We’re not dealing with an ordinary man, or a conformist. There he is in the abandoned shell of Fort Point in San Francisco, this fierce and frightened man, looking like Lee Marvin. The fat parcel of money he has been demanding throughout the film is at his feet. All he has to do is pick it up. Instead, he fades into the darkness. What kind of movie is Point Blank? And what kind of book is this, written by the man who made it?
It would be hard to deliver a brief biographical sketch of John Boorman that was tidy or plausible. Yet it would be harder still to leave a reader in any doubt about his integrity, his passion and his blithe disdain for success, more radiant than gloomy. At 87, it’s his life, and he has resolved to treat it as a journey, a floating down the river, as if he had sometimes been unsure of where he was going, undistracted by ambition. Boorman may be the most inspired and wayward of English directors since Michael Powell.
Not that Powell would have attempted Point Blank. Not that anyone in 1967 had reason to think that a young Englishman raised on the leafy edges of south London (Carshalton, and later Shepperton) would know how to go to Los Angeles (and San Francisco), into the heart of noir mythology, to make a movie that alarmed Hollywood. Boorman was 33, and probably as soft-spoken and gentle as he is now, even if he knew he had to act tough and decisive. That’s how he conquered Lee Marvin, when that gaunt, cruel and mocking presence had just won an Oscar for Cat Ballou and could command obedience even when – or especially when – he was drunk on his feet.
Boorman had finished school at 16, in 1949. He had been given a typewriter by his mum. He wrote anything he could think of, and that turned into scripts and television documentaries. He got the chance to try a feature, Catch Us If You Can (1965), with the Dave Clark Five. It won an audience and attracted some American interest. So that’s how Boorman ended up in Soho one night discussing a bad script from a Donald Westlake novel, The Hunter, with Marvin, who was staying in London. ‘What do you think?’ Marvin wanted to know. Boorman said it was clichéd; they bonded over considering it ‘a piece of shit’.
That was the start of Point Blank. Boorman thought the central character, then named Parker, could be interesting. ‘I like the idea of a man betrayed by his wife, and his best friend, and the futility of the quest for revenge.’ Boorman was grasping, trying to stay afloat, but there was an echo in the story of what had happened with his own father, his mother and her other man. Marvin listened. Boorman thought the character in the script was so wounded he wasn’t quite human. They drank a lot, and Marvin spilled out his own horrors – a failed marriage, killing men in the Pacific War as a Marine, being badly wounded in a severe defeat, drinking and being brutalised. Then Marvin said he’d do the picture, whatever it was, on one condition: he threw the rotten script out of the window.
So Boorman went to America, to MGM, who loathed the alternative script he had worked up with Alex Jacobs, as well as his lofty plan to do each scene in variations of a different colour. There was a chill of disbelief until Marvin remembered that he had approval of the script, casting and any and all creative decisions on the project. So he assigned all that control to his new English friend, the film novice. They shot it with Angie Dickinson, in yellow and orange, as the woman, and a corps of supporting actors from Keenan Wynn to Carroll O’Connor. It felt as if the newcomer had spent his life in the corrupt canyons and corridors of LA.
The extra miracle of Point Blank is that Boorman didn’t see the real Los Angeles until 1965. But to him the city was a myth as powerful as King Arthur. ‘I rented a car at the airport and drove down the length of Sunset in time to see the sun sink into the Pacific … I spent my time driving aimlessly around the freeways. It was concrete over sand. The anguish of lost souls … The people had lost their bearings and were impersonating humans. I longed to make a film there.’
He would need a further saviour. His rough cut was shown to Margaret Booth, nearly seventy, who had worked for D.W. Griffith, and on Garbo pictures, and on Mutiny on the Bounty. She supervised the editing, gave John a few notes, all of which he acted on, then sat through another screening with the MGM suits, who did their idiot act and wanted lots more smoothing out. ‘You change one frame of this movie over my dead body,’ Booth told them. She lived to be 104.
Above all, the studio hated the ending and the idea that a hoodlum, or anyone, would walk away from the money. It was probably tactful of Boorman not to mention that Walker (Parker’s new name) was possibly dead, or else dreaming the whole story, like Charles Foster Kane.
