As John Boorman points out, feature films have been around for just over a century, and he’s been making them for half that span. Queen And Country, a sequel to his 1987 masterpiece Hope And Glory, will supposedly be his last—here’s hoping Boorman’s recently announced retirement is as porous as Steven Soderbergh’s—but it’s also a return to his beginnings, a recollection of his brief, not especially cooperative tenure in the British Army that nods to the beginnings of his fascination with filmmaking.
The first image in Queen And Country is a dying soldier who turns out to be an actor filming a scene; the last is an 8mm camera, whirring as its spring-loaded motor runs down. Where Hope And Glory’s preteen protagonist imagined a Blitz-ravaged London as a child’s playground—the boy cheers the destruction of his school by a German bomb, joyously yelling, “Thank you, Adolf!”—Queen And Country’s young man is brought face to face with things he can’t ignore: the insurmountable class divides of 1950s Britain, and the bloody waste of the Korean War. Service-comedy antics, like the theft of an antique clock prized by a scowling senior officer, mingle with emotional and sexual milestones not so easily contained within the bounds of genre. The career retrospectives that have followed Boorman’s retirement announcement have underlined his contributions to movie history, but Queen And Country does it just as well.
The Dissolve: Queen And Country was something you’d been considering for a long time.
John Boorman: Yeah, for a long time. In fact, after I finished Hope And Glory, I had in mind to do this story of my army career, as it were. In Hope And Glory, when our house is destroyed, my mother takes us to Shepperton, on the Thames, and we have this rather idyllic contrast of the Blitz and London. The reason my mother took us there, rather than elsewhere, was that when she was a child in the First World War, her father had a bungalow on the same island on the Thames. When the zeppelins came over dropping bombs, he had a pub, a gin palace, in the Isle of Dogs, in the docks area. He then sent my mother and her three sisters to the river there. So she had these fond memories of the river, and she wanted us to have the same experience. I thought of doing the story of her and her three sisters, and then my conscription. I never got around to doing my mother’s story, but eventually I got to do this one.
The Dissolve: The island in the Thames only plays a brief role in Queen And Country, but it’s an important one, a pointed contrast to the army barracks where the vast bulk of the film is set. Nature plays an important role in so many of your films, whether it’s The Emerald Forest or Excalibur.
Boorman: You always have a river in my films, because I was brought up in that river. For me, rivers are such a wonderful metaphor for the movement of life. Also, something very interesting happens with the relationship between film emulsion and moving water, and it’s always magical. It’s an extraordinary thing. We’re always looking for magic in the cinema. We’re always looking for the magical moments, and water often provides that. I was very interested in when working with digital, whether that has the same effect as with film emulsion, and actually it does.
The Dissolve: Your most famous river-centric movie is Deliverance, where nature is powerful, and also very dangerous. Was part of the interest to explore the other side of not just nature, but human nature?
Boorman: Nature is both benevolent and malevolent, and the power of nature, whether it’s a tempest or a raging river, reminds us that we are really rather pathetic little fleas on the back of this planet. It cuts us down to size. I think that’s a very salutary thing to happen. But in Deliverance, it was a much more overt metaphor, because this river was going to be dammed. This river was going to be killed for the sake of air conditioners in Atlanta. In a way, it was like nature taking its revenge on these urban men who were raping it. The mountain men were the personification of malevolent nature.
The Dissolve: A lot of myths are designed to remind us how tiny and insignificant humans are in relation to the forces of nature or the gods. One of the first times we see your fictional stand-in in Hope And Glory, he’s playing with a toy Merlin figure in his front yard, and you can see that fascination with legend all through your movies—not just Excalibur or Zardoz, but even the way you approach your own history.
Boorman: There’s a mythic element in my work, and you might say a spiritual one. It seems to go alongside of, or conflict with, the naturalistic element. I made a film for the BBC. The BBC invited several directors to make a film about the place where they come from, where they lived, and so I did this partially in documentary form, in the sense that I appeared in it, and introduced my world. Then when the film [“I Dreamt I Woke Up”] stepped into the mythic world, I had an alter ego played by John Hurt. So it shifted back and forth between them. Eventually in the film, Hurt appears next to me, and we converse. There’s a woman journalist who comes along, and I wrote her a speech in which I put all the things that critics have said about me into one speech. It was my way of dealing with this dichotomy. It’s there in the work. Sometimes it works, and comes together, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The Dissolve: Many filmmakers have an antagonistic, or at least love-hate, relationship with criticism, but you’ve published a lot of great writing through the Projections series, which you co-founded and edited.
