The Boorman Conquests: A Look Back at John’s Directing Career


The Emerald ForestAt 80 years young, British writer- director-producer-essayist John Boorman doesn’t want to slow down.  

Still spry, and nursing dream projects like a Wizard of Oz animated feature film, Boorman was recently feted by the British Film Institute with a Fellowship, the highest honor the Institute gives out. Previously, it was bestowed to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles and Bernardo Bertolucci.

John Boorman has had a long and fascinating career, a rollercoaster of sorts, encompassing some giddy artistic highs and near-disastrous lows that have threatened to derail his quest to continue with his livelihood.    

Born in London, Boorman was educated in Catholic schools. He worked at a dry cleaner before landing a job as a film critic for a television station—while still a teen—which led to work with the BBC. After winning accolades for producing and directing several documentary series—including The Newcomers, about a Bristol couple awaiting the birth of their twins, Boorman took his first feature assignment helming the 1965 Dave Clark Five rock musical Having a Wild Weekend, AKA: Catch Us If You Can. The producers hoped the project would bring the DC5 the attention the Beatles received for A Hard Day’s Night, released a year earlier. While Having a Wild Weekend didn’t have the impact of the Fab Four’s feature debut from fellow British TV refugee Richard Lester, it showcased a surprising maturity, edgy style and cynical view of stardom that helped launch Boorman’s career in features.     

Boorman crossed the Atlantic for his next film, 1967’s Point Blank. Working from a novel by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), this hard-as-nails crime saga starred Lee Marvin as a man betrayed and left for dead by his best friend and wife, who survives and returns to wreak havoc and revenge upon those who sold him out. Fusing elements of classic film noir with a grim storyline, and a stark visual style that turned San Francisco and Los Angeles into ghostly permutations of themselves, Point Blank heralded the arrival of a new, visionary director, adept at tackling themes common to the suspense genre with a New Wave sensibility.

Marvin, the rugged ex-Marine, and Boorman, the hot thirtysomething Brit auteur, got along well, and soon collaborated again on the existential war picture Hell in the Pacific (1968). American pilot Marvin finds himself stranded on a deserted Pacific island along with one other person, a rival Japanese naval officer, played by the great Toshiro Mifune. The film centers on the initially wary relationship between the two of them, as they both try to outsmart each other, but come to realize their necessary reliance on one another for survival. This largely experimental outing—presented in each actor’s native language, sans subtitles—won some positive reviews for Boorman’s gutsiness, but found few fans at the box-office.

“He had this ability to communicate an idea or a thought or emotion, with a gesture,” said Boorman of Marvin. “He never wanted to talk about a scene, he would show me something, just do it. And I could either take it or not– he would offer it.”

Thus began the trajectory of Boorman’s filmmaking career, delivering an envelope-pushing hit with critics and audiences one picture, and an ambitious folly that didn’t score much with the public or the press, the next.

Among Boorman’s curious but less successful efforts were Leo the Last (1970), an oddball satire of social structure, with Marcello Mastroianni as a deposed European monarch who flees to England, and finds himself befriending the have-nots rather than the haves living in his neighborhood;  Zardoz (1974), a far-out, often incomprehensible science fiction fantasy set in a dystopian future with loin-clothed warrior Sean Connery, a flying idol-deity called Zardoz, and several references to The Wizard of Oz;  Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), the sequel to William Friedkin’s smash hit, a metaphysical horror movie which was laughed at by audiences (but praised by Pauline Kael and, later, Martin Scorsese), with a groggy Richard Burton as a priest investigating the ritual from the first film; and Where the Heart Is (1994), a screwball saga of urban revitalization in Manhattan, with Dabney Coleman as a demolitions contractor who gives his pampered children (including Uma Thurman and Suzy Amis) an opportunity to make the world better when they try to restore a decrepit apartment building.  

While these films failed to register for most audiences,   there’re Boorman’s triumphs, all possessing the director’s uncanny visual eye, love for good storytelling, and situations where his protagonists realize their dreams as well as their nightmares.

