Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
In 1987 John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank) gave us the sweet, funny and happily (as well as sadly) nostalgic Hope and Glory, the autobiographical journey of Bill Rohan, a young lad growing up in London during the Blitz and his subsequent adventures when moved out to the country for safety. One of the strangest and most delightful aspects of Boorman’s picture was how it focused on a boy and his chums discovering that their bombed-out city had been transformed into one big playground. Tempering this were the more sobering realities of life, love, family and yes, even the realities of war, seen through a child’s eyes.
It’s now 25 years later that the 82-year-old Boorman delivers a sequel, Queen and Country. Bill (Callum Turner) is now a young man and he’s been called up for two years of mandatory military service to dear old Blighty. Much to the chagrin of the regiment’s commanding officer (Richard E. Grant), Bill forms a veritable Dynamic Duo with his cheeky, irreverent chum Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones), and the lads wreak considerable havoc in the barracks, from basic training through to the end of their short military careers.
The lads’ chief nemesis is the humourless, mean-spirited, borderline psychotic Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), who proves to be the bane of their existence. But the boys turn those tables quite handily and indeed become the even bigger bane of Bradley’s existence – pilfering the beloved regiment clock, ignoring protocol during typing lessons (YES! Typing lessons!) and eventually using ‘the book’ to gain an upper hand over their superiors.
The humour and events are mostly of the gentle and good-natured variety, from Bill courting Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a beautiful icequeen with a dark secret, to Percy wooing Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), Bill’s sexy sister, during a happy leave in the country, where the entire Rohan family joins in the thrill of unboxing a television set, madly attempting to get the roof-antenna reception just right and gathering round the flickering, monochrome cathode-ray images that capture the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth.
There is darkness to Boorman’s tale, however, and though our characters are far away from the explosive Hope and Glory rubble of the Blitz, the very real and scary prospect of being called up for active duty in Korea looms large. The horror of war also creeps into the character of Bradley, when eventually the shenanigans perpetrated upon him reveal why his mask might not be as firmly affixed as everyone thinks.
The final third of the film is imbued with one emotional wallop after another, including a court martial, harrowing trips to a veterans’ hospital, military prison and finally a very sweet and deeply moving tribute to both love and cinema.
Queen and Country is a lovely, elegiac capper to the long, illustrious career of a grand old man of the movies. That said, I desperately hope Mr Boorman has it in him to produce one final installment in the early life of Bill Rohan. We’ve been treated to the Blitz and post-war England, and I do think an excursion into the Swinging 60s is in order.
And now, my brief, but lovely, conversation with this great man whose lifetime of films have delivered so much to the art of cinema.
* * *
Greg Klymkiw: I was tremendously moved by Queen and Country, and not only because it continues the adventures of Bill Rohan from Hope and Glory, a film that was very special to me when it was first released. It has, in fact, continued to resonate within me as a film that fueled memories of my own childhood, at a time that was 20+ years after the events of the film. As a child growing up in Canada, which, in the early 60s, was still very much the Dominion of Canada, I recalled feeling a kinship with the Queen and England, but also World War II, which Canada participated in, both as its own entity, and also as a subject of the Crown. The war did not, at least in early childhood, seem that far away. As a young man in my early 20s, Hope and Glory plunged me back to the early 60s, rekindling the odd feelings of how war, as a kid, seemed, well, fun. But, interestingly, because the new film focuses upon Bill at an age I myself was when I first saw Hope and Glory, I was able to respond this time on a similarly strangely nostalgic level. Seeing Bill’s character in Queen and Country, not only did I relate to his sense of fun and irreverence, but, most importantly, his questioning of authority during the 1950s was not unlike my own experience as a young man during the 1980s. Authority? Conformity? Be damned, will you! It’s strange how everything old becomes new again. Post-war must have been a huge time of change, as I feel now about the 1980s, what with the era of Reagan and Thatcher.
John Boorman: Well thank you. That makes me very happy to hear when people respond so positively and personally to the film.
I respond that way not just to Queen and Country, but all of your films. From Having a Wild Weekend onwards, I feel like I’ve grown up from childhood to middle age with all of your work.
