John Boorman mined his childhood memories to great acclaim in 1987’s “Hope and Glory,” which mixed humor and pathos in a story about coming of age during the Blitz.
He returns to his personal history once more with “Queen and Country,” a sequel of sorts and a reflection on his years spent as a draftee in the armed services teaching recruits how to type before they were shipped off to Korea. The picture is sort of a lyrical “No Time for Sergeants,” as Boorman’s alter-ego, rechristened Bill Rohan and played by Callum Turner, finds himself at odds with army brass, gets into mischief with his best mate by stealing the regimental clock, and must defend himself from a charge of “seducing an officer from his duty” for airing his grievances about British foreign policy.
“Queen and Country” opens in limited release on Friday. The 82-year-old Boorman, whose list of credits includes classics such as “Deliverance” and “Excalibur” as well as whiffs like “Zardoz” and “The Exorcist II: The Heretic,” spoke with Variety about the state of the modern movie business, his possible retirement and why “Birdman” is superior to “Boyhood.”
Why did you decide that it was an opportune time to make a follow-up to “Hope and Glory”?
I always had in mind to do this, but other things intervened and also the characters are so based on real people that the lawyers were a little worried when I tried to address it some years ago. Now I suppose the older characters in the film are either dead or they’re gaga and won’t sue, so it’s a good time to do it.
How autobiographical is the film?
All the incidents and the characters are factual. I was arrested and charged with seducing a soldier from the course of his duty. There was a clock which was stolen. The only little exaggeration was the Ophelia character [Rohan’s love interest in the film] wasn’t quite the handmaiden to the queen she’s depicted as being, but she was aristocratic. I cheated a little bit there because I wanted to point out the huge gap there was at that time between the classes. Alliances between a lower middle class boy like me and an an aristocratic girl like that were absolutely impossible.
The picture isn’t just concerned with class differences. It also seems to be about the generational shift taking place in England. Was that a theme you wanted to explore?
When I look back at that period it was such a point of change. After [World War II], England was such a bleak place, and the older generation, the older soldiers, were hanging on to this idea of imperial Britain and the empire, and we, the younger ones, could see that it was all over. We went from being the biggest empire in history to, in a handful of years, having that all be gone. We could see that England was going be be a very different place and, we hoped, a much better place.
We were on the cusp of that. A few years later we had “Swinging London” and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the whole art scene that exploded. Once the rigidity of the ruling class and empire had been broken, it became a much better place.
Which of your films do you like the most?
I have great affection for “Hope and Glory” because it was a film about my own family, my own time and my own experiences and, indeed, I have the same sense of affection for “Queen and Country.” I remember I saw Billy Wilder, and he had just made “Buddy Buddy,” and I said, “How is it, Billy?” He said our films are like our kids, and every time we have a kid we hope he’s going to grow up to be Einstein, but sometimes they grow up to be congenital idiots.
What did Wilder mean by that?
If you have a child who has a bit of a handicap, you have a special affection for that child. That’s true of my failures like “Zardoz” and “Leo the Last.” They didn’t do well and weren’t well received, but they’re the Cinderellas. You still love them, and it’s interesting because as time goes by, they take on a different color.
“Zardoz” has a huge following now, and Fox is doing a restoration on it, and they’re going to put out a Blu-ray. These things come around. “Zardoz” went from failure to classic without ever passing through success.
It’s amazing that “Zardoz,” which is a science-fiction film about the class system, got made by a major studio. Would that happen today?
A lot of films I made in the ’60s and ’70s probably would never get made today. It’s a much more unforgiving system.
There are still some good films around, but what I feel about the studio system is that there is always an element of fear. There’s a fear of the audience and a fear of the corporate, and this pressure to make the films clear and understandable to every idiot weakens them, and nuance and ambiguity get squeezed out.
What have you liked that you’ve seen lately?
Of course I’m voting [for the Oscars], so I’ve seen everything that’s around. I have to say that in the foreign language category, there are three films — “Timbuktu,” “Leviathan” and “Ida” — that are head and shoulders above anything in the English-speaking film world. They’re magnificent films. Daring and full of conviction.
What do you think of the films that are in the best picture race?
“Birdman” is a fascinating film, made with some of the daring that I was missing elsewhere. “Boyhood” seems to be the front-runner, it won every critics award, but I was a bit disappointed in it because the boy turned out to be rather uninteresting. His sister was much more interesting, but we don’t see much of her. All the things that boys get up to in my experience as a father, like not doing their homework and smoking and getting into fights, none of that seemed to happen to this kid.
Are you really retired?
I did intend this to be my last film. The last shot of “Queen and Country” is of an amateur camera, a windup camera that stops, and that was my little metaphor for coming to the end of my career. I’m being encouraged to do another one. If I live long enough and I’m strong enough, maybe I will.
What’s the project you’re considering making?
It’s called “Halfway House,” and it’s a story about where you go when you die and what happens to you. The conceit of the piece is you go to this place and you’re given a tape of your life and you’re required to edit it down to three hours before you can move on.