Boorman: In the course of my career, I think almost everything that can be said about me, good and bad, has been said. You only remember the bad reviews. I can never remember the good ones. Time magazine’s review of Point Blank was only one line. It said, “Point Blank is a fog of a film.”
The Dissolve: Going back to Queen And Country, how did you decide which story to focus on, and when to depart from a strictly factual depiction of your own experience?
Boorman: The relationship between memory and imagination is a very mysterious one. If you just tell someone the story of something that happened to you, you are applying imagination to memory. My process was always to ask the question: “Is it truthful? Did it feel truthful?” When I asked Sinéad Cusack to play the mother in Queen And Country, she asked me, “Do you want me to impersonate Sarah Miles [who played the same character in Hope And Glory]?” I said, “Absolutely not. Because you have the spirit of my mother, just as Sarah Miles did have the spirit. That’s what I want, the spirit. How you look and how you speak is not important.” Everything in the film, all the characters existed. They were all people I knew. All of the events occurred, like the stealing of the clock and all that. I was arrested for “seducing a soldier from the course of his duty.” I had to lecture these boys who were going out to Korea, and I was very cautious. I was rather shy and not very committed, a bit on the fence, as you see in the film.
When I started to research the Korean War, I was absolutely appalled at how it came about. It was a series of blunders. I suppose, like most wars, it was blundered into, and could have been avoided. So, I had this sort of dilemma. These boys were going off to fight, so I didn’t want to completely trash the whole thing. There were hints there. And this one boy, who was the son of a left-wing Labour MP called Ian Mikardo, he listened to my lectures, and he refused to go. Everyone was looking for communists out of the bed, and so they thought I must be a communist. It was pretty much how it was.
The reason I felt it was worth doing this time was because looking back, that was a time when everything changed. And that’s what fascinated me. The sociopolitical underpinning of the film is the change. Five years after the war, there was still rationing, bomb sites were everywhere, and the older generation of soldiers hanging onto the idea of imperial Britain, and the greatest empire the world has ever known. Two-fifths of the Earth’s surface was British, and it was all about to go. In a few years, it was going to completely disappear. A different kind of England was going to take its place, and the rigid class system was going to be broken down. That’s what underlaid the whole story.
The Dissolve: Your character confuses his military superiors because he doesn’t fit into their schema. They ask him, “Are you a capitalist?” and he says, “No.” They ask, “Are you a communist?” and he says, “No.”
Boorman: I was a Fabian socialist. We were all very left-wing, because it was such a conservative country, and it was a way of rebelling against it. A relationship between an aristocratic girl and a lower-middle-class boy was utterly impossible at the time. And of course, the other girl was waiting for me. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: In Hope And Glory, the relationship between reality and fantasy is very fluid: The boy’s imagination is as much a part of the fabric of the film as your real memories. In Queen And Country, the subjectivity is much subtler, a matter of editing rhythms or dialogue that doesn’t seem entirely naturalistic. Is that just down to the difference in your protagonists’ ages?
Boorman: The context was very different. Hope And Glory was really about an innocent eye vs. his family looking at the war. Now he’s grown up a bit, and it’s about leaving childhood behind. He still seems like a child at the beginning, swimming in the river. It’s much mellower.
The Dissolve: One of the most striking scenes in Hope And Glory is when a young girl in your neighborhood loses her mother to a German bomb. She’s standing in the rubble of her house, and the other kids keep running up and asking her about it—almost accusing her of making it up. The way even the adults deal with her trauma is astonishingly blunt, almost pre-psychological.
Boorman: That was something that actually occurred. This girl was very unpopular. Nobody wanted to be her friend, but her mother being killed gave her status. She was suddenly important, and she enjoyed the importance of people coming up and talking to her like they hadn’t done before. In a way, that compensated her for her loss of her mother.
