John Boorman: the films that made me fall in love with cinema

The great British director of Deliverance and Excalibur reveals the films that fuelled his young cinephilia – a youthful passion that’s remembered in his new autobiographical drama Queen and Country.

Rashomon (1950)

Queen and Country has several references to movies. They are the films that were showing during my two years army conscription – Sunset Boulevard, Strangers on a Train, Rashomon. Each of those pictures is referred to and relates to the story. Bill and Percy are planning to kill their overbearing Sgt Major, played scarily by David Thewlis, and Strangers on a Train offers a neat solution. The aristocratic ‘Ophelia’ describes her suicidal depression as like being face down in the pool like William Holden, everything muffled and far away. I remember the exhilaration I felt at watching Kurosawa’s Rashomon – the same events played out four different ways. It made me aware of the exciting possibilities of film, but ‘Ophelia’ points out that what all the versions have in common is that the woman gets raped.

Queen and Country (2014)

The movie that was on that week was central to our lives. Apart from the Hollywood film noirs, David Lean, Powell and Pressburger and Carol Reed were offering up interesting pictures during the early 50s and the cinema-going public was large enough to support British films with substantial budgets, unlike today.

The greatest influence on my appreciation and understanding of film was the opening of the National Film Theatre [now BFI Southbank] when I was 17. It showed all the major silent movies with a piano following the action – Eisenstein, von Stroheim’s Greed, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. I haunted the place. I revered Buster Keaton who refined film technique in the service of comedy.

Intolerance (1916)

Much later I made a documentary about Griffith for the BBC, The Great Director. While the First World War was raging, Griffith and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, invented the grammar of film. Griffith believed that film was the international language that would bring peace and understanding to the world. In 1968 I made a film using silent film techniques, Hell in the Pacific. An American airman (Lee Marvin) is stranded on a tiny tropical island with a Japanese naval officer (Toshiro Mifune). They cannot communicate verbally. I told everyone I was making a Griffith movie.

The ellipses of commercials have groomed audiences to follow a film language where scenes have no beginnings or endings, only middles. Young audiences are quick to interpret visual signals just as their grandparents did watching Orphans of the Storm. The eye becomes acutely attuned when not distracted by sound as in the recent movie, Ida.

In my film Point Blank I used stretches of silence to increase suspense. In mainstream movies sound leads the picture and often overwhelms it.

Film is a living language and is always evolving. 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

If I had to name one film that influenced and excited me about the possibilities of the medium I would have to name The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Queen and Country was backed by the BFI Film Fund.

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