ARTS: CINEMA: A very un-English film-maker

'Point Blank', 'Deliverance', and now 'The General' and a film about Lee Marvin: Nick Hasted finds out why stormy subjects suit John Boorman best
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ENGLAND MADE John Boorman. But it wasn't enough. He can still remember the hopes the country gave him, and how they were dashed. He drew on them in his autobiographical film Hope and Glory (1987), and he's talking about them now: the memories and metaphors are tumbling out. When the bombs rained down on him in London as a child, he felt exultant. He had grown up in an atmosphere of social fear, a horror of neighbours' opinions. He recalls the bombs as "a pagan rite". "My sister would always leave the best bit of rationed food til last. I would always eat it first. I'd say, What happens if a bomb falls? I knew any moment could be my last."

But then the war ended, and the disappointment began. Britain straightened its clothes. Civilisation was reasserted. Boorman remembers even "Swinging London" seeming fake, forced gaiety from a country still rife with repression. And so he sought another place, where the lessons the bombs had taught him could be learnt. First, he went to America, to make films. Then, almost 30 years ago, he came to Ireland. He loved the country's warmth, its sense of celebration. He accepted violence and spite as the inevitable price. He felt his own inhibitions loosen. It was a place where extremes were accepted.

Boorman's films encompass all of that. From the cold brutality of the thriller Point Blank (1967) to the scrabbling survivalism of Deliverance (1972), violence has often been at their heart. Extremes of environment have been tested, too: Boorman's childhood evacuation from the city to the country is made stark in the jungle hardships of The Emerald Forest (1985). And overarching all his work has been a sense of myth, expressed at its fullest in Excalibur (1981). He bought his Irish home in a state of mystic rapture, and is regrowing Iron Age forests in the acres around it. Excalibur was partly shot there too, and it was the film's most perfect location.

His latest film is The General, which pulses with all his concerns. It's the true story of Martin Cahill, a legendary criminal from the despised Dublin slum of Hollyfield, a charismatic rogue who took on the Gardai, the IRA and every other institution he could find, until they cut him down in 1994. Played with sweaty charm by Brendan Gleeson, Cahill was also cold and vicious. In the film, he crucifies one acquaintance on a pool table. After a career of resisting studio pressure, Boorman produced The General on his own. He shot it near his home. He felt like Arthur at the Round Table's peak, enclosed in calm. No one who worked on the film wanted to leave when it was finished, he says. It's his best work in nearly two decades.

Boorman is 65 now. Sitting in a London hotel, he's polite and has no airs. Thirty years in Ireland have barely denied his English veneer. He would seem almost vague if it weren't for his piercing eyes. But when he begins to talk, his emotional connection to the vicious Cahill, and the man's perfection as his subject, flood out.

"We were very anxious not to romanticise him," he says. "We tried to structure it to remind you that he was evil. But you can't help feeling a certain admiration for someone who could take on all that he did, the IRA, the police and the politicians, and stand alone. He constantly over- reached himself. It may have been hubris. It's been my inherent fault, too. I've felt somehow that the truth lies in extremity. That if you push far enough, if you push actors beyond their limits you will discover something. Like Cahill, I take on more than I can handle. Like him, I find it unbearable to have someone with authority over me. And I've suffered for it."

When a civil servant's signature stops his dole, Cahill's instinct is to penetrate the DSS bureaucracy, to find the individual who wrote it and to punish him. It's an individualism Boorman gave to the taciturn Walker in Point Blank. Walker is a man left for dead by organised crime, who remorselessly climbs its rungs till his gun-barrel vengeance has been sated. It was the film in which Boorman's ideas on violence, environment and the individual, on almost everything that would course through his subsequent work, reached fruition. The catalyst was its star, Lee Marvin. The director has just made a documentary about his friend. He remembers their collaboration well.

Marvin to Boorman was America: "Wild and dangerous." They worked together to forge a film which would perfectly express both the harshness of its LA setting and of Marvin himself. As they worked, the wound which motivated Marvin moved into view. A sniper in the Pacific, he had been shot almost to death, and was his squad's last survivor. He had felt like a coward ever since, and so pushed himself to brave extremes. He felt dead, and so proved he was alive. It's a way of life Martin Cahill would have understood.

"That's true," Boorman agrees. "Cahill did feel those same compulsions. Even when he'd made vast money from massive robberies, he'd still go out at night and break into people's houses, for the kicks, to get his adrenalin running. I have that need too, to put myself at risk, to reassure myself that I'm still breathing. Lee gave it to me. I'm scared by the things that I do. But it's necessary." It's strange that Boorman's self-image should be so close to that of the soldier Marvin; a frightened man, acting bravely. "Lee was an extreme example of us all," is all he'll say.

Boorman calls Cahill's birthplace "horrendous". But with only a little coaxing, he'll admit that an environment where civilisation has fallen away, just as the bombs stripped his childhood, is one he finds sympathetic. "I think you're getting closer to what human nature is in those places," he says. "For better or worse, you recognise the truth of it. Psychologically and emotionally, we haven't really adjusted to the level of civilisation that we've attained. That's the great conflict in human beings, between the savagery that remains with us, and the civilisation we aspire to. Most of us try to find ways of not resorting to violence. In Hollyfield, it was the currency of life. It's why nature is such a marvellous metaphor for the human condition. We can admire its majesty, but its violence is always present."

From the desiccated, drowned world of Deliverance to the clean, cold lines of Point Blank's LA and on to Martin Cahill's maze-like concrete birth-place, Boorman's landscapes resemble the cool territory of JG Ballard. Ballard's own war memoir, Empire of the Sun, was filmed almost in parallel with Hope and Glory. Both men were revisiting their primal landscape. It might be on this ground that Boorman's strange bond with Marvin was really forged. Boorman and Ballard were both war children; Marvin was the war. It defined them.

"I hadn't put that together," says Boorman. "But it may be that was my connection to Lee. My childhood was surrounded by violence. It was exciting to be aware that everything could be destroyed and that it didn't particularly matter. That's the attraction of war. It allows people to go into their baser, more fundamental selves. It allows them to escape the inhibitions that are put on them. That's how I grew up."

Is this the state he's trying to remind people of in his films, in the erupting violence of Cahill and Walker and the others? "Yes. It's what Lee did, too. He was saying, 'this is what we are. It's in me, it's in my face, look at it.' There's something important in doing that."

! 'The General' (15) is out on Friday. 'Point Blank' is re-released on 19 June. Boorman's documentary about Lee Marvin will be shown at the NFT in June.