By Matthew Sorrento.
John Boorman’s status as a major filmmaker was sealed with five words from Lee Marvin: “I defer those to John.” The actor then left the room, which contained Boorman and the producers of Point Blank (1967); they had just conferred that Marvin had approval over the script and cast of the film, which he passed with good faith to the young filmmaker. With that decision, Boorman gained full control of his first Hollywood film, showcasing arguably Marvin’s greatest role, to make it into a masterpiece of subjective genrework, a pure marriage of American tradition in a European style.
The British born filmmaker followed the film with the minimalist combat piece Hell in the Pacific (1968), which expands the requisite “enemies meet” scene into a prolonged confrontation between Marvin’s downed American pilot and Toshirō Mifune’s shipwrecked Naval Officer. (The troubled production and Mifune’s refusal to take direction from Boorman overshadow the film’s merits for many commentators.) Boorman’s surprising success with Deliverance (1972, follow-up to 1970’s Leo the Last), in which “frontier exploration” turns nightmarish, confirmed that his control of Point Blank was warranted, and led to the undiluted dystopia Zardoz (1974), kind of a bizarre return of the repressed for every eccentric project ever shot down by a studio head. In these films, Boorman serves as a representative voice of 1970s cinema.
And then, as he notes in the phone interview below, as he grew older, he found himself drawn to classicism. His 1987 film Hope and Glory made for an ideal chance to embrace the style. His often comical autobiography of a childhood during London’s Blitz offers a youthful tone, through the eyes of young Bill (Boorman’s alter-ego, played by Sebastian Rice-Edwards) and his sister, Sue (Geraldine Muir). Boorman proved himself to be a versatile stylist, more like Billy Wilder (of whom he’s obviously fond), more than the Raoul Walsh descendent he had seemed.
Queen and County, his new film, is a sequel to Hope and Glory as Bill, now 18, enters his conscription in the Army during Britain’s involvement in the Korean War. Maintaining a youthful spirit, the film presents Bill coming to maturity as he navigates through his aimlessness, under military command, and desire for the wrong (and right) girl. In what may be his last film, Boorman returns to the classical style of the movies he enjoyed at a young age, again showing his flexibility and commitment to finding a story’s ideal tone.
Did you have the idea for a sequel to Hope and Glory for a long time?
I did, but just hadn’t had the time to get around to it. Everything in the film, pretty much, happened to me, as you see it there. One or two of the older characters depicted might not have taken well to it. By this time, I think they are probably all dead, because I was 18 and I’m now 82 – hopefully, they’re all dead. [Laughs]
This film has the same innocent tone as Hope and Glory. Were you concerned about keeping it consistent?
Well, yes, though to me it’s only a few years later. At the end of Hope and Glory, we were living by the river, on the Thames, after we lost our house. We were happily living in this river dream. Then, going into the army was a bit of a shock, as it was for any 18-year-old who had to do it.
And it was a fascinating time, 1951. People were still suffering a hangover from the war. Some food rationing was still in place at the time. It was worth depicting because it was a real turning point – the older soldiers who had been in the war were still clinging to the idea of imperial Britain. We, the younger ones, could see how it was all completely changed, how the Empire would be gone in a few years, and that England would revert to being a small island off the coast of Europe. We hoped for a different England, in which privilege and the class system were swept away, which to some extent had happened, but not as much as we hoped.
Queen and Country is in a youthful point of view, like Hope and Glory. Not many of your films are, aside from The Emerald Forest. Was it a draw for you to return to this viewpoint?
Yes, exactly. I wanted to show the world how I had seen it, at the age of 18, with all the freshness that comes at that age. All we young conscripts had a great sense of the absurdity of the army rules and regulations. Apart from the misery of shaving and showering with cold water at 5:00 in the morning, we were laughing so much of the time at the absurdity of army life.
This film feels like a service comedy in a way. Did you have this tradition in mind?
I suppose that a lot of the comic incidents stuck with me, so I put them in. When I was making it, I didn’t think of it as a comedy, but it came out that way, though there are many serious strands.
Was Hope and Glory an opportunity for you to get away from American sensibilities? Prior to that film, you seemed very much to be an American filmmaker, though from Britain.
Well, yes, I suppose it was a return to my roots. And it turned out to be one of the most successful of my films, though there was very little enthusiasm for it, at first. People didn’t respond to it very well. In the end, though, it seemed to work for everybody. A lot of people feel great affection for it.
I would guess that perspective in your films, as they relate to character, has always been important for you, judging from your early works like Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific.
