John Boorman: Beyond Deliverance

English film director John Boorman’s high point was Deliverance, although he made some interesting films prior to and after that notable film.

Boorman came from television and his body of film work is not huge, so his name is not as well-known as his contemporaries, yet he managed to helm some riveting story of human adventure and challenge.

His second feature film was Point Blank (1967), after directing a small budget film, Having a Wild Weekend, featuring the pop group the Dave Clark Five. Elvis liked the film and spoke to Boorman about working together, although in the end, Elvis did not want to rock the boat with MGM and his management.

Sean Connery, Lee Marvin, Burt Reynolds

It’s interesting that after Point Blank, Boorman directed Hell in the Pacific, again with Lee Marvin. Between Hell in the Pacific and Deliverance, two tough, violent films, Boorman directed two lighthearted films. My impression of Boorman is as a director of gritty, violent films. After Deliverance, Boorman teamed with Sean Connery on Zardoz, a sci-fi film.

“Well, I have a different relationship with different films. When I see Point Blank again I think: ‘How on earth did I get away with that?’ And Deliverance is very compelling. The craftsmanship is good. And as for Zardoz, I don’t know what the hell it is. But I think they’re all bold films, for better or worse.” Boorman was interviewed for an issue of The Guardian in 2020.

Jon Voight, John Boorman and Burt Reynolds on Deliverance set.

Point Blank is a very violent crime drama involving sociopaths on both sides of the story. Lee Marvin is Walker, a low level thief who is double-crossed by both his wife and crime partner. Shot and left to die, Walker rebounds by taking revenge on those who betrayed him and the crime organization that ended up with his share of the theft. Point Blank is a neo-noir film, packed full of darkness, a disjointed narrative and everyone has a motive. The psychopathic lead character is the least despicable character in the film.

If this plot sounds familiar, it was remade as Payback with Mel Gibson as Walker. There are many plot similarities, but Payback has an off-kilter humor where Point Blank’s intensity was a bit over the top for a film made in 1967. Lee Marvin was the perfect choice for the steely, focused and haunting Walker. Marvin cut a swath through the 1960s, generally playing tough, unforgiving and often sadistic characters: The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Killers, The Dirty Dozen and The Professionals, in addition to the two Boorman films. Even in three comedies, Marvin played a rough, hard-drinking louse.

In Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific, Boorman used Marvin as a man with controlled rage, who had to more often think with his wits instead of a weapon. Boorman’s film often revealed his characters through their actions or reactions, not their words. He sets up the conflict and then pushes his characters to navigate the dicey challenges.

“Lee (Marvin) had just won the academy award for Cat Ballou (1965) and the studio heads at MGM approved everything he wanted to do with Point Blank, and he, in turn, deferred all of his approvals to me. I was this young, English director with carte blanche to do as I pleased. When I put it together, I had to show it to these studio executives, including Margaret Booth, who was in charge of editing at MGM, going back to Gone With The Wind (1939). Anyway, at the end of the screening they started talking about doing reshoots, they didn’t understand it at all really. She spoke up from the back of the room, “You cut one frame out of this picture over my dead body!” I had a lot of support. I was fortunate.” From an interview with Irish America.

After Zardoz, Boorman directed the sequel to The Exorcist, a job that practically no one else wanted. Boorman developed the screen story, on which the screenplay was based. Sadly for Boorman, the film that played in theaters was not that film, many revisions and edits diluted the complex metaphysical and spiritual questions in Boorman’s screen story. The studio pushed for more visual thrills. The film was re-edited after it was released, which is always a bad sign. History will generally show this as a bomb, but it has developed a cult following, even though it failed to fully present Boorman’s original vision.

Boorman’s later films, The Emerald Forest, The Tailor of Panama, Excalibur, Hope and Glory, Beyond Rangoon and Where the Heart Is, are a mixed collection of stories, big and small, but personal to Boorman. Big films carried a lot of interference from the studio; Boorman preferred the independence of making smaller films.

“Because when you’re making a film, you are trying to find the essential truth of it. You’ve got the script and the actors. But what’s underneath that, and where is it going? And all the while, the film is changing and growing around you. You’re trying to hold on to a vision, but at the same time you have to go with the flow. And that’s the way I look at trees. You plant them. Lots of them die. Some of them are eaten by other animals. And some of them survive, grow and become these great giants.” – From an interview with The Guardian

It is interesting to read interviews with filmmakers of the past because they usually say the films they made then, could not be make today, at least not in the same way. Boorman said Deliverance would to be made as a very different film. “You’d have to have a risk-assessment officer on hand at all times,” Boorman told The Guardian. “All we had was a diver with us. And he did have to go into the river and pull people out. One day Ned Beatty went down and he didn’t come up. He was gone, I don’t know, maybe two minutes or so. I always had the fear I was going to lose one of the cast.” Films today use CGI to accomplish the daring action that Boorman put his actors through, and that realism is essential to the visceral impact of Deliverance.

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