Although John Boorman has one certified classic in his curriculum vitae – the brutal, dazzling Point Blank (1968) – he remains a largely underrated director. This is doubtless because he is such a strange, disconcerting mix of artistic and cultural impulses.
From Leo the Last (1971) to Where the Heart Is (1990), Boorman's films are all at once rattling good tales and moody contemplations, vulgar comedies and mythic dramas, paeans to nature and celebrations of all that is ephemeral and artificial. Few directors can match his craft or maintain his level of inventiveness.
Quite simply, every scene in a Boorman film simultaneously drives the story, develops the dramatic-comic themes, and provides some diverting, quintessentially cinematic spectacle. The General, a mightily impressive and beautifully shaped movie, rewards the faith of his ardent fans.
Boorman intends the film as a homage to his adopted homeland of Ireland. As usual, he has found a larger-than-life subject which freely mingles rollicking adventure with grim, social realities: the escapades of the brilliant criminal Martin Cahill, magnificently played by Brendan Gleeson.
Cahill was something of a populist hero, but he was also an odd fish – an individualist, aligned with no political faction, improvising his brilliant, life-long career as an illegal prankster purely on the basis of a gut-hatred of all authority. And – in a special boon for the film – he was as unconventional in his personal relationships as in his spontaneous social activism.
The narrative balances hilarious and thrilling set pieces – such as Cahill's robbery and stashing of a major art collection – with running plot threads that economically delineate the tensions and attractions between characters.
Paramount among these relations is the bond between Cahill and his exasperated nemesis within the police, Ned (Jon Voight). The scenes depicting Cahill as a child (Eamonn Owens) and his formative experiences are consistent on every level with what grows from them – a rare achievement in the biopic genre.
This chronicle depends more on surprise and poetic license than a strict, dutiful trawl through the documented facts – bringing it much closer to a folkloric register than a realistic one. Its spare but heightened style – involving the best use of black-and-white cinematography since Ed Wood (1994) – seems to emerge organically from the eccentric rhythms and gestures of its characters (particularly Cahill's nutty determination to keep his face covered in public).
Boorman is a master at deftly establishing for each situation a specific sense of place, creating for us a powerful apprehension of how people live, breathe and survive within their physical environments.
The General, like his all films, creates a speedy kaleidoscope of contrasting moods – prompting us to both identify with Cahill and ponder the morality and wisdom of his actions from a different, more detached perspective.
For all these reasons, The General – without once becoming didactic or schematic – manages to give a more intricate and dynamic analysis of social conditions than most self-consciously political movies on similar topics.
© Adrian Martin May 1999