Point Blank very much had to do with my response to Los Angeles. For all it blandness, I always felt it was very threatening place, threatening because it was so temporary. I had a feeling when I first went there that it would only be there for a short while. [Laughs] This is not generally what people feel about the place, but I found it ominous, temporary, and threatening. And I think that Point Blank largely came out from that response.
It’s fascinating – in a way, you could say that Los Angeles has no identity, but it has a huge identity in terms of movies.
Would you say that Point Blank turned you on to minimalism? I see that you continued the style in Hell in the Pacific.
Well, I tell you what, that’s true certainly in the dialogue. I was very influenced by Harold Pinter at the time. The dialogue in Point Blank has that very minimalist quality. I was constantly stripping everything away when I was making the film. What is left out is as important as what’s left in.
Would you mind taking us back to your first meeting with Lee Marvin for that film?
He was in London making The Dirty Dozen, and the producer Judd Bernard gave him the script (by David and Rafe Newhouse), gave the same script to me, and arranged for [Marvin and me] to meet for lunch. Lee said to me, “What do you think of this script?” And I said,” Well, I found it really bad.” Lee said, “Well, so do I, so what are we talking about?”
Anyway, Judd was furious with me. He said, “All you had to say was that the rewrite would be terrific.” Judd told me that I had to call him and convince him. Anyway, I was very nervous to call him, but I eventually did. And we met again, and met a number of times. Lee asked what interested me about the project – and I said, “It’s the character. I find him fascinating.” We talked more, and gradually I slowly wove this narrative around this character. Lee connected with it because this character, who’s shot and left for dead, and was searching for his soul, if you like, corresponded very much to Lee’s experience in the Army in the Pacific. He was traumatized by it, really, and acting for him was a way for him to find his own humanity. I think that was what gave the film a lot of its power, that he connected with it so strongly.
Eventually, after we had a number of talks, he said, “Okay, I’ll make this picture with you, on one condition.” And he took the script and threw it out of the window. A very typical Marvin gesture.
Mel Gibson made a kind of remake of it (1999’s Payback). I was going around the States promoting a film at the time, and a lot of journalists asked me, “What do you know about this remake?” I said that Mel Gibson sent me the script, out of courtesy, and I told them that it was very similar to the script that Lee threw out of the window. I can only imagine a very young Mel Gibson was passing by and picking it up out of the gutter.
The subjective moment, early in Hell and the Pacific, must have been inspired by the tone of Point.
Can you share your experience directing Toshiro Mifune for that film?
Oh, it was a nightmare, really. It was a huge misunderstanding to do with language. He got a hold of a completely wrong idea about the character and the story. And I was working with a Japanese crew, so it was a big loss of faith for him to be directed by someone like me. We fought and struggled all the way through the film.
It came to a point when I had an accident on a reef, and got coral poisoning on my leg, and we had to stop shooting. The producers turned up and said to Mifune, “You’ll be pleased here – we are going to replace Boorman.” They knew we weren’t getting on. But Mifune said that he couldn’t agree to that. He said that Boorman came to Tokyo, we went to the tea house, and we made a toast in sake that I would make the film with him. It’s a matter of honor. And the producer said, hang on a minute – this is Hollywood! Honor doesn’t come into it.
I really admired and loved [Mifune], really. He was an extreme force of nature. When I met with Kurosawa, and he knew I was making a film with Mifune, he said, “You can’t direct Mifune – all you can do is point him in the direction you want him to go.”
Going to back your recent film, Queen and County, there’s not many films about the Korean War out there.
Korea was kind of a forgotten war, and there are almost no films about it. I did want to make a mark for it, since a lot of people fought there and died there. That’s a war that is still going on, in the sense that there has never been a peace treaty. There’s an armistice, that’s all. Actually, North and South Korea are still at war, and America is still at war with North Korea.
Would you describe Queen and County as a künstlerroman, a story about an artist coming into his own?
It’s very much a story about growing up – all those things, falling in love with the wrong girl. It was very much a response to the class system that riddled Britain. This girl was of such a higher class than I was that it couldn’t possibly have worked in any way. It’s unthinkable then. [Bill] is coming face-to-face with the realities of British life at the time.
There is a lot in the film about filmmaking – it begins with filming, Bill sees filmmaking happen at Shepperton Studios, and then his making a film in the final shot, plus the film allusions. Would you say it’s a film about becoming an artist?