That’s so kind of you to say. I also appreciate your thoughts regarding the periods in which both of the Bill Rohan films are set. With Queen and Country, it’s set during a time of great change. After two world wars, England was completely broke, so heavily bombed that massive reconstruction needed to take place. Churchill was tossed out and the Labour Party came into power. It was a very reforming government.
Well, of course, my only experience with the postwar period comes from the movies – mostly American cinema for me, mind you. Both film noir and the strangely expressionistic melodramas of Douglas Sirk were fraught with a weird amalgam of new beginnings and ennui, though the new beginnings seemed loaded with compromise, conformity and authority.
That’s so true, and it’s fascinating how all art reflects history, all the more so with cinema.
Come to think of it, though, British cinema had its own reaction to the period, what with the Ealing comedies and their emphasis upon industry, labour relations, etc.; those weird, low-budget British noir-knock-offs that Hammer was doing, and, a bit later on, the kitchen-sink angry-young-man work. What precisely were the changes and reforms in England that populate Bill Rohan’s world in Queen and Country?
It was a time of great upheaval. These were, after all, the beginnings of the National Health Service and, very importantly, the 1947 Education Act, which positively transformed the youngest of that generation in ways that yielded genuine personal exploration. Up until that time it was grammar school or being shunted into a trade, but now, every child was taught music, literature beyond mere grammar and, of course, art. When you pitch all that forward, those kids in the postwar period who started to learn so many new things, as well as the emphasis on personal expression, those same kids in the 60s became The Beatles.
Ah yes, and in Queen and Country we find young Bill in the middle, burrowed deeply between the early reforms and, uh, The Beatles. He’s got the benefits of reform, but is smack up against authority, just before things explode for his generation.
The monarchy played an odd role in Canada during the early 60s and certainly, to this day, we are still, at least on paper, subjects of the Queen. My Lord, we still have pockets of die-hard monarchists occasionally rearing their heads in the strangest enclaves here and there across our Dominion.
Yes, I’ve never understood how or why certain progressive countries within the former Commonwealth, like Canada and Australia, held on to the traditions of the monarchy, if only in name only.
I’ve always felt like the monarchy became an especially important thing for the middle class in England. Certainly Queen and Country places a fair degree of emphasis upon the backdrop of royalty. There is, of course, the whole gentle set-piece revolving around the king’s death and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
Oh yes, the scene where the family is watching the coronation certainly captures the generational differences. Though Bill’s father is a loyalist, Grandpa pooh-poohs the whole thing and Bill is somewhat indifferent, save for feeling that there’s no real context for the monarchy in the modern world.
I loved the scene where the whole family rallies together to set up the new television and the complex machinations of getting the antenna just right to receive the best reception.
People responded emotionally to a young queen, though most of the younger people at the time were opposed to the aristocracy and wanted it all to be swept away.
And yet, the monarchy survives.
It’s only survived because Elizabeth has been on the throne for 63 years and through sheer longevity has kept the whole thing afloat. There’s no place for it in the modern world. The objections of those earlier generations probably didn’t go far enough. We should have gotten rid of the aristocracy.
Privilege continues, as does the aristocracy. We’ve never been able to make it disappear. As for class, money has taken over from class.
The character in Queen and Country who fascinated me was Bradley, the antagonistic force played by David Thewlis. He’s a stiff-upper-lip, strict rule of the law, by-the-book military man, and though he refuses to buckle under, I kept sensing a considerable degree of humanity in him – so much so that I often pined for even just a moment when his shell might crack and allow him to connect with Bill’s character.
Bradley is based on a real-life person who was very much like that. David is a remarkable actor. Given the autobiographical nature of the film, I was still able to maintain a certain degree of objectivity and quite successfully separate myself from the events and characters I was shooting. In the case of Bradley, though, David managed to reproduce this person he himself had never met, so that every single time he came on set I got a frisson of fear from this actor, this beautiful man who is normally one of the sweetest, kindest and gentlest of men. What David accomplished seems to go beyond acting.
