Final bow: John Boorman caps a stellar career with autobiographical ‘Queen and Country’

Movies Features

At 82, British film director John Boorman has decided to hang up his megaphone and viewfinder and officially call it a career, going out with a postscript to his Oscar-contending 1987 autobiographical opus, Hope and Glory, called Queen and Country.

“In the last shot is my message that this is my last film,” he noted at the picture’s New York launch. “It’s very stressful and exhausting to make movies, you know.”

And Boorman knows for sure. In an eclectic career that has touched most of the genre bases, starting from the film debut of The Dave Clark Five (Having a Wild Weekend here, Catch Us If You Can there) and stretching for 22 features and a half-century, he has picked up Best Director prizes at Cannes (for Leo the Last and The General) and contended for a couple of Oscars (for Deliverance and Hope and Glory). Highlights from Boorman’s career were celebrated at New York’s Film Forum Feb. 11-17, followed by the current engagement of Queen and Country.

Boorman’s exit from behind the camera is not coming easily—there is a strong tug to do one more job. “I’m being pressed to do another,” he admits, “but I’m not sure whether I will or not. It’s a version of the Orpheus legend about what happens when people die. My conceit is that you come to this house and you are given a tape of your life and you have to edit it down to three hours before you can move on. Then you have to screen it before an audience. If it’s not good enough or not entertaining enough, you have to go back and work on it again, like the old ‘sneak previews.’”

Which sounds a little like cinematic purgatory, a lingering side effect from a life spent in film. Boorman felt this professional pull at an early age, almost inevitably since he grew up in the shadow of the Shepperton Film Studio. Born in London but blitzed out (see Hope and Glory), he relocated with his family to Shepperton, Middlesex, England, and filmmaking would cross his line of vision from time to time.

“Yes, I remember watching filming on location on the river,” he acknowledges. “It was part of life there. And, of course, my generation just lived for the movies. England was a pretty bleak place after the war. In 1950, we were still rationing, and movies—particularly, American movies—were a door into another, better world.”

Queen and Country begins with a jubilant moment from Hope and Glory: British kids jumping for joy on the rumble of their bombed schoolhouse, yelling, “Thanks, Adolf!”

At the center of this demi-demonstration is nine-year-old Bill Rohan (Sebastian Rice Edwards), who views World War II as one part fun, one part horror. The sequel leaps forward another nine years and finds Bill (now Callum Turner) conscripted into military service, with war rumbling off in the distance in Korea and his “service” safely confined to base, teaching typing to potential army clerks. The comedy that ensues is akin to Carry On Sergeant but on a more serious, socially aware level.

To play the 18-year-old Boorman, the director had his eye out for someone who actually resembled the boy in Hope and Glory, “someone you could believe that boy grew up to look like. At the beginning when you dissolve from one to the other, it has to be convincing. Fundamentally, what appealed to me about Callum was that he had a kind of truth about him. He’s very present, very aware of what’s going on.”

Conflict comes, of course, from Bill’s immediate superiors: a by-the-book martinet of the old school (David Thewlis, even more unrecognizable—and wonderful—than usual) and his commander who’s impatient with the infractions he must rule on (Richard E. Grant, tightly wound as ever). Both get quite a workout by the prankish tomfoolery of Bill’s troublemaking, often thieving sidekick (Caleb Landry Jones).

The sidekick’s prize loot is the commander’s clock, a symbol of the regiment’s past glory much like the Captain’s palm tree in Mister Roberts. “The clock wasn’t the only thing he stole. Every two weeks, something would disappear, and the whole camp would be brought to a standstill. He actually wrecked the joint. Each time the camp was closed down, everyone had to empty out their kit bags, and training stopped. When they sent him to prison, I was his escort. I still have a receipt from the military prison that says, ‘Received from Sgt. Boorman the live body of Pvt. Bradshaw.’”

This theft/prank was an act of rebellion that said such relics as the company clock were nonsense—a way for the younger generation to tell the older generation to go stuff it. Boorman first realized that a film could be made out of that statement right after he finished filming Hope and Glory, “but, unfortunately, things intervene—and, also, the lawyers were a little nervous about it because the screenplay is so closely based on actual characters. They thought that I would get sued. Now, of course, the older soldiers in the story, who were at least ten years older or more than me, would be dead. It was really about the older generation coming out of the war, holding onto the idea of Empire and imperiled Britain, and the younger generation realizing that all those values were gone and life in England was going to be completely different.”

The director can actually pinpoint what caused this widening gap of classes in Britain following World War II: “In 1947, the Labor government passed the Education Act, which set up the secondary modern schools. Until that point, at the age of 11, either you went to grammar school and learned Latin or you went to learn a craft to become a metal worker or a carpenter. In the secondary modern schools, for the first time, everyone was taught something in the arts—music particularly—and, if you do the math, you see that when you get into the ’60s, you’ve got The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They all came out of those new schools. It has never been quite widely acknowledged that the whole Swingin’ ’60s in Britain was the result of that Education Act. For the first time, every kid learned music and art and something of the culture. That’s what really made the change in the country.”

