Retrospective: John Boorman

1972 is perhaps remembered by many film historians as the year that Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather won the Academy Award for best picture, securing with it its place near the top of the list of great American cinema forevermore.

July 1972 also however saw the release of another film which is perhaps less celebrated today, but in my opinion also deserves its place in that canon. It is a film which is at once notorious and forgotten; a film which lingers in the darker recesses of our memories; a film which we both resist watching and at the same time can’t resist watching, adrenalin pumping, with a growing sense of foreboding and morbid fascination. . .

It is the film which defined the stereotypical backwards, backwoods hillbilly forever; the film that spurned a thousand imitators, especially in the budget horror genre. It was the picture which made us afraid of getting lost, getting off the beaten track, and encountering strange locals. It gave Ned Beatty the worst kind of ground-breaking cinematic moment, and Burt Reynolds a career defining role long before he started clowning around in a black Trans-Am. It made a duel between a guitar and a banjo an icon of 20th century popular culture. The film is, of course, John Boorman’s Deliverance.

On the cusp of the 40th anniversary of the theatrical release of Deliverance, we tell you why it is worth another look. And moreover, placed in the context of director John Boorman’s other work, we find a perhaps surprising, eclectic and exciting range of films made by possibly the greatest British director of his generation. Some will be familiar; some less so; some simply forgotten. But all are worthy of your time and money if you haven’t seen them recently (or at all). These are just a selection of our favourites. There are plenty of biographies of John Boorman out there; but for now we prefer to let his movies do the talking. So if you’re a fan of great cinema, strap yourself in and try to hang on to your paddle, as we lead you downstream through our selection. But hold on tight though, because this river don’t go anywhere near Aintry…

1967 – Point Blank

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw Point Blank for the first time; probably in my teens. What I do know is that this harder-than-hard-boiled thriller stuck in my mind. The things I always remember most are the locations: Alcatraz and the LA River; and the relentless footsteps of an equally relentless Lee Marvin.

Lee Marvin behind the wheel, as Walker, in John Boorman's Point Blank (1967)

The film at once encompasses and surpasses the genre on which it draws (film noir). Its triumphs are undoubtedly Marvin’s understated and wholly underrated acting, and Boorman’s brilliant direction.

Based on the pulp novel The Hunter by Donald E Westlake, what could so easily have been a run of the mill genre revenge story following Marvin’s character, Walker as, having been shot and left for dead on Alcatraz, he sets about tracking down his double-crossing partner and errant wife, and claiming the money he’s owed from a crime syndicate, in Boorman’s hands becomes something all together more unique.

In his first major Hollywood studio picture, for MGM, Boorman was handed almost total autonomy due to the generous support and endorsement of Marvin; and the result of the collaboration was an interesting and unique thriller, and a lifelong friendship.

Another business meeting turns sour for Marvin's Walker in the LA River. Point Blank, John Boorman, 1967.

Beautifully shot with the latest (at that time) 40mm anamorphic Panavision lens, in a carefully engineered colour palette, the non-linear, fragmented narrative achieves often abstract, dream-like qualities and powerful visual images and metaphors. Marvin, the hardest of hard men here, also suggests a vulnerability and mental and emotional confusion through both his body language and crucially, the things he does not say.

Relentless at the airport: Walker's coming and he's not happy! Marvin provides the footfalls to Boorman's brilliant sequence, Point Blank, 1967.

The signature moments for me are Walker’s relentless footfalls along an airport corridor on his way to confront his wife; and subsequently the one-sided dialogue with her, where she effectively interrogates herself about her betrayal with Walker present, but not saying a word. As he sits passively, spent .44 Magnum in hand, he listens unmoved, both wanting and not wanting to hear what she has to say. This very effective and stylistic way of filming what could have been a conventional dialogue is credited by Boorman to Marvin.

