Exclusive interview: John Boorman talks about his new film Queen and Country
We talk to legendary British director John Boorman about Queen and Country, set during the build-up to the Korean War.
John Boorman made his name with the explosive 1967 crime drama Point Blank, and sealed his reputation five year later with the classic thriller Deliverance. His films since have included Excalibur, The General and the autobiographical Hope and Glory, which recounted Boorman’s experiences as a London schoolboy during the Blitz. We sat down with John Boorman to chat about its long-awaited sequel, Queen and Country.
RD: Queen and Country is set during the build-up to the Korean War, around ten years after the events of Hope and Glory. So the main character Bill Rowan is a bit older and starting to lose his innocence.
JB: Yes, Bill is now 18 and thrust out into the world for the first time. That period—1951 or so—was a real low point for Britain. We were still suffering from the after effects of the Second World War, and the empire was collapsing. It went very quickly, in a matter of a few years. So what underlies the film is this point of change. The old soldiers are clinging on to their vision of imperial Britain, whereas the younger ones can see that Britain is going to be just a small island off the coast of Europe in a matter of years. So it was a hinge moment.
RD: The Korean War is quite a forgotten conflict in many ways. I can’t think of many films about it.
JB: Yes, that’s true. But you don’t see any of the conflict itself—I was determined to make a film about war and the army without a shot being fired. Also, there’s never been a film about conscription before.
RD: The title of the film, like Hope and Glory, is obviously slightly ironic—this isn’t a celebration of patriotism so much as an exploration of what patriotism means, especially in a country that’s changing very quickly. One of the best scenes is when the family is watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on TV…
JB: Yes, and you’ve got all these varying views about it. The father, for example, is very patriotic, going on about the second Elizabethan age. This was the big talk of the time, the idea that Britain was going to be revived by this. Then you’ve got Bill’s roommate Percy and his sister Dawn giggling and joking. And you’ve got the grandfather saying, “They’re all Germans!”
RD: It’s significant that they’re watching it on TV, of course. This is the modern world suddenly arriving in the household, and you’ve got Bill up on the roof adjusting the aerial for the programme.
JB: It was such an important event that everyone bought a TV set, and you had to erect these huge aerials to get a reception. And then, of course, we turned into a country of television watchers!
RD: You’ve talked about the conflict between the old world and the new, which is dramatised in the character of Bradley, played by David Thewlis. But there’s a conflict within him as well, isn’t there? On the one hand he wants to be an old-fashioned, traditional disciplinarian, but there’s also a lot of suppressed trauma within him.
JB: He was based on someone who was very much like that. In fact, when I was shooting the film and David came onto the set, I got this frisson of fear—my memory of this character loomed so large, this whole idea of obeying every rule to the letter, keeping everything together and feeling threatening by every breach. He’s single-handedly trying to hold the empire together, in a way, and of course he can’t. He falls apart by the end of the film.
RD: There’s also a good streak of humour that runs through the film, particularly the section about the theft of the regimental clock by some of the rebellious troops. That’s almost like a little self-contained sketch.
JB: Again, the clock a symbol of the whole regiment, something that’s been given to them by Queen Victoria. It’s all part of that imperial identity, and the fact that it’s stolen brings the regiment to a halt.
RD: The Bill Rowan character is often described as your alter ego, but is that how you see him?
JB: Well, he’s very close to me in the sense that what he witnesses is what I witnessed. I also came from this rather dreamlike background and was forced to face up to the real world.
RD: I don’t want to give away the ending, but the final scene hints at the next chapter in Bill’s life. Are there any plans for a future installment?
JB: Well, I was originally going to do a film prior to Hope and Glory focusing on my mother and her three sisters. My grandfather had this gin palace on the Isle of Dogs on the River Thames, and during the First World War the German zeppelins followed the course of the river and dropped their bombs, so my grandfather evacuated his four daughters to Pharaoh’s Island. You must remember that a million men died in the First World War and left a lot of women who never got married. My mother and her sisters were a bit younger than that, but they were flappers in the Twenties and got into all sorts of trouble. So I was going to tell their story—it seemed to work very well with Hope and Glory.
RD: You were seen as an enfant terrible in the Sixties and Seventies, but do you feel more embraced by the British establishment these days?
JB: I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable in this country. When I went to America, it was such a relief. In England, everyone starts by saying no—there’s all this negatively, and also the class system. When I worked for the BBC, for instance, I was the first staff producer who hadn’t been to university. I was sort of regarded as a barbarian at the gates. I did have supporters at the BBC such as Huw Wheldon, but generally I was resented. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with the English.
RD: It’s been nearly ten years since your last film The Tiger’s Tail. Why the long gap?
JB: Well, like most directors I’ve spend more time on films I haven’t made than those I have. So during that time I was trying to do a rather large project about the Emperor Hadrian—I spent about two years on that, and in the end we didn’t get the money together to make it. I was also writing and directing radio plays. To be honest, I thought I was coming towards the end of my career with Queen and Country, which I made at the age of 80. I intended it to be my last film, which is why I put a shot at the end of the film of a camera stopping. But I’ve been encouraged by various people to do another one, so who knows?
Queen and Country is released in cinemas on June 12th.