The Dissolve: There’s a scene in Queen And Country where one of the character is subject to a military trial. His defense attorney attempts to call a psychiatrist as a witness, and the officer who’s presiding over the trial dismisses it out of hand, as if psychiatry were just a form of junk science.
Boorman: They were always called “trick cyclists,” the psychiatrists. That was the case. That was the attitude generally in the army. If anything was traumatic or stressful, they said, “Get over it, get a grip.”
The Dissolve: You’ve said Queen And Country may be your last film, and it’s been the occasion for a number of retrospectives of your work. Have you taken the opportunity to watch your old movies? How do they seem to you now?
Boorman: They mostly seem to be made by someone else, the person I used to be. I sometimes feel a little bit phony to claim credit for the work of another man that I used to be. [Laughs.] At the same time, it allows me to look at them in a very dispassionate way. I don’t need to feel the constant pain of the mistakes that I can watch and see. I normally don’t watch them. Most directors don’t. You can spend so much time with a film. You see it so many times in the course of making it that you seldom have an appetite to see it again.
The Dissolve: Listening to your commentary tracks, like the one you did with Steven Soderbergh for Point Blank, you still have very detailed memories of why you set up a given shot the way you did, and what happened on the day you filmed it.
Boorman: The technical things, I can remember absolutely. You know, I was with David Lean just before he died, and he was trying to make Nostromo. And he said to me, “I do hope I’ll get well enough to make this film, because I feel like I’m just beginning to get the hang of it.” You can make a film out of innocence. A lot of first films are often very good, because the director sort of blundered into it. When you get more and more experience, you say, “I don’t think we’ll do that,” because you can see what could go wrong. You become more cautious. But then also, you master all the elements, and there are many elements in terms of acting techniques, in terms of technical aspects of camera. It does take a long time before you actually get rid of that middle ground between the innocence and the absolute knowledge of the master. When I now make a film, I can plot it out. As you develop, you plan more and more carefully the shots and the sequence of shots. And you can see that in the work of master directors. Kurosawa, for instance, his films became so planned and perfectly worked out that sometimes when he went in the cutting room, he wished he’d done some coverage.
You can shoot a film by each scene, with different lenses and different angles, and put it together in the cutting room. Or you do what I do, which is to only shoot exactly what I’m going to use. That keeps up the concentration of the actors. If you’re shooting all sorts of angles, they think “Well, this shot probably won’t be in the film.” Whereas I say, “Everything we shoot is going to be in the film, so you better be ready, and be ready on the first take.” Kurosawa solved the problem by having a camera operator whose job it was to shoot long lens on every scene, but he didn’t look at it or print it until he was in the cutting room if he got into trouble. We once entertained Kurosawa in London, a group of English directors, and David Lean was there. I said to Kurosawa, “I’ve heard that most days, you only do one setup. Is that true?” So he had it translated. And then the answer came back, and he said, “How many setups does Mr. Lean do?” And David said, “No, he asked you first!” [Laughs.] It was so wonderful seeing these two sit face to face like that.
The Dissolve: You pay tribute to Kurosawa and to Hitchcock in Queen And Country, and you made a documentary about D.W. Griffith. What directors did you learn the most from?
Boorman: Well, Michael Powell had a huge influence on me. When I saw his films at 17, 18, I suddenly thought, “I didn’t know films could do this.” That was tremendous. Film is only a little more than a hundred years old, and I’ve been doing it 50 years, for half that time. And so I knew Hitchcock and Fellini and Bergman, and David Lean and Billy Wilder, and so I kind of connect right at the beginning of film, with Griffith as the basis of it. He with his cameraman, Billy Blitzer, invented the grammar. For instance, you do a close-up of you looking camera right, and you do a close-up of me looking camera left, and it looks as if we’re talking to each other. We may be in different rooms when we shot them. I was watching the news yesterday morning, and you have the interviewer in one half of the frame, and in the other half, you see the interviewee, who might be somewhere else. And each of them looks at the camera. That’s a new convention, that they both look at the camera, but they give the impression that they’re looking at each other. This convention of left and then right is just a convention. When Griffith started using it, a lot of older people were confused by it. When I was making The Emerald Forest, I lived with a tribe in the Amazon forest, the Xingu for a bit. They were a kind of Stone Age tribe. They had no contact with the outside world, and when the shaman asked me what I did, I found it very difficult to explain what film was to someone who had never seen television or film. And I said, “You can see someone very close in their face, or you could be very far away. You could see a great landscape. You could travel forward in time, or you could travel back.” And he said, “Oh, you do the same work as I do. That’s what we do in trance.” Maybe in kind of an atavistic way, film connects us to a past of trance.
