Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The General's General

By Chris Herrington

APRIL 12, 1999:  There is a tension between commercial aspirations and artistic impulses in the films of British director John Boorman. His movies are, for the most part, large-scale art films that also seek to function as mainstream entertainments (think of L.A. Confidential and The Thin Red Line as recent examples of this kind of movie). This type of film is risky to make, as it often has difficulty garnering the audiences that the budget and ambition demand. Accordingly, Boorman’s filmography is an uneven mix of successes (Deliverance, Hope and Glory) and failures (Zardoz, Exorcist II: The Heretic) – a catalog of commercial unreliability and artistic unpredictability.

Boorman’s latest film, The General, opens in Memphis later this month. An entertaining, accessible Irish gangster film, it is one of Boorman’s best, but due to a number of factors (lackluster marketing, black-and-white cinematography, lack of starpower), it too is struggling to find an audience. The General is a fictionalized account of real-life Irish criminal Martin Cahill, known as “The General,” who stole more than $60 million during a string of daring robberies in the Eighties. Cahill openly flaunted the authorities and became a sort of folk hero in Ireland during his lifetime. In 1994, he was assassinated by the IRA for refusing to share the earnings from one of his largest heists.

The movie opens with Cahill’s assassination – gunned down in his car in front of his suburban home – and then traces, through flashbacks, Cahill’s journey to that point. Showing Cahill’s ultimate fate at the beginning lends the rest of the film a tragic, mythic air. It’s similar to Point Blank (1967), Boorman’s best film, where Lee Marvin’s Walker is shot and left for dead by his criminal partner and wife, and the film’s narrative keeps circling back to this defining event. Knowledge of Cahill’s fate informs our reactions. We notice hints of self-destructiveness and paranoia, his growing insistence on pushing events further than they need to go, the way one act of violence or treachery begets another.

Flashbacks reveal the young Cahill (played by Eamon Owens) and his formative years in Dublin’s hardscrabble Hollyfield neighborhood, where his larcenous skills are honed through economic necessity. Cahill grows from a child stealing food for his family to an expert cat burglar, always one step ahead of police inspector Ned Kenny (Jon Voight). Played by Brendan Gleeson (I Went Down, Braveheart) in an outstanding performance, the adult Cahill seems an unlikely figure of adoration (and Gleeson an unlikely movie star) – a balding, pudgy, pasty, socially inept bloke. He’s a fish out of water in the “legitimate” world, and the only political dimension to his crimes is a total distrust of all kinds of authority: He equates the police, Church, and IRA all as impingements on his personal liberty.

The General is both entranced by Cahill’s outsized persona and critical of his actions. Charming, clever, flamboyant, Cahill clearly wants to be seen as a hero to his neighbors, even as he moves from his old neighborhood to a posh Dublin suburb. And the film can’t help but be swept up by his arrogance and verve – the way he tears through the streets of Dublin on his Harley, openly flouting the police. But there’s a realization that Cahill’s exploits are essentially selfish as well. During one interrogation, police inspector Kenny recognizes and becomes offended by Cahill’s self-appointed role: “Robin Hood is it?” he spits. “You scumbag.”

Boorman’s protagonist is both hero and villain. Cahill is a murky, not entirely sympathetic figure. He treats his gang fairly and equally divides their “earnings,” and he’s good with his family, but he’s also paranoid, misguided, and brutal. When he suspects a member of his gang of stealing, he nails the man’s hands to a pool table and is unapologetic when he discovers he’s got the wrong guy.

Cahill, who lives in a contented menage a trois with his wife and her sister (and fathers children with both) and who lords over his tight-knit gang, is a sort of tribal chieftain. The notion of a gang as tribal culture in opposition to the complexities of modern society is central to gangster/Mafia movies from The Godfather on down, and Cahill’s antagonism toward the state, Church, and IRA springs directly from his instinct that these outside forces are threatening his fiefdom. It’s a less direct, less obvious version of the same tribal-order-versus-modern-civilization theme that Boorman explicitly explored in his rainforest adventure epic The Emerald Forest (1985).

The General, for which he won Best Director at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, is the 65-year-old Boorman’s 15th feature film in a 25-year career. It caps a body of work that is perhaps most notable for its range. Boorman’s filmography boasts a Hawksian (as in Howard) array of genre work: There’s horror (The Exorcist II: The Heretic), sci-fi (Zardoz), fantasy (Excalibur), noir (Point Blank), action/adventure (Deliverance, Hell in the Pacific, The Emerald Forest), and family drama/comedy (Hope and Glory), not to mention several little-known documentaries. On the surface, it isn’t a very auteurist list. Someone watching a bunch of Boorman’s films might not realize they were all made by the same director, a circumstance that would be hard to imagine with, say, a John Ford or Frank Capra. But common themes do emerge.

Boorman is great with environments, so along with the conservationist themes of Deliverance and The Emerald Forest, there is a tremendous feel for physical landscapes and how man functions in them. This also comes into play in the minimalist World War II film Hell in the Pacific (1968), a kind of Robinson Crusoe tale with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as American and Japanese soldiers washed up on the same beach. And, in an odd, interesting way, Boorman’s fascination with placing men (not women, by the way) in violent opposition to their environments is perhaps most prevalent in the unforgettable Point Blank, where Marvin’s Walker sleepwalks through the urban jungle.

Another characteristic, and related, Boorman theme is that of man in conflict with society. And it’s in this respect that The General is most similar to Point Blank. If Cahill defies social conventions, Walker seems to be in an uncomprehending daze at the hierarchal structure of the criminal “organization” he’s trying to infiltrate – he’s a dead man walking who just wants to know who to shoot. Both men are outsiders, but their stances outside of “society” come to different ends. Cahill burns out, Walker fades away. The laconic, implacable, aptly named Walker backs away from violent confrontation at the end of Point Blank – he is destined, it seems, to walk those city streets for eternity, seeking a vengeance that is never quenchable. The larger-than-life Cahill, on the other hand, meets his maker with a knowing smile.


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