Isn’t this heady, inside movies stuff just what you hoped for? Well, I should tell you now that much of what I’ve talked about so far comes from Adventures of a Suburban Boy, the book Boorman published with Faber in 2003, which was a memoir of the ‘film director tells all’ sort. He was seventy then and a figure in world film, however wayward. A year later he was awarded a Bafta fellowship for lifetime achievement. He was still editing the Faber series Projections (13 volumes in all, aided by the late Matthew Evans and Walter Donohue), which was an unprecedented forum for filmmakers to talk at length about what they do. I co-edited Volume 4, with Tom Luddy, only because Boorman was occupied at the time shooting Beyond Rangoon (1995).
Boorman may have seemed established, but his status could lead to strange ventures. This suburban boy was drawn to Burma, to The Emerald Forest (1985), and to the myths of the Ireland he had fallen for. Over the years there were unaccountable films, or dreams with insufficient substance. These included Leo the Last (1970), Zardoz (1974), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and Excalibur (1981). From one of those projects – the very personal Where the Heart Is from 1990, a story of a father and his children, written with his daughter Telsche – Boorman treasured a preview card on which someone in the audience had written ‘John Boorman’s movies are unpredictable, subversive and crazed. Tell him to keep making them no matter what.’
Yet this same man had once pulled off a hair-raising coup in rural Georgia on the border with Tennessee. Deliverance (1972) sounds like Sam Peckinpah material, about some city guys who go off on a canoe in the wilderness and get more than they (or the censor) had reckoned on. It was a location ordeal, with Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight as the leads, and Boorman was at one point thoroughly beaten up by the indignant and much larger James Dickey, author of the original novel, who felt that the veracity of his story was being betrayed – only for it to be later revealed that Dickey’s allegedly autobiographical book was entirely made up. It is still a very scary film, shot by the great and courageous Vilmos Zsigmond, with the actors doing a lot of the dangerous stuff themselves, and it includes a pioneering scene of male rape. Against all odds, Deliverance was a smash – it earned $46 million on a budget of $2 million. Boorman and Dickey became fast friends and the horror story is said to have done a lot for wild water tourism on the Chattooga River in Georgia.
Deliverance was Boorman’s biggest hit – maybe his only one. And somehow you have to reconcile that river with the sweet and dreamed over Thames in Hope and Glory (1987), a memory of his own wartime childhood. It was as comfortable as Deliverance was forbidding. It won five Oscar nominations, including best picture, director and original screenplay. It lost on all counts (this was the year of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor), as if held back by its own modesty. But go back to the film and you will find the astonishing Blitz sequence, which reproduces Boorman’s own boyhood wonder at the lightshow spectacular of the bombing raids – no matter the damage they did. In that rapturous departure from grim British propriety you can catch something of the surreal vision behind the sequence in Point Blank where Angie Dickinson’s character is in such a fury at Walker’s blank persona that she turns on every electrical appliance in the sleek LA household they have taken over, and ends by beating her fists on his obdurate façade. The suburban boy had a wild child inside and didn’t always know how to handle his energy or settle for being a good professional moviemaker who did what the system required.
How else had the savage in Marvin seen enough in Boorman to trust him with what would be the eternal Marvin mystery film? After Point Blank, they went off to find a deserted island fit for Hell in the Pacific, the story of an American and a Japanese cast up on the same shore. They settled on the Palau archipelago. Hell in the Pacific might have been made by a pairing of Buñuel and Terrence Malick. It shows two animals helpless in paradise, and works out an ecological equation decades ahead of its time. Through exhaustion and a laughless mortal comedy, the enemies are driven to collaborate. They build a raft to escape the atoll only to end up on another, larger island in the wreckage of some military base that has been destroyed in the conflict. As Boorman puts it, ‘they shave their beards and find uniforms. Once they are defined by their insignia, it is impossible for them to remain together. Neither can they kill each other. A kind of bond has been forged between them.’ And so the Japanese (Toshiro Mifune, who spoke no English and fought with Boorman as if the war was still on) salutes and walks away.