The Dissolve: It’s interesting, that link between mysticism and filmmaking technique. It reminds me of the way your Merlin, in Excalibur, is part magician and part scientist, or part trickster. From a modern perspective, we can explain some of what he can do, but not all of it.
Boorman: Isn’t that the case with magicians? They’re always a mixture of fake and real, aren’t they?
The Dissolve: Nicol Williamson’s Merlin is such a wonderful performance, a great mixture of arcane menace and comic bravado.
Boorman: That combination of clumsiness and luminousness. It’s a funny thing, when I cast him, I made this film for Orion. They used to be associated with United Artists. they’d done three films with him, and they all failed. So they said, “Cast anyone in the world that you’d like, but not Williamson.” And so I sought out different people, but I just couldn’t get him out of my head, and finally I said, “I’m just going to do it.”
The Dissolve: There are so many great, idiosyncratic lead performances in your movies: Lee Marvin in Point Blank, Marcello Mastroianni in Leo The Last, Sean Connery in Zardoz.
Boorman: I’d include Brendan Gleeson in there. [Gleeson has appeared in four Boorman films and starred in Boorman’s The General. –ed.] He’s a great actor. I’m often asked who was the most difficult. My answer is always, “I never found actors difficult. They might have certain foibles, but if you can communicate what you want, and you create an understanding, and if they feel safe, that’s basically what they’re looking for.” Acting is very courageous to do, particularly if you’re taking risks. An actor really needs to feel safe, and once that is the case, they usually behave very well. And it’s never the best actors who cause trouble. It’s always the second- or third-rates, and then they’re usually insecure, so that comes out of an insecurity.
The Dissolve: He’s certainly not a second- or third-rate actor, but the one you’ve mentioned having the hardest time with was Toshiro Mifune on Hell In The Pacific.
Boorman: That was a horrible experience. When I did the script, I had an American writer and Japanese writer, Shinobu Hashimoto. We went back and forth translating scenes. At one point, Hashimoto wanted to go to Las Vegas. He was a gambler. So he said could he go off and do a draft, and he did. He didn’t change any of the scenes, but he changed Mifune into a character that was rather like a character he would play in a samurai film, kind of a buffoon. Whether accidentally or maliciously, he gave that version to Mifune, so when we started shooting, it was ridiculous, and I had to keep correcting him. And I had a Japanese crew, so he had this terrible loss of face, like he was being constantly corrected by me. He was very, very difficult. We got further and further behind, and at one point, I got coral poisoning on my knee, and it was a bad, bad fever. I had to stop shooting for a couple of days. The producers came over, and they said to Mifune, “You’ll be glad to hear that we’re going to replace Boorman,” and he said he couldn’t agree to that. And they said, “Why not?” And he said, “I went to a tea house in Tokyo with Boorman, and we made a toast with sake, and I agreed to do the film with him.” It was a matter of honor. They said, “This is Hollywood, honor doesn’t come into it.” I would have probably have gotten fired from the film had it not been for him.
The Dissolve: Lee Marvin really stuck his neck out for you on Point Blank, didn’t he?
Boorman: Yeah, he really did. We sort of contrived this movie, and he knew how difficult it was going to be to do a radical film in Hollywood terms. So when I got there, he called a meeting with the studio head and producers. He reminded them that he had cast and script approval for it, and he said, “I’m deferring that privilege to John”—and he walked out. They lost the film and gave me just these angry looks. They couldn’t do anything about it.
Lee was great all the way through. He was a drunk, an alcoholic, but it never got in the way of the work. He never drank when we were shooting. Toward the end of the film, we went out to San Francisco to shoot in Alcatraz. I was exhausted at that point, and I just lost it. I didn’t know how to put the scene together. Lee looked across at me, and he came over and he said, “Are you in trouble?” I said, “Yeah, I’m trying to figure this out.” So he went across, and he then acted drunk. He started shouting and singing and falling over, and the production manager came over and said, “Have you seen the state Lee’s in? We can’t shoot him like that. We’ve got to get him some black coffee.” So once the pressure was off, in five minutes, I worked it out. I went over and said to Lee, “Okay, we’re ready,” and he made this miraculous recovery from drunkenness to sobriety. That was really something.