Walker silently interrogates his errant wife Lynne (Sharon Acker), Point Blank, 1967. Note the carefully co-ordinated colour palette which changes throughout the film.

Ultimately, whether Walker’s miraculous escape from Alcatraz and his ensuing quest for revenge is to be taken literally, or as the dying dream of a mortally wounded man is for you to decide, but what is certain is that you won’t see a more stylistically interesting crime thriller than this seminal example of Boorman’s work, and his collaboration with the wholly underrated Marvin. For me it is simply one of the best crime thrillers ever made.

Revenge narrative, or dying dream? You decide. Marvin's Walker makes his miraculous escape from Alcatraz in Boorman's Point Blank (1967).

 

1968 – Hell in the Pacific

Re-united with Lee Marvin, in 1968 John Boorman cast him with the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune for this fable about a downed American airman and a shipwrecked Japanese naval officer marooned together on the same island in the Pacific theatre during World War II. The story charts how the two are thrown together, and overcome their initial suspicion, hatred, fear and desire to kill each other; transitioning through a tacit and fragile tolerance of one another; to an awkward collaborative friendship in order to survive and escape the island.

Lee Marvin's US airman confronts and is confronted by Toshiro Mifune's Japanese naval officer in Boorman's Hell in the Pacific (1968).

Again Marvin’s physicality in a very different role serves the film well, and the staccato dialogue, meaningless given the language differences between the two men, nevertheless conveys adequately their respective characters in an otherwise visual piece of storytelling (and it is here where Boorman, with the help of his minimal but excellent cast and now legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, excels). The fractious relationship, suspicion and ultimately waning animosity between the two men is made all the more powerful by the knowledge that both Marvin and Mifune in reality served on opposing sides during the war (Marvin in the Pacific theatre); and Boorman for the first time examines recurring themes of cultural clashes, survivalism, conflict and morality, man versus nature, and the exotic and foreign.

Odd couple: Marvin and Mifune find that ultimately it is easier to try and get along, if you want to survive. Hell in the Pacific, John Boorman, 1968.

Through the conflict and the hardships in Hell in the Pacific there is also a generous streak of humour, exemplified by Marvin’s line to Mifune when they finally escape the island and return to the blurred and ever-shifting lines of the battlefront: “Ahh. . . for a second there I thought you were a Jap!”

1972 – Deliverance

 Deliverance, arguably one of the best known of Boorman’s films, sprang from the novel by southern American poet and novelist James Dickey. Whilst Dickey’s interest was perhaps foremost the survivalist element of the story, Boorman has stated that his interest lay in the environmental element; specifically the idea that nature perhaps was striking back at the same sort of ‘civilised’ men who sought to drown the Cahulawassee River on which it is set by damming it and flooding the valley for hydro-electric power, in order that ‘folks in Atlanta can run their air-conditioners’ (and I paraphrase here).

Ned Beatty and John Voight get back to nature while they still can. What could possibly go wrong? John Boorman's Deliverance (1972).

The great ensemble cast of Burt Reynolds, John Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty play four weekend adventurers from the city intent on experiencing the unspoilt beauty of the river on a canoeing trip before it is lost forever. Reynolds character Lewis is the ringleader and closet survivalist. Aside from the environmental aspect, some of Lewis’ thoughts on modern living seem particularly chilling in the light of the current world economic climate:

Burt Reynolds' closet survivalist Lewis Medlock has some rather disturbing (and perhaps prophetic) views on modern living. John Boorman's Deliverance, 1972.

Lewis (Reynolds): “Machines are gonna fail. And the system’s gonna fail. And then…”

Ed (Voight): “And then what?”

Lewis (Reynolds): “And then survival! Who has the ability to survive.”

