The fisher king

Adventures of a Suburban Boy

John Boorman <em>Faber & Faber, 314pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0571216951

A river runs through it. Or so the film director John Boorman would have us believe. At the age of 16, after camping overnight on Runnymede, near the river, he awoke to find himself in some sort of communion with the place where Magna Carta was signed. The experience at Runnymede, says Boorman, "sent me searching for images, through cinema, to try and recapture what I knew that day". Clearly, the man who directed the 1981 film Excalibur has been more greatly affected by Le Morte d'Arthur than any of his fans (among whom I count myself) has hitherto suspected: this autobiography stops just short of suggesting that, having fallen asleep beside a lake, he awoke to see an arm in the midst of the water, clothed in white samite, that held not a sword but well, an Academy award, or perhaps an Arriflex viewfinder.

It cannot be denied that rivers play an important part in Boorman's films (see Point Blank, 1967; Deliverance, 1972; Excalibur; and The Emerald Forest, 1985), in the same way that trains were important to David Lean, but he claims too much for his febrile adolescent experience. Epiphany is one thing. Twaddle is quite another. I enjoyed this book very much and have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who is interested in film-making, but Adventures of a Suburban Boy suffers from the same faults as Boorman's cinematic oeuvre: there are occasions when it tends to affect a grandiloquence that has me wincing.

For example, there is this vivid, but also somehow pretentious, passage in which Boorman describes how, as a boy, he accidentally shot a kingfisher with an airgun: "I rowed over to it, picked it up, tried to revive it, prayed to all my gods and both religions, but it soon died. I was consumed with shame and remorse. I had killed the spirit of the river, god's messenger: the kingfisher." That's OK, just about; but then Boorman goes right off the deep end: "Something broke in me. I became the Fisher King whose wound would not heal until the grail was found and the harmony restored."

Reading this sort of stuff, it is easy to see how he could have made a dreadful film like Zardoz (1974) - a piece of dystopian storytelling that has one of the most laughable final sequences in cinema. Holding hands and facing the camera, Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling age and die in a matter of seconds, then turn into a pair of skeletons (preposterously, still holding hands), all to the sound of the allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Nevertheless, as with Point Blank and Deliverance, there is also much to admire in Boorman's book. The best chapters are those that deal with his enduring friendship with Lee Marvin; the production difficulties Boorman encountered making Exorcist II: the heretic (1977); and the making of Deliverance. Deliverance is one of the best horror films ever made, and was nominated for three Oscars. It would surely have won something had it not been up against The Godfather, which naturally swept the boards.

Boorman, now aged 70, left school at 18 to run his own dry-cleaning business - which, fortunately, he was obliged to abandon for national service. After the army he worked for ITN as an assistant editor and gradually worked his way up through the ranks until he was making documentaries for Huw Wheldon at the BBC. His first feature was Catch Us If You Can (1965), about the Dave Clark Five, an eminently forgettable Beatles-clone band fronted by a grinning drummer. Hard to believe that the film critic Pauline Kael liked it so much. The film retains a certain period interest but even so, Boorman was probably lucky to have become a "British" film director at a time when everything British was the acme of fashionability. He was one of several directors working in Britain - Joseph Losey, John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz - who were recruited by Dick Lester to form a co-operative, a scheme that sadly foundered upon United Artists' dislike of Richardson.

Boorman describes the heady glamour of what now seems a golden time for British film-makers: "We felt on the brink of a brave new world. British films had freshness and vigour, and above all confidence. It was the place to be. The Hollywood studios competed for the talent. American producers took up residence."

Would that any of this were still true today. It seems unlikely, so long as America remains the best place to raise film finance, that those heady times will come again. Boorman describes his final conversation with David Lean, who says: "Haven't we been lucky, John? They let us make movies." Perhaps the most revealing thing in this book is Boorman's answer: "They tried to stop us."

Well, of course they did. Filtering the rejects is the more important function, because film is such a risky business, as duds like Zardoz have proved again and again. The great thing about the film business, and where it can be exploited, is that nobody really knows anything. David Lean seemed to recognise this even if Boorman does not. "Yes," says Lean, "but we fooled them."

Fooling them is what the movie-making business is all about.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Scrap privatisation now