The Dissolve: His performance and the film are in perfect sync. They’re both so sleek and physical, and slightly opaque.
Boorman: The head of the art department wrote the head of MGM studios and said, “This film might not be releasable. There’s a scene here in a green office with seven men: green suits, green shirts, and green ties.” Also, Marvin didn’t have any luggage or anything going through the story. I kept changing suits to match the color. And nobody ever commented on it. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Point Blank was your first feature in color, after making Catch Us If You Can in black and white with the Dave Clark Five, but the the use of color is incredibly bold. It’s a studio gangster movie, but profoundly influenced by what Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard did on Pierrot Le Fou.
Boorman: I was also very influenced by how intimate the dialogue was. It was very cryptic.
The Dissolve: Lee Marvin literally threw the script for Point Blank out a window, which is an approach you’ve endorsed with other films. Is it any different with a movie like Queen And Country, where you’ve written the script yourself?
Boorman: No. Some people ask me if they can have my archive. And I say, “Well really, I don’t have that much.” They say, “Well, you have scripts and things?” And I don’t. I throw them away. The purpose of the script is a document to help you make the film. Once you make the film, the script has no value. These days, the Academy keeps sending me the scripts, and I never read them. I never even look at them. When I’m teaching, I always say, “Scripts should be written badly, because if they become a literary document, they get in the way. It’s just toilet paper.”
The Dissolve: Sometimes films suffer from a director’s disdain for the written word; they can become incoherent and self-indulgent. But yours don’t.
Boorman: Bergman’s scripts are very stark and very simple. He just put down dialogue, and then very few indications or moments of action. Beside the scene, he put a number like 3 or 4, which is the number of shots he would need to make that scene. I remember that I bought, years and years ago, a number of his published scripts. I bought four of them, and I read it in an hour and a half. “Don’t write them too well” was my advice.
The Dissolve: There’s a pretty fervent cult around Zardoz now.
Boorman: They told me it was one of the most popular films of the retrospective [at New York’s Film Forum]. Oddly enough, I got an email from Fox telling me they were doing a 4k restoration of it. I said, “Why do you want to do that?” And they said, “Well, it’s very popular.” My quote about it is that it went from a failure to a classic without ever passing through success.
The Dissolve: Does Zardoz seem flawed to you now, or just a movie that for whatever reason didn’t connect at the time?
Boorman: A film of 40 years old is given a certain respect it didn’t have at the time. I felt at the time that it was rather… I didn’t really have enough money to make it. I made it for a million dollars, but it was a negative pickup. Sean [Connery] got $100,000, and the deal with Fox was that I had to borrow the money to make the film, and then they would give me a million dollars when I delivered the film. People asked me, “How did you get the money?” My agent at the time was David Begelman. Do you know that name? He was a great agent. He was so sincere that it was almost real. [Laughs.] He said, “We’re never going to get backing for this film in a conventional way.” So he went to Fox, who had new management, and he asked, “Do you want a Boorman film?” And they said “Yes.” He said, “You send your man to London. He gets two hours to read the script. It’s ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and you have nothing to say about it.” So David and I went out to lunch, and we came back, and we sat in the outer office waiting for [the reader] to finish the script. I was so nervous, and David said, “It’s settled, don’t worry.” The door opened, and he stood there holding the script, and his hand was shaking. There was sweat on his brow. David went up to him, and he said, “Congratulations.” He never had a chance.
The Dissolve: That’s good agenting right there.
Boorman: David was a great gambler, and he got into debt, and he shot himself. This reminds me of another wonderful story about Begelman. He was trying to sign this old star, and he was doing everything for him. So he’s on the phone to him, and he booked him on this flight, and the star said, “What’s the movie they’re showing on the flight?” David would not admit not knowing, so he named a film, and and the star said, “Yeah, I’ve seen that film.” At that point, David’s secretary told him the name of the film that was actually showing on the flight. So David said, “I’ll have it changed for you.”