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Boorman, John (1933-)

Director, Producer, Actor

Main image of Boorman, John (1933-)

John Boorman was born in Shepperton, Middlesex on 18 January 1933. After the Blitzed childhood he evoked in Hope and Glory (1997), national service and a spell in dry-cleaning, he progressed from journalism into television, eventually becoming the head of the BBC's Bristol-based Documentary Unit in 1962.

His first feature, Catch Us If You Can (1965), an attempt to repeat the success of A Hard Day's Night (d. Richard Lester, 1964), is handicapped by the fact that the Dave Clark Five are infinitely less interesting, musically and as screen personalities, than The Beatles. However, within the format of the UK pop musical, the film shows traces of a distinct directorial personality. As the group make their way West, Boorman catches glimpses of interesting, unusual English landscapes: considering that he would specialise in alien or alienating worlds, it is intriguing that even at this early stage, he was casting his eye around for the fantastical among the greenery. Boorman was drawn to Hollywood for the opportunity to make larger-scale cinema and in Point Blank (1967), a potent distillation of a Richard Stark novel, brought a stranger's vision to the decaying fortress of Alcatraz and the proto-hippy world of San Francisco.

After Point Blank, Boorman re-teamed with Lee Marvin (partnered with Toshiro Mifune) for the robinsonade of Hell in the Pacific (US, 1968), a war movie with a slightly too fable-like gimmick: the relationship of nations encapsulated by two representative soldiers stranded together on an island and forced to put aside war to survive. Point Blank is an art movie that successfully mimics genre, but Hell in the Pacific, like many subsequent Boorman films, doesn't quite manage the trick.

Returning to the UK, to a London that had stopped swinging, he made Leo the Last (US/UK, 1970), which, with the presence of Marcello Mastroianni importing a Fellinian influence, won him a Best Director award at Cannes, but yielded only something as interesting and half-formed as Catch Us if You Can. Almost the least-known of Boorman's films, Leo the Last was unhappily reworked as the dire Where the Heart Is (US, 1990).

Boorman achieved much greater resonance with Deliverance (US, 1972), adapted from another pulp novel (albeit one by a poet, James Dickey). City folks Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty trespass into the Appalachian backwoods and discover their inner savagery as they feud with degenerate rednecks. It is another genre fable, an action movie that meditates on violence, and again finds strange corners of America, most unforgettably the porch-sitting withered child whose fast fingers play 'Feudin' Banjos'.

Though he only approached the taut perfection of Point Blank and Deliverance with The General (1998), a black and white biopic of an Irish criminal, Boorman's films are almost always ambitious and original. Zardoz (1973) is functionally insane as science fiction, but its bizarre production design and green, green Irish locations are memorable. Excalibur (US, 1981) is a worthy attempt to get beyond an Arthurian Star Wars, with its streak of crazed humour in Nicol Williamson's Merlin and its commitment to blood, steel and magic as the dream of Camelot unravels in an internecine war explicitly depicted as a multi-generational family argument.

Even at his most 'Hollywood', Boorman is committed to his own material and culture: The Emerald Forest (1985), a rainforest adventure, casts his actor son Charley as an eco-warrior Tarzan, and commingles commercially-required elements - action and near-nudity - with anthropological detail and the gorgeous threat of the green inferno. Beyond Rangoon (US, 1995) and The Tailor of Panama (US/Ireland, 2000) are politicised travelogues, with stars and intrigues, more interested in their gaudily corrupt settings than the editorial condemnations.

Hope and Glory, which recreates '40s suburbia in the studio, is at once heritage wartime nostalgia and a spirited raspberry to the form, incarnated by Sammi Davis's joyful welcome to the bombs that destroy her stifling neighbourhood. It may be significant with regards to the Irish-resident Boorman's lack of interest in being exclusively a British filmmaker that the blitzed area of the film is Shepperton, site of a studio Boorman might have found himself working in more if he hadn't gone off on travels, and the place he has always been trying to get away from.

Boorman, John, Money Into Light: The Emerald Forest: A Diary (London: Faber and Faber, 1985)
Boorman, John, 'Bright Dreams, Hard Knocks: A Journal for 1991' in John Boorman, Walter Donohue (eds), Projections: A Forum for Film Makers, (London: Faber and Faber, 1992)
Ciment, Michel, John Boorman (London: Faber and Faber, 1986)
Pallenberg, Barbara, The Making of Exorcist II: The Heretic (New York: Warner Books, 1977)

Kim Newman, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Catch Us If You Can (1965)Catch Us If You Can (1965)

Lively pop musical that was John Boorman's feature debut

Thumbnail image of Excalibur (1981)Excalibur (1981)

John Boorman's visually stunning, ambitious Arthurian epic

Thumbnail image of Citizen 63 (1963)Citizen 63 (1963)

Early John Boorman documentary exploring five modern British lives

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