If British moviemakers can be divided into realists and romantics, then John Boorman is firmly on the dreamier side of the equation. Filming Hope and Glory (1987), his autobiographical take on Blitz-blown Britain, Boorman had printing blocks etched to reproduce the wallpaper that hung in his parents’ living room during the war. It’s a lovely bit of mundane detail, but for all the domestic precision the movie feels more like slumber’s reverie than a slice of the real. Boorman might have grown up in an Acacia Avenue suburb just like the one recreated in the movie, but he was growing out of it at the same time.
The suburb was Carshalton and the Avenue not Acacia but Rosemary – ‘a monotonous street of semidetached houses similar to four million others that were built between the wars’. Boorman was born there in 1933, the son of a King and Country Tory who had fought in the Great War and insisted the family stand to attention whenever the National Anthem came on the wireless. Under such restrictions do romantics burgeon, but Boorman’s sense of drama was nurtured by Dad’s impossible demands too: ‘He yearned for me to succeed, yet he revelled in my failures. I was both his surrogate and his rival.’
Alas for Dad, there was another rival on the scene. His wife was really in love with his best friend. But ‘while Dad never grasped what was going on behind his back, young John cottoned on to it. Little wonder, perhaps, that Boorman sought refuge from this amniotic chaos in the stiller waters of the Thames. Boorman’s mother, who had been brought up on the Isle of Dogs, was always happiest near London’s river and her son came to share her passion. While Boorman describes the water at Brighton as a ‘surly grey sea’, he floats trance-like on the ‘silky surface … [the] perfect smoothness’ of the Thames.
It wasn’t smooth for long. At sixteen Boorman all but lost his virginity to an older married woman on a boat moored under Kingston Bridge. Afterwards she told him they had been hard at it at the exact moment that her husband had crossed the bridge on his bicycle. It’s the kind of scene that every boy dreams of, but Boorman took it as the cue to clean up his act. He got a job taking clothes to be laundered, though he didn’t hang around for long and was soon moving into journalism. After a spot of film reviewing for the Manchester Guardian he broke into television, where he worked his way up from editor to director, eventually being appointed head of BBC Bristol’s documentary unit. After that the movies beckoned.
His debut picture was Catch Us If You Can (1965), the Dave Clark Five rip-off of A Hard Day’s Night. It was a start, though not a promising one. But greatness lay just around the corner. Boorman got a call from Hollywood and a chance to work with Lee Marvin – in whom he discovered his ideal leading man. Most of the directors Marvin had worked with liked to sharpen their machismo on his rough edges. Boorman feasted on the recalcitrant woundedness beneath that abrasive carapace. Certainly Marvin had never made a better film than Point Blank (1967), Boorman’s elliptical, existential thriller about a hood on the trail of the money from his last job.
Point Blank was a tough act to follow and it was twenty years before Boorman came up with anything near as good – Hope and Glory. In between he made Zardoz (1974). a sci-fi think-piece starring a Sean Connery in a diaper; The Heretic (1977), a clunky follow-up to The Exorcist; Excalibur (1981), Boorman’s take on Le Morte D’Arthur, which moves like a dream but has no more intelligence than The Sword in the Stone; and The Emerald Forest (1985), an environmentally friendly, audience-hostile movie that is essentially a two-hour Sting video. Only Deliverance (1972), a civilization-versus-wilderness parable of crossbows and sodomy, was well received – particularly by Barbra Streisand, who asked Boorman for a private pre-release screening: ‘I want’, she said, ‘to see a man raped for a change.’ Funnv lady. But the movie had bigger than Barbra. For all Boorman’s fine direction of his actors (as with Marvin in Point Blank, Burt Reynolds and jon Voight give Boorman thee performances of their careers), Deliverance lacks pace and rhythm, and James Dickey doesn’t help things by weighing down his script with nursery-age Nietzsche. Boorman is too wise to fall for the cack-handed Ubermensch stuff, but the tensions between writer and director pull the picture to pieces. Deliverance fails to deliver.
Rather like Boorman’s career. ‘Like most movie-makers,’ he writes in this lucid, ludic, lovable book, ‘I have spent more time on movies I have not made than on those that I have.’ Only a churl could fail to feel sorry for him, but there is no gainsaying that Boorman has also spent more time on movies that have not worked than on those that have. Probably the same could be said of most film-makers, but what marks Boorman out is the feeling that the fault lies with him and not with the money boys. His devotion to romantic mysticism has sapped his true artistic strength, which is to condense reality on the silver screen. Point Blank and Hope and Glory are his masterpieces because although their heroes are romantics the movies themselves are unafraid of attending to the world as it is. Come on John, you say as you clap the book shut. Get real.