That was Boorman’s quiet ending – another walking away. But the Hollywood spirit that urged ‘Take the money!’ would not be denied this time. A producer decided to add in a comprehensive final explosion, as if the imperative of war simply didn’t permit these guys to remain together yet alone on their island. It made no difference: the film flopped. In all but its intrusive last minutes, Hell in the Pacific is about human noise and bluster being subdued by the patient beauty of water and trees. The alleged hell is really a paradise.
Boorman’s new book starts off a little uneasily: there is some memoir and a short guide on how to make a movie that serves little purpose when set against the implausible stories of the way Boorman actually went about things. He was seldom an ideal model. But as Conclusions presses on it reaches Annamoe in County Wicklow, where Boorman has lived for decades. It is a place famous for its forests and streams and its air of seclusion. Reading Boorman’s account of it you feel that it’s another Emerald Forest, the wilderness in Brazil where a father searched for his lost son.
Annamoe had an enchanting mill stream. Sometime around 1720, a boy fell into it. ‘I had that wonderful escape,’ he would later say, ‘in falling through a mill-race whilst the mill was going, and of being taken up unhurt – the story is incredible, but known for truth in all that part of Ireland.’ The boy was Laurence Sterne, maybe as much a fabulist as James Dickey. True or exaggerated, the elements of a running stream and a heightened imagination are part of a romancing that extends beyond Ireland or Georgia or even the Burmese river into which Boorman dived in naked, drifting along and coming to shore under the gaze of military policemen. (I should say that Boorman is rather confused these days about how to regard a former heroine of his, Aung San Suu Kyi.)
Never mind. Confusions vied with Conclusions for the title of this book. Some manic movie buffs may be dismayed or indignant at its second half, which settles into the recesses of Annamoe and Glendalough. The adventurer John Boorman has become a guardian of his countryside, a planter of trees and a fond draughtsman who includes drawings of them – limes, larch, sycamore and the Sally, an Irish willow like a neurotic banyan tree – in the pages of his book. As well as poems. Here’s one about his daughter Lola, written when he was trying to get her attention:
My Lola Loo is seventeen,
Building her own citadel.
In her shuttered eyes,
I glimpse the climbing walls,
No trumpet of mine will bring down her Jericho.
Her mobile pings and her thumbs tap out retorts.
She smiles into her phone,
But facing me the portcullis slams shut.
My storming love bounces back,
From her stony stare.
There’s no need to trouble ourselves over whether the pencil sketches and the poetry are ‘good’. It is enough that they are Boorman’s and that he now takes them as seriously as he ever did Point Blank or Hope and Glory. He is old, of course, and growing older. He doesn’t really see or hear well enough to attempt another movie. He tells a story about the time when, alone in his house, he had a fall and wondered if he could crawl as far as the phone. Anyway, he knows how movies end, and he is clear-eyed about what to expect – just as he has the nerve to offer this gentle psalter for his last days. He has had two wives, and seven children, all beloved, and the book is dedicated to a new lover. Among the children, Charley played the son in The Emerald Forest, and Telsche died of cancer aged 33. As a child, she had nearly drowned in a pond in Hampshire, but her father breathed the life back into her.
A river runs all through his life. Even in Point Blank, Walker is seen like a dolphin playing in huge waves with his wife, and then the wounded man staggers into the water off Alcatraz, dying or escaping. In Deliverance, the river holds the secrets of what happened and from which an upraised arm may appear in nightmares (or wait for Excalibur – the myths mingle in Boorman’s current). In Hope and Glory, it is the calmer Thames, green and brown, that sustains childhood against war and family mishap. And in the last film he directed, Queen and Country (2014), the young hero ends by plunging into the river and swimming to his sister. So in the last hundred pages of Conclusions, the water runs, the trees flutter and the children come and go, along with the stories of great wives and friends who have died. If you live in the darkness of the cinema and are uneasy with other lights, the conclusion of Conclusions may surprise you and expose you to your limits. Go with the flow: those final pages are as good, as personal and as wayward as anything this exceptional man has done.