Burt Reynolds in Deliverance (1972)

Burt Reynolds in Deliverance (1972)

Consider the beauty and savagery of Deliverance (1972), brilliantly adapted from James Dickey’s book, a story of four men whose macho Appalachian canoe expedition becomes a traumatic experience when they encounter demented hillbillies; the mythic grandeur of Excalibur (1981), in which the filmmaker succeeded in his lifelong dream of telling the tale of  Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin with panache and pathos, in what is considered by many to be the best version of the story ever filmed; the lush beauty of The Emerald Forest (1985), an environmental adventure with Powers Boothe as the engineer seeking his kidnapped son (Charley Boorman, the director’s son) in the Brazilian rain forest; the magical Hope and Glory (1987), Boorman’s captivating look back to growing up in London during the Blitz of World War II; the wide-screen black-and-white grandeur of The General (1998), showcasing Brendan Gleeson in a tour-de-force turn as a real-life Dublin hood sought doggedly by police detective Jon Voight and the IRA; and The Tailor of Panama (2001), the refreshing John Le Carre spy tale of a slick MI6 agent (Pierce Brosnan) enlisting a politically connected tailor (Geoffrey Rush) to get delicate information from his contacts regarding the Panamanian government.

The director’s last two feature projects have been provocative, relatively obscure works, flawed but well worth checking out. In 2004’s In My Country (The Country of My Skull), Samuel L. Jackson plays a Washington Post reporter and Juliette Binoche an Afrikaner radio correspondent covering the events around South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearings in which amnesty was granted to those who confessed their crimes during South Africa’s Apartheid era to their victims. In The Tiger’s Tail (2006), frequent collaborator Brendan Gleeson portrays an Irish real estate mogul whose life goes downhill after he’s given a special award, as he’s swiftly immersed in marital, family and business trouble. Matters get all the more confused when an evil lookalike starts to menace him.           

In his review of The Tiger’s Tail, Philip French, film critic for The Observer, penned: “Writing about Excalibur in 1981, I noted certain recurrent themes and situations (in Boorman’s films): ‘Quests, encounters by rivers, dreams merging into reality, symbolic temptations, concepts of honour, man’s divorce from nature, the conflict between free will and destiny.’ All are to be found in The Tiger’s Tail.”

Boorman, who has resided in Ireland for decades, has also won favor with legions of film fans as the editor of a highly engrossing book series of movie-oriented essays called Projections.

John Boorman - The Tailor of Panama (2001)

John Boorman – The Tailor of Panama (2001)

But it’s still filmmaking–and the hopes that the financing of another project is just around the corner–that keeps Mr. Boorman going.

When accepting his recent BFI honor, Boorman joked about making an independent film next. “How do you become a millionaire making independent movies? You start off as a billionaire. When you make an independent film people look at you like you’re committing a criminal act. We go on. A few good films get made every year and that gives you the heart to continue.”

Along the way, Boorman has missed out on some major projects—probably because of his up-and-down track record and financial deficiencies–including his plans to turn The Lord of the Rings into a single movie long before Peter Jackson got to it and made it a trilogy.

“In 1970 I spent six months on a script, but United Artists ran out of money,” Boorman recalled in an interview. “I tried to revive it a number of times with Disney and it almost happened on several occasions.

“I’m happy I didn’t make it because it would have prevented Peter Jackson from making his magnificent trilogy which couldn’t have been done without computers. His is much better than my film would have been.”

But there’s still that aforementioned Oz project, as well as a picture about the Chernobyl disaster with Excalibur co-star Helen Mirren, and a film based on the life of Roman emperor Hadrian on his docket.  

In discussing his work, Boorman has said: “A lot of people I grew up with were more talented than I was, but they didn’t have the drive or tenacity you need to make films. It’s a very tough business to put a picture together and to make it work is hard, and it probably needs tough people to do it. Whereas the more sensitive, delicate characters can’t put it all together… ‘eh, f**k ’em.’”       

And to this, those dream projects and, in fact, his entire unpredictable career, we say “Salante,” Mr. Boorman.