I wrote here about Linklater’s Before . . . films, which examined two lives in more or less real time, covering 18 years in three separate films. And Fabrizio wrote here about Gett, the third film in a trilogy dealing with a deteriorating marital relationship between an Israeli husband and wife. Those three films were made over a ten year period and portrayed fifteen years in the relationship.
John Boorman has worked in similar terrain. His film Hope and Glory (1987) was a lovely and heartfelt memoir of what it was like for him to grow up during the Blitz in London. In 2014, 24 years later, he released Queen and Country, another memoir-film. This one takes place about a decade after most of the goings-on in Hope and Glory, with the Boorman stand-in character, Bill, now in training for the Korean conflict. Same person; vastly different world.
Hope and Glory was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and was a critical favorite. It grossed about $10M in the US, too, which is pretty good for a high-minded and somewhat, shall we say, idiosyncratic Brit film. Queen and Country got quite good reviews too, but it has been bloody hard to find. It grossed about $32,000 in the US, which is to say it showed on a screen or two and that was that. I had to wait till last week for it to show up as a new acquisition at my library, which is where I finally found it.
I really got caught up in the enchanting world Boorman recalled/invented in Hope and Glory. If you’ve seen it, you’ll recall what makes it special: it’s the story of the Blitz through the eyes of a nine year old boy. War, in this telling, is exhilarating, fun, liberating, growth-inducing and only intermittently terrifying. And even then kind of fun.
Boorman gives himself over quite fully to his younger self in the film, and you see things as a nine year old would see them–that is to say, Bill is probably not a reliable narrator as his memories include doses of magical realism and probable false memory here and there, in the way of a nine year old kid.
It’s not enough that his dad leaves home to sign on to military duty–Bill remembers it as his father and two compatriots marching grandly down the street, arms swinging and heels click-click-clicking like . . .
well, like Lee Marvin’s heels at the beginning of Boorman’s Point Blank.
Boorman portrays his younger self as fairly passive, as someone to whom things happen more than as a boy of action. That’s clear from the first frames, as Boorman himself, in a voice over, indicates that Bill held a clear preference for the “real life” of film over the talk-talk of daily life. Hopalong Cassidy was, for Boorman/Bill, the real thing.
Bill mainly drifts through the Blitz, observing more than doing. He tends to be less interested in what is actually happening than he is in his own interior world. As Churchill comes on the radio to announce Britain is at war, Bill is off in the garden with his tin knights . . .
and, presaging Excalibur, his tin Merlin too.
When the gang he offhandedly joins convinces a slightly older girl to let them look down her bloomers, it is only Bill that hangs back.
Despite Bill’s reticence in most things, and in most things sexual, he has a soft spot, or maybe even a hard one, for his fifteen year old sister. The tale is told through Bill’s eyes, and so it is telling that otherwise shy Bill seems fully aware, and quite engaged, with his sister’s more-than-budding sexuality. Here he is drawing a line up his sister’s leg so that she can go to the dance looking as though she is wearing silk stockings. Higher, she says (or he recalls).
And here he is in a department store, “accidentally” stumbling into a gaggle of half-dressed young girls that includes his sister. All of them toy with him but it is his sister that smothers him with kisses, at least in memory.
Bill may be the tofu of the dish soaking up the flavors of others but he is a charming lad. And the world around him–which is to say the world Boorman remembers–is charming too.
What happens though to the narrative when the shy youth reaches early adulthood? The nine-year old’s recollections may have a magical quality owing to the particular age of the narrator. But the recollections of the same person aged 10 years may come across as diffident. And indeed when we meet up with Bill again in Queen and Country he still has a good deal of the reserved quality of his younger self, the child being father to the man and all that. And yes, at least for me a good part of the charm was missing. It was just not as magical seeing things through the eyes of a nineteen year old. When he acts as observer in the second film–as he does in an extended series of riffs about a stolen clock–the joke seems stale and you wonder why he is mostly standing around watching.
Usually the actual events of someone’s life do not make good drama. They are too random and don’t line up with narrative convention. We may try to infuse such events with drama since life imitates art but the events themselves often don’t cohere. Boorman’s first wandered but its magic was its saving grace.
He does get the girl, however. On the left, his sister with her Army beau, in Hope and Glory. On the right, Bill and his sis, Queen and Country.