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).
‘Queen & Country’ as a title is a reference to British military ideologies about patriotism and ‘service’ to the monarchy and the establishment. Written and directed by John Boorman the film is the belated sequel to Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory that proved to be both a commercial and critical hit. Twenty-seven years is a long gap between the titles with a whole generation of new cinemagoers probably unaware of the earlier film. Both films are autobiographical to a certain extent. In Hope and Glory the central character, like Boorman himself in 1942, is nine years old. In the sequel he is eighteen and about to be called up for National Service in 1951. I’ve written about National Service in some detail in a recent post on The Bofors Gun (1968). Queen & Country was initially welcomed as probably the last film to be released by John Boorman and he duly gave interviews to festival reporters and critics. However the film didn’t fully live up to expectations at the box office and later commentators took against the film. I wonder if the setting of the story and in particular the unique cultural context of Britain in the early 1950s was just not understood by audiences, especially outside the UK? But actually the UK/Irish market was not even its strongest box office territory in Europe where the French market prevailed. Part of this failure might have been because the film screened at Cannes and was acquired by Artificial Eye in the UK, best known as an arthouse distributor. I enjoyed the film very much but I can see that it presented problems to distributors.
John Boorman has had a long and eventful career. He made an initial breakthrough in UK television before directing his first feature film, the pop vehicle Catch Us If You Can featuring the then very successful singles band the Dave Clark Five. The film worked well enough to enable Boorman to move to Hollywood where he made three features that catapulted him into an international standing as a brave and innovative director: Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Deliverance (1972). Meanwhile, he had bought a house in Ireland where he has been based ever since. From his new Irish base in County Wicklow he made Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur in 1981. In between he returned to Hollywood to make Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a film which seems to have offended many and didn’t make money as far as I’m aware. Boorman remained a director capable of raising finance for several further features, including the successful Irish crime film The General in 1998 with Brendan Gleeson and Adrian Dunbar. He also wrote about film. Before he became a filmmaker he had been a reviewer and in 1992 he became the co-founder and editor of Faber & Faber’s long-running series Projections: Film-makers on Film-making. Hope and Glory had been by then a rare British-based production as Boorman preferred making films in what he saw as exotic and interesting locations. The London location of Hope and Glory was personal for Boorman, broadly nostalgic for some audiences and an accessible child’s perspective on the ‘war at home’ for others. Queen & Country had by June 2015 (when the film was released in the UK) become more of a historical drama, looking back at a time less remembered/well-known.
In late 1951 Boorman’s alter ego, Bill (Callum Turner) is called up for his National Service and immediately bonds with another new conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they will have an eventful time over the next two years, despite never leaving Southern England. Bill is a bright lad, more than capable of coping with the Army’s procedures without losing his sense of independent thought. Percy is more of a tearaway. Both young men represent a challenge to the Army’s procedures designed to train young men to take orders without question. The narrative weaves together separate strands involving Bill’s pursuit of the beautiful but mysterious young woman (played by Tamsin Egerton) he has seen across the river from his house each morning and Bill and Percy’s ongoing battle with Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). The social context for these stories is Bill’s family life in their house on an island in the Thames near Shepperton and the national events of the Korean War, the death of King George VI and the televised Coronation of Elizabeth II. The national context is crucial and Boorman himself has spoken about it in various interviews (especially in Sight & Sound July 2015) and in his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy (2003). In 1951 The post-war Labour government lost an election in which it still won the popular vote but the Conservatives won most seats. The new Government under the wartime leader Winston Churchill faced the prospect of fighting three separate wars in Korea as part of a United Nations force and in colonial conflicts in Malaya and Kenya. In each of these conflicts it would be necessary to use National Service conscripts like Bill.
Boorman has spoken about the generational differences that became apparent in the UK at this time and how they were crystallised in the National Service experience. The generation who had fought the war were still prepared to try to hold on to the Empire which was already crumbling. In Aldershot the conflict is between Bill and Percy as National Service youths and Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewliss). After Basic Training, Bill and Percy are selected as Instructors and promoted to Sergeant (presumably instructors had to be at least sergeants). They are supposed to teach the new conscripts how to type but Bill in particular attempts to subvert the Army’s ideology with the remarks he makes to his ‘students’. This does not go down well with Bradley. Bill and Percy also become involved with Private Redmond, a ‘skiver’ who has avoided posting abroad by feigning various medical conditions. Redmond is a generic character in many military narratives involving conscription and is here played by the Irish comic actor Pat Shortt, a popular figure in Irish film and TV. In his Sight & Sound review (July 2015), Philip Kemp suggests that Queen & Country is something of an ‘episodic clutter’ reminiscent of ‘an army sitcom series’. In one sense I agree and the ongoing battle between Redmond and Bradley is a reminder of Granada’s The Army Game which ran on ITV between 1957 and 1961 and which is part of the National Service cycle of films. Meanwhile at home and with both the mystery woman and the two nurses that Bill and Percy meet, the generation gap is explored in different ways. Bill is not very enthusiastic when his father buys a TV set to watch the Coronation in June 1953.
Queen & Country is mostly comedic in terms of the ‘army sit-com’, more like a romantic comedy drama/sexual awakening involving the mystery woman and the two nurses and a family melodrama back on Bill’s island home. However, it becomes much darker towards the end of the narrative, suggesting perhaps that Bill learns a great deal from his National Service experiences. The film worked very well for me, but then it should. It’s difficult to to work out what audiences without the historical background might make of it. At times the comedy is almost farcical, but it is carried through with conviction. Note the name of the regiment in the image above, the RARF, the Royal Agincourt Regiment of Foot. (A name which made me think of Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968).) But perhaps the the biggest mistake is the casting of Caleb Landry Jones as Percy. The Texan is now a significant actor in Hollywood, but I don’t think he was in 2014. He looks like he could be English but his accent in the film is all over the place and in the image above where he and Callum Turner are meant to be standing ‘at ease’ in the CO’s office, everything about his stance is wrong. As a generic character in comedy about young men, he is fine but as a significant figure in Boorman’s complex presentation of time and place he is ‘out of place’.
But despite this problem, Boorman displays his skill in many scenes and he works his cinephilia into the narrative which starts and ends with a filming sequence by the Thames at Shepperton. Later Bill will take his date to see Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I thought Callum Turner was excellent as the Boorman alter ego and Tamsin Egerton and David Thewlis should also be singled out. Vanessa Kirby makes the most of the small part of Bill’s sister returning from Canada. Queen & Country is widely available. I watched it on BFI Player but it is on many other streamers to rent or buy as well. John Boorman is one of the best British directors of the last 50 years and I must now re-watch some of the earlier films. Here’s the US trailer: