`Hope and Glory': a director's memoir. The London blitz as seen through youngsters' eyes
In his exciting new movie, ``Hope and Glory,'' filmmaker John Boorman studies the bombing of London during the German blitz. He turns away from none of the horror and destruction that befell civilians, like him and his family, who endured it. Yet he finds ample evidence of the best human characteristics - courage, resilience, generosity, love - to justify the celebratory title of his motion picture memoir.
``Hope and Glory'' is a hopeful and glorious film. It's not always in good taste, especially when it follows the sexual experiments of its seven-year-old hero, Bill, and his teen-age sister. Some scenes also put outrageous language into the mouths of babes. Yet its characters are deeper and more decent than some of their behavior suggests, and this inner worthiness is what fascinates Mr. Boorman.
Looking at World War II from the perspective of a besieged city rather than a battlefield, ``Hope and Glory'' provides an unusual view of wartime destruction. Much of the mayhem is caused by German planes dropping murderous bombs on ordinary streets, houses, and civilians. But much is also caused by civilians themselves.
They include young Bill and his preteen pals, whose favorite sport is entering bombed-out houses and gleefully smashing every unbroken item they can find.
Why do they do this? One might say wartime has bred an atmosphere of wanton destructiveness.
Looking at the film, though, one finds an unexpected sense of liberation in their childish acts. Instead of moaning and mourning when bombs create new piles of rubble, Bill and his friends turn them into playgrounds - heedlessly expressing their exuberance at being alive and well despite the worst their enemies can inflict on them.
Although it contains sentimental and even corny scenes, ``Hope and Glory'' is not filmed through rose-colored lenses. The grown-ups in Bill's life have enough difficulties to propel any drama, quite apart from the war that's going on. His father is embarrassed by having a noncombat job. His mother has realized that she married the wrong man. His sister is promiscuous. His grandfather is a curmudgeon. And so on, right through the family album.
Yet all these flawed people are warm, caring, and decent in their inmost hearts, where their worth is finally measured. They stand by each other steadfastly; they keep difficult secrets to spare one another's feelings; they show bravery in domestic crises as well as in air raids. ``Hope and Glory'' celebrates not only survival in wartime but the endurance of family values, in the best and deepest sense. A handsome book version of the screenplay has just been published by Faber & Faber to coincide with the movie's release.
Boorman visited here recently to present his movie at the New York Film Festival, and I took the opportunity to interview him. He assured me that ``Hope and Glory'' faithfully reflects his own memories of the blitz, which had a positive side, in his view. ``After an air raid,'' he says, ``people would feel an exhilaration about being alive, having survived it. There was a determination to live life to the full.
``This led to a lot of reckless behavior,'' he adds with a rueful smile, ``but there was a ... comradeship that was very strong [and] a sense of having charmed lives. You could aim bombs at us but you couldn't hit us! And there was a very personal aspect for me, as well. When our house burned down ... it gave me a sense that possessions and material things were very doubtful and temporary. I had an aversion, after that, to owning things.''
Boorman says a challenge in making ``Hope and Glory'' was to capture the war not as he considers it today, but through the eyes of young Bill, his alter ego.
``I wanted to make the shots look very clear and strong and vivid,'' he reports, ``because in a child's eye, everything is fresh and new.''
This led him to an insight regarding the nature of film. ``It suddenly occurred to me that when we compose shots and lighting and so forth, we're always trying to show the familiar in a fresh manner. So all good cinema somehow gives you back the innocent eye of childhood.''
Boorman is no newcomer to cinema. His films range from ``Deliverance'' and ``Zardoz'' to the more recent ``Excalibur'' and ``The Emerald Forest.''
Can recurring themes be traced through the very different movies he has made? Boorman feels there are at least two important ones.
``Perhaps the most powerful,'' he says, ``is the relationship between man and nature, and the alienation of man from nature and other creatures.... I think this is the most difficult thing we have to deal with today.'' Boorman notes that ``Hope and Glory'' has major scenes in the countryside near London, reflecting his view of harmony with nature as a healing and soothing force.
``I'm also fascinated by family life,'' he continues, ``and how it functions or doesn't function.... The family I came from had very little in the way of religion or cultural systems to sustain it. Nevertheless, even under the extraordinary pressures of war, it held together. Why?''
One answer, he says, was a ``continuity among generations'' that he felt in the influence of his grandparents. He remains a strong believer in family ties and proudly states that members of his own family - from his four grown-up daughters to his mother and aunts - have come to be ``closer and more interdependent'' than many of their contemporaries.
With its mixture of family strength and wartime horror, ``Hope and Glory'' reflects a mixture of optimism and pessimism in Boorman's own personality. ``I think I'm an optimist by nature,'' he muses, ``and yet I'm terribly pessimistic about much of what I see around me. If that sounds contradictory, it is.''
It's a contradiction he can live with, though. By way of explanation, he notes that ``Hamlet'' is a violent tragedy. ``Yet you come out in a state of exhilaration,'' he goes on. ``Shakespeare wrote it with the most pessimistic possible view of humanity ... and yet the optimism was in the act of writing it with such beauty and perception.
``That corresponds to my view that the way to redeem the world is through art. Perhaps it's possible to change the world through imagination. Perhaps the nature of evolution is that whatever we can imagine can be. Perhaps, through a sheer force of invention - of creative spirit - we can make [the world] a better place.''
Boorman's own imagination is heading in new directions these days. With his oldest daughter, he's working on a family story that draws on his observations of his children growing up. He's also developing a romantic story that may be filmed in the Soviet Union.
Both these projects have a more intimate scale than the expansive works Boorman is best known for. Asked about this, he acknowledges a change.
``I've perhaps exhausted my interest in ... big, epic storytelling,'' he says, ``and am moving toward simpler human stories. In the past I've ... hidden behind the epic canvas. You can lose yourself among those thousands of extras more easily than with a couple of characters in a room. Now ... I think it's a matter of opening my heart.''