Since his first BBC Bristol television documentary programmes in the early 1960s, John Boorman’s work has been characterised by its originality, ambition and stylistic invention. His first American feature, Point Blank (1967) is a landmark crime movie that reworks the conventions of the genre by fusing Hollywood action with a European stylistic sensibility, while Deliverance (1972), the visceral story of a weekend canoeing expedition that takes a decidedly dark turn, is another modern classic.
Born in the Home Counties, but now a long-term Irish resident, Boorman is a truly international filmmaker who has moved between America and Europe throughout his career. With early BBC series such as Citizen ’63 (1963) and The Newcomers (1964) he examined contemporary British society before going on to make his film debut with Catch Us if You Can (1965).
As a vehicle for pop group the Dave Clark Five, the film’s critical and commercial success catapulted Boorman to Hollywood where, after Point Blank, he made another Lee Marvin vehicle, Hell in the Pacific (1968), before returning to London for one of his lesser known films, Leo the Last (1970).
Subsequent features such as Zardoz (1974), Excalibur (1981) and The Emerald Forest (1985) clearly demonstrate the qualities that have caused Boorman to be labelled a ‘visionary’ director, and perhaps most obviously embody his use of the quest narrative and longstanding preoccupation with dream and myth, land and environment.
At the same time, Boorman’s filmography demonstrates great breadth and diversity. Hope and Glory (1987), the most autobiographical of his films, offers a moving portrait of a wartime childhood. Beyond Rangoon (1995), The Tailor of Panama (2001) and Country of My Skull (2004) explore international politics and took the director to south-east Asia, Latin America and South Africa respectively, while The General (1998) and The Tiger’s Tail (2006) are set in Ireland, Boorman’s adopted home since the late 1960s.
Complementing our John Boorman retrospective, a current display in BFI Southbank’s Mezzanine gallery draws upon the BFI National Archive’s Special Collections of scripts, posters, photographs and designs as well as generous loans from John and his daughter Katrine Boorman.
Point Blank (1967)
The success of Catch Us if You Can took Boorman to Hollywood. Starring Lee Marvin, Point Blank tells the story of Walker, a criminal who goes on a quest for revenge after being shot and left to die by his partner.
A tour de force of filmmaking technique, Point Blank has often been described as a classic American noir combined with a distinctly European sensibility.
In a famous scene from the film, Marvin walks through a deserted terminal at LAX airport, the sound of his footsteps magnified on the film’s soundtrack. In Boorman’s words, the “polished brogues beat a knell on the concrete floor, the rhythm of the reaper”. After Marvin died in 1987 his widow Pam invited Boorman to choose a memento from his belongings. Boorman selected Marvin’s Point Blank brogues.
Leo the Last (1970)
Marcello Mastroianni plays Leo, a European prince who moves into his father’s mansion in Notting Hill. While recovering from an illness Leo begins to observe the lives of the people living around him, slowly coming to understand some of the obstacles and inequalities suffered by immigrant families living in the area. Leo the Last won Boorman the Director’s Prize at Cannes in 1970.
This script was donated to the BFI by the film’s continuity supervisor Ann Skinner and features extensive notes and reference Polaroids (see below).
Excalibur is perhaps the John Boorman film par excellence and brings together many of the recurring themes, concerns and motifs of his work.
Although he had embraced elements of Arthurian legend in earlier films and programmes, Boorman began developing Excalibur in the mid-1970s and the script went through many permutations before the film was eventually realised (during this time Boorman also made one of his least successful films, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)).
Hope and Glory (1987)
Scripted by Boorman, and based on his childhood during the second world war, Hope and Glory was a very personal film for the director. It is, in his words, “a family story […] set against the larger world of the Blitz” and was intended as the first of a loose trilogy of films. Boorman is currently working on a follow-up, Queen and Country, which focuses on his period of National Service in the 1950s. The character of Billy is Boorman’s alter ego and in these scenes Billy’s father Clive (David Hayman) sets off for war leaving Grace (Sarah Miles) to look after their three young children.
The John Boorman exhibition is on display in the Mezzanine gallery at BFI Southbank to accompany a complete retrospective of his films throughout April.
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