by Lee Purvey
When John Boorman released Hope and Glory in 1987, audiences were taken aback by the unusually playful tone the director took to his war story. Following the gritty realism of post-Vietnam war dramas like Platoon, Das Boot, and The Deer Hunter, Boorman’s humorous and innocent story--based on his own experiences as a child during “the Blitz,” Germany’s bombardment of the United Kingdom during World War II--gave a new vocabulary to war cinema. The movie’s conclusion found its 10-year-old protagonist frolicking in the ruins of his school, following its destruction by a German bomb.
Director: John Boorman
Producers: John Boorman, Kieran Corrigan
Writer: John Boorman
Cinematographer: Seamus Deasy
Editor: Ron Davis
Music: Stephen McKeon
Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Pat Shortt, David Thewlis, Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Kirby, Tamsin Egerton, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Miriam Rizea, Sinéad Cusack, David Hayman
Premiere: May 20, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 18, 2015
US Distributor: BBC Worldwide North America
Nearly 30 years after that film was released, Boorman has made a sequel to his classic. Queen and Country picks up some eight years after Hope and Glory, again returning to a war story with more nostalgia than tragedy.
We’re reacquainted with Hope and Glory’s Bill Rohan (now played by Callum Turner) in his waning adolescence, conscripted to two years of military service during the Korean War. For reasons not altogether clear, however, Bill and his best friend Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones) are never shipped off to Korea, instead remaining in boot camp to teach recruits how to type.
Diverted from true war drama, Queen and Country reveals itself to be what might be termed an “institutional comedy,” in the vein of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Cool Hand Luke, or its most obvious predecessor Catch-22.
Bill is a free spirit and romantic, pursuing an alluring older woman on break from her studies at Oxford University following a nervous breakdown. Against his persistent efforts, Ophelia--as Bill calls her, never learning her true name--is romantically interested in another man, having no interest in “kind men, who give their soul and offer oceans of sympathy.” It’s the type of heart-wrenching double bind peculiar to adolescence: the young man yearns for a sincere loving relationship with a woman, only to find women drawn to a withholding love. It’s also not the easiest situation to dramatize, leading one to a painful, ugly lesson only instilled by the passage of a great sum of time. The film’s climax--if it can be called such--finds this storyline fading into the past, like so many memories.
Landry Jones’ character is another we’ve seen before, the erratic but lovable broken soldier--a wild and beautiful animal driven to hysterics by its cage. Like Christopher Walken’s Nick in The Deer Hunter or Audie Murphy in The Red Badge of Courage, Landry Jones imbues the antagonistic soldier with a powerful sensual energy (a friend of this critic described Percy as “like Jack Nicholson on MDMA” [redundancy sic]).
Percy’s loose cannon antics provide the script’s main drama, as the two friends embark on a series of comical attempts to undermine the Kafkaesque tyranny of their superiors, including an emotionally unstable officer (David Thewlis) with an obsessive-compulsive relationship with military procedure. Along the way, the film touches on themes and episodes related to male virginity, female empowerment, and parental infidelity, all rendered according to a clumsy if effective romantic narrative mode, full of too-obvious dialogue and Big Emotion at every turn. Melodramatic, certainly, but melodramatic in--perhaps a little oxymoronically--a wholly authentic way.
The theme throughout, then, is youth, to put it simply: the energy and conviction and doubt that arises simply by virtue of being young and creative and alive in a time and place, a theme Boorman tries to meaningfully tie to his own postwar generation with little success.
Indeed, despite its allegorical ambitions, Queen and Country might find a more appropriate antecedent in the coming of age stories of American teen comedy than the social critical harangues one typically associates with war on film. Indeed, Bill Rohan is much more Lloyd Dobler or--why not?--Mason Evans Jr. than he is Captain Yossarian or Benjamin Willard. What carries the viewer through countless dead-end plots, flat characters, and cheesy PBS narrative shtick is the utter sincerity at the heart of its story, its singular autobiographical yearning--to set one’s story down honestly, perhaps to live it again.
“It took me years before I was able to open my heart with this kind of honesty,” the New York Times quoted Boorman as saying of Hope and Glory in 1988. “Now I think I have the confidence to expose my emotions in film.” Queen and Country is a bright affirmation of the now 82-year-old auteur’s promise.