught in that same loop of admiration versus condemnation for this impossible character. If you don’t believe that this is Cahill’s story definitively told, just check out the awful “Ordinary Decent Criminal” starring Kevin Spacey for comparison. That film tackles the same basic material but lacks Boorman’s handle on the drama, as well as his surprising facility with tragicomedy and ear for the natural cadences of Dublin speech, and ends up a spectacular misfire.

Honorable Mentions: As we said, Boorman’s one of those directors who has always been worth checking out even when he’s off-form, and there’s very little in his filmography that’s skippable. His 1965 debut film “Catch Us If You Can” is a “Hard Day’s Night” rip-off focusing on the Dave Clark Five, and though it’s highly derivative, it more than demonstrates the young filmmaker’s promise. He returned to Britain with 1970’s “Leo The Last,” a fascinating, deeply flawed crime picture about the deposed heir to a European country (Marcello Mastroianni) living in exile in West London that won Boorman Best Director at Cannes, but tanked on release and remains difficult to track down.

Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) saw Boorman take over from William Friedkin for the sequel to the horror phenomenon. The film’s derided by many (including by Boorman himself) as a disaster —Mark Kermode calls it “demonstrably the worst film ever made.” It does have its defenders, with both Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese preferring it to the original. We’re somewhere in middle: it’s not quite a good film, but as ever with Boorman, it’s interesting. “The Emerald Forest” (1985) was the film from this second-tier that came closest to being included in the above list: following Powers Boothe as an American searching for his son who is abducted by a Brazilian tribe and now living as one of them, it’s a visually stunning environmental parable with real power that nevertheless doesn’t quite sit among the essentials.

1990’s “Where The Heart Is” was his “Hope & Glory” follow-up, and is probably Boorman’s worst film: a studio comedy starring Dabney Coleman, a young Uma Thurman and Christopher Plummer as a character called Shitty. Originally meant to be a more personal London-set tale but having been moved to New York at the studio’s behest, none of the cast, material or director really gel with each other, though it’s not without its pleasures. 1995’s “Beyond Rangoon” saw Boorman back in “Emerald Forest” territory with Patricia Arquette as an American caught up in the 1988 student uprising: it has its flaws but proved politically important, helping to bring attention to the situation in Burma and helping to put pressure on the government to release Aung San Suu Kyi (though she was later rearrested).

It’s not in the top tier of Le Carre adaptations, but we’re fond of “The Tailor Of Panama” (2001), which has one of Pierce Brosnan’s better performances, a damn good one by Geoffrey Rush and an pre-Potter appearance from Daniel Radcliffe, plus a sly sense of humor. 2004’s “In My Country” sees a Truth & Reconciliation-themed romance in South Africa between Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson: it’s well-intentioned but mostly ill-conceived.

2006’s “The Tiger’s Tail” reteamed Boorman and Gleeson in an attempt to recapture the success of “The General.” Satirizing the country’s economic boom of the late 1990s, it’s not bad as such but is decidedly forgettable in comparison to its predecessor. And finally there’s “Queen & Country,” which takes up the story of “Hope & Glory” into Britains’ national service era: it’s well-drawn and moving, though has one central performance that comes close to hobbling the movie. Read more about it in our review from Cannes last year.

— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang

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