Does British film culture appreciate its filmmakers enough? John Boorman is one of the most distinctive producer-writer-director figures to have made films in the UK. He left the country to work in Hollywood but then to settle in Ireland partly, I think, because he felt that filmmaking in the UK was not a serious undertaking. He has been recognised in the UK with a knighthood but not with the level of appreciation by his peers that he deserves.
The General was perhaps the last of Boorman’s films to make money and to achieve critical recognition, though he has completed four films since (the last of which was Queen and Country in 2014). The General was screened in competition in Cannes and Boorman won the Best Director award for the second time. It is now streaming on MUBI but in a print which is slightly different to that which appeared in cinemas in 1998. The film was released as a ‘Scope picture in black and white and therefore not a film that Hollywood studios were prepared to pick up for distribution – i.e. to pre-buy and therefore to effectively co-finance. Boorman had to make the film using his own resources and to borrow a large chunk of the budget from the bank. He also received some Irish public funding. Only after the Cannes win did Warner Bros. agree to distribute the film in Europe. Boorman has argued that in the 1990s no studio would support black and white films because TV stations wouldn’t show them. His film was eventually released on home video in the US. The film was actually shot on colour stock and printed to monochrome and the version on MUBI is presented with almost all the colour bleached out and just some vestiges of pale colour visible in certain scenes. Boorman talks about lighting for colour and black and white at some length in an interview printed in Sight and Sound, June 1998.
The ‘General’ of the title is the Dublin cat burglar turned gang-leader and ‘folk hero’ Martin Cahill who became a well-known figure in Ireland during the 1980s and early 1990s. He was assassinated in 1994 in a hit claimed by the Provisional IRA. Boorman credits Paul Williams for his book on Cahill published in 1995. Because Cahill’s story was so well-known, Boorman decided to start the film with his assassination and then narrate the events as one long flashback. His choice of black and white was also partly concerned with wanting to create some historical distance. It’s not difficult to see why Boorman was attracted to the story. Many of Boorman’s films feature protagonists prepared to take on the world and Cahill was a rebel, a very complex personality but also one easy to engage with, despite the vicious and cruel aspects of his behaviour. He is played in the film by Brendan Gleeson who in 1998 was just beginning to break through in lead roles in Irish films. From the photos I’ve seen Gleeson bears some resemblance to Cahill and he obviously researched the role carefully.
Cahill was an interesting figure for several reasons but primarily because he was a working-class lad who, at least initially, became a thief and a burglar because of his family’s fairly desperate economic situation. In an early scene we see him refusing to be rehoused because it would mean losing his place in a community he felt comfortable living within. Later he developed a more sophisticated persona as a joker who was eventually rehoused by the council closer to the affluent suburbs of North Dublin and gradually his ambitions as a criminal developed substantially. He taunted courts and played the system quite intelligently while at the same time developing the kinds of habits that would trip him up eventually. He had no real vices apart from crime except for a love of posh cars and motorbikes – flaunting his wealth while still ‘signing on’ the dole. The ‘Robin Hood’ tag came about because he divided the spoils of his major crimes equally among his gang members. But he could also be horrendously violent to any of his gang who disobeyed orders and his criminal activity was also damaging to the community he purported to support. Boorman does not take sides. He presents Cahill in context and offers us a police inspector (a composite of real Garda officers) played by Jon Voight, who is in some ways a similar kind of a figure but with police authority behind him. I’ve only given a brief description of Cahill – there is much more to add that the film presents in interesting ways.
I’m not sure why I missed this film in 1998. I certainly remember its release but I guess I must simply have been too busy with full-time work to be able to see it. I’m conscious that the image of Ireland within the EU has changed since the 1980s but Cahill’s story has remained within the consciousness of filmmakers. Joel Schumacher’s film Veronica Guerin (Ireland-UK-US 2003), about the killing of a well-known journalist, also features Martin Cahill and his gang and much more recently the Irish TV crime serial Hidden Assets (Ireland 2021) features the ‘Criminal Assets Bureau’ set up in order to trace and recover the money and valuables stolen by the likes of the Cahill gang. Hidden Assets stars Angeline Ball who in The General plays one of the two sisters from Martin Cahill’s childhood who he eventually makes part of his family – he married one and with her consent also had children with her sister. The other notable actor in The General is a young Adrian Dunbar who plays Cahill’s closest gang member Noel Curley. This is ironic in terms of viewing in the 2020s since Dunbar is now one of the key figures in the success of Line of Duty, the TV series about the unit investigating police corruption in the UK.
The other aspect of The General is the sense that this is about a city and a country that has changed profoundly over the last 25 years. Ireland has thrived as an EU member, in many ways overtaking the UK in wealth creation and liberating itself from many of the restraints that held back Irish society for so long. Boorman made a film exploring the effects of the so-called ‘Irish tiger’ economy in The Tiger’s Tail (2006), again starring Brendan Gleeson. Irish cinema has also developed, throwing off its much of its dependence on the UK and US and finding its own stories. The 1990s was also the time that Roddy Doyle’s novels about working-class life in North Dublin were filmed – The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996). The other impact on Irish life that has been important in changing the country was the Good Friday Agreement that came into force in December 1999 and which reduced the activities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, both of which play a role in Martin Cahill’s story. He dismissed both sets of paramilitaries and this lack of political awareness was a major factor in his downfall.
The General is a very entertaining watch, made with real flair, crowned by a superb central performance by Brendan Gleeson and with strong contributions by the supporting cast. Boorman uses two Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack which work well. As well as streaming on MUBI, The General can be rented cheaply on Microsoft (but I don’t know which version this might be).
I saw this at a BAFTA screening when it first came out, and thought it was a real return to his best form by Boorman. Glad to see that you appreciated it too. I’m not sure if there’s something about the subject, or the black and white photography, but for some reason, this is a seriously neglected work by a major film-maker.