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Conclusions: Part memoir, part director’s handbook

Book review: Excalibur director John Boorman, now 87, is very much the lion in winter

Author: John Boorman
ISBN-13: 978-0571353798
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £20

Werner Herzog once stated that you can’t be a filmmaker unless you have a regular reading habit. He, along with John Boorman, might be among the last of a dying breed: the director who reads for sustenance, who is as comfortable with an 800-page Russian novel as a 90-page screenplay. In line with William Goldman’s dictum that anyone involved in the film business had better write books on the side in order to keep themselves sane, Boorman has published several titles over the past 40 years: an Emerald Forest on-set diary, a memoir (Adventures of a Suburban Boy, 2003) and even a novel, Crimes of Passion, completed in his ninth decade. He’s also the co-founder and editor of Faber’s Projections series, and his books come bearing blurbs from the likes of Banville and Auster.

Boorman, now 87, is very much the lion in winter; although he might be better described as a fox, an ambitious but independent-minded filmmaker who navigated the Hollywood herd by stealth, resulting in a career characterised by masterpieces (Point Blank, Deliverance) cult oddities (Zardoz, Excalibur) and the occasional high-profile disaster (Exorcist II: The Heretic). Conclusions, his second memoir, bears the formal prose style of the refined older man, but there’s little of your high-faluting film theory here: the aspiring auteur will learn plenty about how to light a scene, scout a location, or outwit hostile governmental agencies, among the 1,001 other practical applications required to get film in the can.

Memory pool

The most vivid material is drawn from the same memory pool that fed his autobiographical films Hope & Glory (1987) and Queen & Country (2014). Boorman was a kid of little advantage raised in the wreckage of the second World War. Obsessed with film, he worked his way from BBC studios to Hollywood lots, rapidly ascending through the 1970s social strata, establishing himself among the Wicklow Anglo-Irish set, the various Guinnesses, McGuinesses and Brownes who made Luggala their bohemian Shangri-La. Boorman’s Excalibur, part visionary epic and part ludicrous fantasia, is a cornerstone of Irish cinema’s creation myth.

Among other things, Conclusions reminds us that present-day artists are denied the kind of social mobility that was once available to the post-war arts lab generation, the secondary modern schools that were the legacy of Clement Attlee’s short-lived Labour government. “…for the first time every child was taught something of music and art,” Boorman remembers. “Those kids grew up to be the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, part of the cultural explosion of the 1960s. None of these heroes came out of Eton. Before that time you either went to a grammar school and studied Latin and Greek, or you learnt a craft. What a pity Attlee’s reforming government was not bolder. Had they swept away Eton, Harrow and all the other private schools that entrenched the ruling class, what a great difference it would have made.”


The point is made without rancour, but for all his love of the finer things, the self-made Boorman can still kindle a kind of polite contempt for the entitled toff.

Griefs and endings

Part anecdote-driven autobiography, part director’s handbook, Conclusions is an unruly piece of work. Boorman doesn’t give much of a damn for conventional structure: if he feels like throwing in 20 pages of illustrated poems, he will. But it is possible for a work to be digressive and untidy while remaining perfectly absorbing, full of substance and wisdom. The book’s title might refer as much to griefs and endings (the death of Boorman’s daughter, the dissolution of two marriages, the passing of friends and contemporaries) as any final verdict. But with losses come consolations, most notably a profound sense of wonder at the workings of nature itself.

“As I approach the end of my life and observe my progressive decrepitude, I enjoy an ease, and occasionally enlightenment, which comes from no longer having to defend a belief to myself – the Christianity I was born to, the humanism I adopted, and my seduction to the animism of the tribe I lived with in the Amazon. The ease comes from not having to struggle with the awkward contradictions that belief systems throw up. When I am alone with silence, I become aware of the empty room that God used to occupy. If I listen carefully in that empty room, I can sometimes hear water dripping, then flowing, and occasionally the roar of the deluge... I sought to conquer. I spent my life swimming upstream; now I go with the flow.”

Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber). He performs and records as Cursed Murphy: his latest single is This Cursed Earth