Yes, and I think it was partly to do with that I lived close to a film studio, and saw films being made. At that time, in my generation, movies were everything. Particularly American movies. Every week we saw them, and they showed us another world, a much bigger world, of bigger ideas. Then, when I came out of the army I got involved, and little by little I got to make films. At the end of Queen and Country, I show the camera stopping, which is my signature saying, “That’s the end of my career.”
But since then, I’ve been encouraged to make another one. I don’t know whether I will or not. I’m 82, which I thought was on the upper end. But look at Clint Eastwood! He just made a blockbuster at three years’ older than me. And as to Manoel de Oliveira, who’s now 106, and still working, I’ve begin to feel like a spring chicken.
I was great friends with David Lean. He was working at MGM when he was making Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and I was doing Point Blank. They sent him a copy [of Point Blank] to watch, and he sent me a fan letter. It was one of the most marvelous things to ever happen to me. I got a fan letter from David Lean, and we became great friends. Then, right at the end of his life, he was about to make Nostromo, but he fell sick and wasn’t able to do it, and he died, actually. The last time I saw him, he said that he hoped he would get well enough to do Nostromo, because “I’m just beginning to get the hang of it.” It takes a long time to really learn the craft. And I think that’s why people go on, because they feel, finally, I think I know how to do it.
To me, Point Blank is a masterpiece. How do you feel about the film when watching it now?
I think I made that film in a state of grace, really. It was Lee who really inspired me. When I went out to make it, Lee called a meeting with the studio head, and the producers, and he pointed out to them in his contract he had script approval and cast approval. They agreed that he did have that. And he said, “I defer those to John.” And he walked out.
He knew, better than I did, that making the kind of film I wanted to make would be extremely difficult. I had that great fortune to have control of the movie. And I was young and stupid enough to think I could get away with it!
The film finally brought Lee Marvin to the place he needed to be. When we see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), we see a great villain, but we can sense that he could do much more.
I learned so much from him, particularly about film acting, the way he could express an idea with a gesture, with a movement. He was marvelous.
In Queen and Country, the portrayal of the nurse really stands out. She keeps tricking Bill into intimacy, even in the last scene. Did the real girl keep tricking you thus?
Well, I married her, yes! [Laughs]
Were you concerned about portraying sexuality in this film? I know that it’s a prominent theme in the predecessor, Hope and Glory.
The sex scene, when he’s just been dumped by Ophelia, and he makes love to [the nurse] rather badly in a rather unsatisfactory way. I wanted to put that on the screen, because so many of our first sexual experiences are pretty miserable and unsuccessful. You never see those scenes portrayed like that.
Were your casting choices of concern to you?
Somehow, [the casting] didn’t seem to matter, since the spirit was so strong. The new portrayals worked for me, because it felt true. The whole mysterious way that memory and imagination function together is fascinating. What I was always looking for wasn’t the appearances, so much, as the truth of the situation. That’s what I went for, in every case. And I hope the film has the smell of truth to it.
I’m sure that casting Callum Turner as Bill was important. Was it a long search to find him?
Well, I saw an awful lot of boys. When you look at 18-, 19-year-olds they don’t have a lot of history to look at. You can’t assess them by their previous work, really. I did a lot of testing. And this boy, getting back to what I just said, he had a truthfulness to him, a kind of honesty and genuineness. He’s playing a character who’s shy, uncertain, undecided, sitting on a fence – all those things I was at that time.
What fashioned my character at the time was the loss of our house, which we see in Hope and Glory. From that moment on, I never had any attachment to possessions. I’ve never collected anything in my life. I became slightly detached from life, and that’s the quality I wanted him to have in the film. I think he did it very well.
Both Hope and Glory and Queen and Country feel like old-time classicism. They seem to reach to before your career, in a way. You are from the New Cinema generation, especially with Point Blank at the onset.
Yes, as I’ve got older, my style has gotten more classical, really. The idea of the camera that runs around, like in Bergman, the camera become the star of the film. You get over that stuff, really. Now I take the view that the camera should be seen, and not heard, like children used to be. The camera shouldn’t move unless it’s following something. But that may be an old man talking.
How do you like working with digital?
I’m all for digital. Some of my friends are still arguing for film. These days, all projection in theaters is digital, so what’s the point? It’s going to end up digital, anyway. And the advantages of digital are enormous. You can grade color in such a wonderful way. It’s such a wonderful device, a weapon. Also, isn’t it great to go to the movies, and you don’t see any scratches or dirt, like you used to? Film is a nineteenth-century invention, and it’s high time we’ve moved on.
Queen and Country continues it run at New York’s Film Forum and will open in the regional US next month.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012).