This class rift is also reflected in Bill’s love life. His attention is disproportionately divided between a cool, aloof, upper-crust collegiate he calls (with cause) Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) and a very patient, accessible nurse (Aimee-Ffion Edwards).

“What I tried to do, really, was to show that the sort of social and historical underpinnings of the story are all below the surface. When he falls for Ophelia, that was an education in how rigid the class system was then. Such a liaison was completely doomed. It couldn’t survive because of the vast gap between their classes. The Ophelia character kicked him out, and he had all the heartbreak of first love, while the other girl was always waiting, always there. I remember that David Lean said to me once, ‘The tragedy of my life is that I always took the women who wanted me, and I never had the courage of going after the ones I wanted.’”

Director Lean wound up with six wives, the full Henry VIII quota, and Boorman is now divorced, with seven children—four by his first wife and three by his second.

The two directors were such good friends that Lean asked Boorman to stand by for him should he not be able to finish his last film, Nostromo. Alas, he never made it to the starting line, but Boorman did give the script a read. “It was a huge, long epic piece, as you might expect, and it was all about greed,” Boorman recalls. “Every scene was so polished. Each scene was like a little jewel that had been worked over. There was sort of no room for me. There was no way I could find my way into that thing. I have to say, it was a bit turgid, and I told him I couldn’t do it. I thought, ‘If he dies on the first day, I’d be shooting the thing for six months out in South America.’”

Another film project that didn’t come off for Boorman was Memories of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel about the life and death of the Roman emperor.

“I spent a lot of time on that, but I think, like most directors I suppose, I’ve probably spent more time on films I haven’t made than the ones I have,” Boorman reflects. “I did a huge amount of research on Hadrian, and we never got the money together to do it. Also, at one time I was going to make The Lord of the Rings. I worked on that for a year for United Artists, and they ran out of money, so that project fell apart. Then, for a bit, I was going to do it for Disney, and it fell apart again. This is a familiar story.

“When you’re developing a script, often you just get to a point where you feel it’s not working, and you abandon it, just put it aside. Dynamic moviemakers in Hollywood who are constantly working—they’re developing projects all the time. They have four or five writers working away, and out of that comes one thing that gets made. I can’t do that. I can only work on one thing at a time. I put myself into it wholly and completely and work on it. If it doesn’t work, I drop it and move on. I can never have two or three things going at the same time. My mind is not up to it.”

Film projects have come to Boorman in a variety of ways. One came to him like a thief in the night—exactly like a thief in the night. When his home was burglarized by Martin Cahill, he decided to write a script on his exploits. The result was The General. “He was killed before I made the film, though. He was killed by the IRA because they wanted a share of his plunder, and he refused—so they shot him.

“He was a notorious criminal and a brilliant cat-burglar, a very intelligent guy really. I was aware of him, and I became much more aware of him when he hit my house. He had very good taste. He took the best, but he took a gold record I had for ‘Dueling Banjos’ in Deliverance. He thought it was made of gold, but it was just vinyl.”

Deliverance’s banjo standoff between Ronny Cox and an eerie-looking teen rustic remains a classic scene. The latter was played by Billy Redden, who didn’t appear in another film until 2003 when director Tim Burton found him washing dishes in a Georgia restaurant and hired him to play banjo in Big Fish. “I just cast him because of his appearance,” Boorman admits. “He couldn’t play the banjo. I had another kid behind him, and we had a false sleeve, and it was the other guy’s hand strumming.

“Whenever I see Deliverance, which is not very often, I look at it, and I think that everything seems to be in exactly the right place—the camera, the actors, everything. It’s a very complete film. There’s nothing I would want to change in it.”

Casting correctly has always been one of Boorman’s fortes. He cast Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgana in Excalibur, over the objections of both. They detested each other, but “it was good for the film since they were antagonists in the story. I love Helen dearly. I still have her breastplate. It’s such a nice shape.”

Looking back over his films, Boorman is reluctant to pluck out a favorite. “It’s like asking what’s my favorite child,” he says. “Point Blank, I think, was made in a state of grace. I always think fondly of that. I learned a great deal from Lee Marvin about film acting on that. Then we did Hell in the Pacific and became close friends until he died.

“And, of course, the autobiographical films like Hope and Glory and this one. I also did an autobiographical film for the BBC called I Dreamt I Woke Up about 15 years ago, and that was part-documentary about where I live and how I live and partly mystical and mythic. I play myself up to a point, but, when things become spiritual, John Hurt becomes me and plays my alter ego. As the thing progresses, eventually, we appear on the screen together. It’s really all about my work and how I do it.”