The depiction of the hillbilly backwoodsman with whom the four city dwellers come into contact (and ultimately into conflict) could quite easily be seen by the ignorant as politically incorrect, save for two important elements: firstly, it seems clear from Boorman’s commentary on the 2007 DVD release of the film that many of the incidental characters in the film (including Billy Redden who is the boy depicted playing the banjo with Ronny Cox) were drawn from local communities in which it was filmed, and many of these non-actors were depicted in their surroundings just as the filmmakers found them (such as the old woman and the child seen through the cabin window). Secondly, the two perpetrators of the terrifying, sadistic assaults on the city men (most notably the deeply unsettling rape of Ned Beatty’s character Bobby) are perhaps intended to represent a malevolent and avenging spirit of the woods, rather than a literal, representative element of the local population.

Mountain men Bill McKinney and Herbert 'Cowboy' Coward menace John Voight and Ned Beatty. Deliverance, 1972, John Boorman.

 

After the confrontation, the friends have more fundamental questions to deal with than what they caught for dinner. And they're not out of the woods yet. Deliverance, 1972, John Boorman.

The film has become a cultural touchstone and subsequent inspiration for many inferior imitators, but this should not be allowed to denigrate its quality and importance. There are many important themes in the film; environmentalism, prejudice, exclusion, morality, civilisation and survivalism; which are explored in a thought-provoking and often quite disturbing way. And even by modern standards, Boorman manages to avoid cliché and simplification. The fact that Reynolds thoroughly capable character Lewis, having dealt with the immediate threat to the group by killing one of their tormentors with his bow, is subsequently sidelined leaving the wholly less capable and intrinsically more sensitive Ed (Voight) to take charge is a good example.

World-weary Voight, Beatty and Reynolds (lying injured in the canoe) finally make it back to Aintry. Boorman desaturated colour as much as possible to make the environment less attractive. Deliverance, 1972.

By the end of the film, when writer James Dickey makes his cameo appearance as the local sheriff, and advises the surviving protagonists: “Don’t never do nothing like this again; don’t come back up here”, like them, you may be all too ready to acquiesce. But eventually, like the bloated, dead hand rising from the waters of the flooded Cahulawassee valley in Ed’s closing nightmare, you too may be drawn, perhaps by some primal instinct, back into the woods, to re-examine or confront some quite unsettling questions.

Author and poet, the late, great James Dickey as Sherriff Bullard; "Dont never do nothing like this again". No Sir. Not a chance. Deliverance, 1972, John Boorman.

1985 – The Emerald Forest

 

Tommy's spirit animal, the hawk, soars over the Amazon. The Emerald Forest, John Boorman, 1985.

Perhaps the most overtly environmentalist of Boorman’s movies, The Emerald Forest is also notable for featuring his own son, Charlie Boorman, as the boy Tommy, who is taken from his family by a secretive, primitive tribe at the fringes of the Amazon rain forest and spirited away into its interior. Powers Boothe plays Tommy’s father, an engineer working on the construction of a dam, who spends the next ten years trying to locate the boy only to ultimately find him completely assimilated into the Indians primitive (but arguably idyllic) way of life.

Tearing down the rain forest. Got to make you wonder.The Emerald Forest, John Boorman, 1985.

Inspired by real events (a story in the LA Times according to Boorman), in parallel with and integrated into the personal story of this boy and his father is undoubtedly a thematic concern with the plight of the rain forest (deforestation) and the native tribes who inhabit or once inhabited it. Whilst researching the project Boorman immersed himself in the environment, spending a number of weeks living with a remote tribe of Indians in the Xingu area who were the inspiration for the film’s ‘Invisible People’. He then worked with an anthropologist to train ‘de-nativised’ Indians, effectively re-tribalising them for their roles in the film (Boorman acknowledges that filming an actual remote tribe would have been too intrusive and potentially destructive to them).

Tommy encounters the forest's 'Invisible People'. Boorman went out of his way to thoroughly research and recreate remote Amazonian tribes. The Emerald forest, 1985.

