A disembodied head appears in the corner of the frame. It is strangely attired, with a bright blue headdress and painted-on facial hair, and as it bobs around the screen it drops hints about what kind of story is about to unspool, putting the viewer on high alert that something bizarre is afoot and they are taking a trip unlike any they’ve been on before. This is the opening of Zardoz, John Boorman’s sixth feature and one he embarked upon half a century ago. As he’s entering his ninth decade (his birthday is January 18th), this is a good time to look back on his career and examine his penchant for following conflicted characters on journeys of discovery, one which started with his debut.
When Boorman accepted the assignment to direct a movie starring the Dave Clark Five, all the distributors wanted was a carbon copy of A Hard Day’s Night they could rush into theaters before the British Invasion retreated. What they got was 1965’s Catch Us If You Can (released in States as Having a Wild Weekend), which cast the band as disillusioned stuntmen working on a campaign for meat with the nonsensical slogan “MEAT FOR GO!!” Its spokesmodel, the mercurial Dinah, takes a liking to Clark’s Steve and goes AWOL with him in the middle of a TV commercial shoot at a meat processing plant. Their ultimate destination is the island she’s bought on the Devon coast, but the point of the trip is Steve and Dinah’s encounters with a cross-section of Britain’s fringe-dwellers and the lyrical, wordless passages Boorman slips in along the way. However poignant, the notion that this “boy” and “girl” (as the head of Dinah’s advertising firm refers to them) have any future together is dispelled the moment they reach her “island,” which isn’t as cut off from the mainland as she believed.
Islands are central to Boorman’s first two American films, Point Blank (1967) and Hell in the Pacific (1968). The former begins and ends on Alcatraz Island, where enigmatic antihero Walker is double-crossed during a robbery at the decommissioned prison and left for dead by his partner and wife. They also leave him with a burning desire to claim the $93,000 he believes he’s owed, a bit of score settling that requires him to fly to Los Angeles and work his way up the hierarchy of The Organization, which isn’t equipped to deal with someone so ruthless and single-minded. Following Walker’s lead, Boorman skips over anything unnecessary, stripping out the genre clichés and providing star Lee Marvin with a showcase for his physicality and taciturn intimidation.
Both came in handy when they reunited for the World War II drama Hell in the Pacific, in which Marvin plays an American pilot marooned on an uncharted island with a Japanese naval captain played by Toshiro Mifune, who has more keenly developed survival skills. Like Alcatraz, their island is a virtual prison, and it isn’t until they put their differences aside – and effectively ignore the language barrier between them – that they contrive a means of escaping it and reaching some semblance of civilization, the encroachment of which spells doom for their hard-won comradeship.
The most famous journey in Boorman’s oeuvre is the canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River in 1972’s Deliverance, which is undertaken by four friends from Atlanta who get more than they bargained for out of their weekend in the country. Among their number is self-styled survivalist Lewis, but when he’s sidelined by a serious injury, the less-assured Ed has to step up to get them through the ordeal. By the time the group (which loses one member along the way) makes it back to civilization, they’ve been changed by the experience in ways they’re unable to articulate.
The clash between civilized man and his primitive nature is at the heart of 1974’s Zardoz, in which Zed, an Exterminator from the Outlands, hitches a ride inside a giant flying stone head to the rarified realm of the Eternals and upsets their carefully balanced society. The year is 2293 and Zed’s tour through the Vortex brings him into contact with subgroups of the Eternals known as Apathetics and Renegades, who seek release from the immortality they’ve been cursed with. Their search finds its echo in the quest for the Holy Grail in 1981’s Excalibur, Boorman’s mud-caked and blood-soaked rendering of Arthurian legend. In it, Boorman follows Arthur from callow youth to imperfect king, and finds parallels with Perceval’s journey from squire to knight to finder of the Grail and a dark reflection in Arthur’s bastard son Mordred’s trajectory from evil boy to would-be usurper.
Boorman’s next, 1985’s The Emerald Forest, was the first of several socially conscious films inspired by true events. Filmed in the Amazon rainforest, it’s about an American engineer who has relocated to Brazil with his family while he’s overseeing construction of a dam that has displaced some of the country’s indigenous people. When his young son Tommy is abducted by a tribe called the Invisible People, the father spends the next ten years searching for him. “You would miss these trips if you found your boy, huh?” asks the snarky journalist who goes along on his latest expedition, but even when he finds his son, now grown to maturity and known as “Tomme,” he’s so integrated into the tribe he has no interest in returning to his old life. Tomme does have to venture into the city, however, to find his father when the time comes to ask for his help.
Made a decade later, 1995’s Beyond Rangoon tells the story of an American tourist in Burma separated from her group when the military dictatorship clamps down on the pro-democracy movement in 1986. As one of the few Westerners left in the country after martial law is declared, she bears witness to the soldiers’ indiscriminate killing as she makes her way to the Thailand border with a group of fellow refugees. This is an eye-opening trip that forces her, like Ed in Deliverance, to find her inner strength.
By the time Boorman directed 2004’s In My Country, about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its atrocities were firmly in the past, but they’re brought to life by the vivid testimony of the victims and their families. These hearings, which take place all over the country, are covered by journalists both foreign and domestic, including a naive Afrikaans poet played by Juliette Binoche and a cynical Washington Post reporter played by Samuel L. Jackson, a show of star power for what would otherwise be a hard sell. One of the Commission’s slogans is “The Truth Shall Set Us Free,” but the truth can be hard to hear, especially when it’s backed up by irrefutable physical evidence.
At the end of Catch Us If You Can, Dinah’s boss reveals he found her by “trying to guess your next move and arrive at your destination before you, which I did.” Dinah can only reply, “But you missed the journey.” For Boorman, the journey is intrinsically more important than the destination. There are always other stories to tell, more quests to go on, and he rarely concludes his films on a note of finality (though there are notable exceptions to this). “I am conscious that I have left loose ends dangling,” he writes in the final chapter of his 2003 memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy, “but that just happens to be the way things are, for the real world lacks dramatic shape.”
It has been eight years since the film Boorman has called his last – 2015’s Queen & Country, his second journey into his own past after his 1987 masterpiece Hope and Glory – but he has not sat idle. He published his first novel, Crime of Passion, in 2016, and his second memoir, Conclusions, in 2020. In that book, as in Adventures of a Suburban Boy, he recounts with candor his rough-and-tumble experiences in and out of the film business. Frankly, the fact that he got to make as many features as he did – 17 in 50 years, and most of them on his own terms – is the kind of miracle of which Merlin himself would be proud.