Of course I suspect my need to experience a shell cracking in Bradley to allow him even a solitary moment to acknowledge Bill is rooted in my own occasional desire to give way to clichéd and/or sentimental elements of storytelling, but as frightening as Bradley is, this tiny part of me was almost pleading with him, ‘Please, crack, just a bit. Let in some sunshine, please!’
[Laughing] I understand completely. That’s David Thewlis, though. When David is, for example, looking at the flag after the king has died, waiting for it to go half-mast, this is on the heels of feeling like his whole cosmos is threatened. One can understand this and the reality of it is palpable. Ah, David’s such a magnificent actor and he achieves a high degree of reality with this role.
Certainly so many of your films pulsate with a reality that seems to send us into the kind of thrilling places only movies can take us – unless of course we actually experience them for ourselves. I find the almost ‘documentary’ approach to Deliverance – real people, in real canoes on real rushing rapids – something that I can’t shake. The sense of reality Thewlis brings to his role is surely different from that, isn’t it?
Both are recreations of reality. Yes, they’re different, but it’s still achieving a reality for your audience. However, plunging into that powerful river with a skeleton crew and the reality of filming real actors on those dangerous rapids in Deliverance still doesn’t have the same effect upon me as delving into my own personal memories and putting those on film.
And your previous thoughts about maintaining objectivity in recreating dramatic renderings of your life in Queen and Country?
Maintaining objectivity is one thing and very important in presenting a dramatic work, but there’s the very reality of what one feels as a director, on set, a reality, a personal reality, that you must work hard at so it is not affecting the final outcome of what you put on film – trying to maintain balance at all times so that the drama does indeed work as such.
Other than Thewlis, was there anything else in Queen and Country that challenged this objectivity as a filmmaker?
The scene with my ‘mother’ waving to her lover from the affair she had in Hope and Glory was the only other time in the process of making Queen and Country that I was not able to maintain complete objectivity. In life and as portrayed in both films, my mother’s affair devastated me as a child, and even now those feelings of deep sadness are with me. Having to recreate that simple moment, that simple connection between the mother and her long-ago lover with a gesture as simple as a wave, was tremendously affecting to me on a personal level.
I can’t help but think, then, that all of your best work is infused with you personally. Aside from the incredible skill and craftsmanship you bring to bear, there must also be elements of who you are that affect the final outcome, yes?
I do think it occasionally manifests itself in the kinds of films I’m compelled to make, the stories I feel the need to tell. My mother’s love affair with my father’s best friend had an enormous impact upon me as a child and that certainly carries over into some of my films. Point Blank, on one level, is a brutal crime film, but on the level of character it’s driven by a similar love triangle that’s haunted me for so much of my life. Excalibur is derived from the most well-known love triangle in the narrative of Britain’s royalty, that of King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Indeed, these things in one’s own life creep in, you’re not always even aware of them as you’re ultimately in the business of creating works of imagination.
Well, Mr Boorman, I’d certainly be interested in knowing what elements of your life and indeed, your innermost soul, were roiling about within you when you chose to make Zardoz.
[Laughs heartily] Oh, indeed. We don’t want to go there.
I love that movie. For the two or so weeks it played first-run in my old hometown, I obsessively sat through multiple screenings. Lord knows, for my own sake, in conjuring what manner of psychoses roiled within me as a teenager, it is a place I certainly don’t want to go to either.
Fox brought me to Los Angeles recently and I actually supervised the colour restoration for a major home-entertainment release. I queried the Fox people on why they were going to this trouble and expense. They informed me that Zardoz has a lot of admirers and considerable interest. So here we are with a film that went from being a failure to a classic without passing through success.
Queen and Country ends with the early beginnings of Bill as a filmmaker. The final shot is both breathtaking and deeply moving.
I’m glad you responded emotionally to it. The camera stopping is my way of saying that my career as a filmmaker has stopped.
Surely not in the 50s?
[Laughs] I am, at present, 82 years old.
Well, I for one, urge you to make one more movie about Bill.
Thank you so much. We’ll see what we can do about that.
Interview by Greg Klymkiw