What results from Boorman’s sensitive handling of the subject matter, Charlie Boorman’s engaging performance and the performances of the native extras is some small but genuine insight into this incredible environment and the fragile lives of the people in it, and a warning to the rest of us (through Boothe’s eyes) of the high price to be paid for relentless exploitation of the natural world.

Powers Boothe's engineer hunts desperately for his missing son. Boorman states that the forest necessitates lighting for interior rather than exterior filming. The Emerald Forest, 1985.

Boorman best sums this up himself in the featurette John Boorman’s Recollections on The Emerald Forest accompanying the 2008 release of the film on DVD:

“We have forgotten the symbioses we have with nature. You have to respect it and find your place in it. We are not masters of the universe; we just need to find our place in it.”

Tommy (Charlie Boorman) finds himself assimilated completely into the life of the tribe and the forest. The Emerald Forest, John Boorman, 1985.

Boorman adds, rather prophetically:

“It used to worry me a lot about the destruction of the rainforest . . . (and climate change). Then I realised (even if we keep tearing it down), in a couple of thousand years or so it will regenerate; which isn’t a long time to a forest. Once it’s shaken off these human fleas, it can get back to what it was. But it’s a disaster for us.”

So perhaps, ultimately, the loss is all ours. . .

The characters on both sides of the divide contemplate the price of progress. The Emerald Forest, John Boorman, 1985.

 

1995 – Beyond Rangoon

If The Emerald Forest is primarily concerned with the plight of an environment through the eyes of its people, Beyond Rangoon is undoubtedly concerned with the plight of a people at the hands of its brutal, totalitarian, militaristic government; and that country of course is Burma.

Patricia Arquette confronts the tyranny of illegitimate government in Burma, in Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman, 1995.

Again inspired very much by real events, Patricia Arquette plays an American tourist and doctor, Laura Bowman, touring the Far East with her sister in a vain attempt to forget the brutal murder of her husband and son at home. In Burma, she becomes embroiled in and inspired by the student protests against the Burmese government, and their spiritual and political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader constantly under some form of imprisonment or house arrest by the military junta despite winning a (supposedly) free democratic election in 1990.

Adelle Lutz as pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, runs the gauntlet in peaceful expression of her political opinions. Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman, 1995.

Through experiencing the life of the Burmese people ‘beyond Rangoon’, and particularly through their endurance of the brutal quelling of the student uprising and attempts to flee the country, Arquette’s character finds the strength to overcome her own personal loss and fight not only for her own life but for the lives of others.

Dissident activist and Burmese defector U Aung Ko with Patricia Arquette. Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman, 1995.

A credit to both Boorman and Arquette, and an excellent supporting cast including Burmese defector and activist U Aung Ko, Beyond Rangoon was made in Malaysia despite political pressure from the Burmese government, and served to highlight the plight of the Burmese people represented by Aung San Suu Kyi to the international community.

A student demonstrator appeals to the better nature of his countrymen in the Burmese army, without success. Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman, 1995.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, and most recently released from house arrest in 2010. Political change in Burma however, remains regrettably slow.

Fleeing Burma. Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman, 1995.

More John Boorman

There are of course many other John Boorman films to explore, and notable absentees from this article: his own personal unicorn, Arthurian legend Excalibur (1981) and boyhood memories of wartime England in Hope and Glory (1987) perhaps being notable examples; along with later entries in his oeuvre such as the positively Coen-esque film version of Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama (2001) with Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan in a roll which ably allows him to completely deconstruct his Bond persona; and In my Country (2005) in which Samuel L Jackson plays a Washington Post journalist examining the controversial ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ hearings in post-apartheid South Africa.

There have also, inevitably, been one or two movies which have not been so well received; Zardoz (1974) and Exorcist II – The Heretic (1977). But for the most part, if you see the line ‘A Film by John Boorman’ near the title, you know that you’re looking at high-quality, intelligent cinema by a great British director; and over and above that, you’re in for a hell of a ride. . .

 

ian@tbumag.com

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