Half-Metal Jacket, by Patrick Felton
I hate to admit this, but I’ve never seen a John Boorman film. Despite my love of 70s cinema, somehow the filmmaker who made some of the most loved classics of the era, including Deliverance, has slipped through the cracks.
Even without this baggage, Queen And Country feels like a legacy project. The film acts a sequel to a project often cited as a career achievement. The film contains lavish details that seem to hold deep personal power for Boorman but lack meaning in the context of an ever-evolving film landscape.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with its stately production, restrained performances, and competent direction, there’s nothing particularly interesting about it either. What makes this mediocrity so puzzling is how hard the film is trying to break out of this mold and be vital.
Ultimately, Queen And Country represents an admirable failure to break out of the trappings of prestige cinema make it hard to escape the label of vanity project.
Queen and Country is Boorman’s sequel to his 1987 autobiographic prestige hit Hope And Glory. The film opens Wednesday in New York.
Whereas Hope And Glory chronicled young Londoner Bill’s coming of age during the London air raids, Queen And Country moves ahead in time to focus on Bill (Callum Turner) in the British Army preparing for duty in the Korean War. Along the way, he befriends troublemaker Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), indulges in hijinks and girls, and gets into serious trouble with his superiors.
It’s clear that this story is very important to Boorman, and he’s coated it with a nostalgic glow. Each frame is perfectly mounted with elegant craft work. The musical score soars with the same lyrical orchestrations audiences have come to expect around awards season. Perfectly executed and competently acted, this film is made with textbook precision without anything new or interesting being added to the frame.
At odds with this aesthetic backdrop is what is ostensibly being mounted as comedy and hijinks. Bill and Percy are constantly trying to undermine the authority of their superiors, particularly in scenes in which a pompous drill sergeant is instructing new recruits on the correct way to operate a typewriter. It’s a shame that we’ve seen so many war films with the familiar saffron hues and costumes used as signifiers of prestige that they have lost all meaning.
In the midst of this gorgeous production, Boorman attempts to tread some interesting thematic territory with varying results. By keeping the film mostly away from combat, the behind the scenes view of army training becomes highly critical. Because the war itself lacks the stakes of World War II, there’s a restlessness, frustration, and outright cynicism among both recruits and supervisors which seems reminiscent of more contemporary war films such as Jarhead and Three Kings. The general thread of individual recruits challenging the authority of an entire military apparatus occasionally results in entertaining moments. The film occasionally diverts itself into almost Trarantino-esque discussions of pop culture which illustrate the lack of forcible stakes for the characters and audience.
Perhaps this is because at its heart isn’t about the glory of war: it’s a interrogation of that ethos. The film constantly places an older generation of war veterans with grandiose ideas of their own importance with a unimpressed, disrespectful generation of new recruits incredulous of the pomposity that they are being subjected to (despite the fact that Boorman’s picturesque frames seem to sympathize more with this ethos than that of the anarchist.)
Herein lies the paradox of the film: Queen and Country wants to feel important while telling a story that constantly undercuts self-seriousness and importance. It wears the genre trapping of the self-serious war film while refusing to fulfill the audience’s expectations of glory. The comedy of anarchy never catches up to the aesthetic tone of pompous stasis, often to the point that one’s not sure what is being expected of the audience.
While this dissonance could almost be seen as subversive, the pure conventionality of the filmmaking overpowers whatever thematic audacity is present. Lush production elements remain coded with the romantic seriousness that the film attempts to interrogate. Characters are never allowed to be large enough to be satirical but are often too broadly drawn to ever feel relatable.
Again, this hypocrisy continues to frustrate because Boorman so much wants this to be a critique of the godlike allegiance towards military protocol. He is pitching Percy and Bill as impish troublemakers revealing the hypocrisy and futility of a self-important ruling clash akin to Stripes or Animal House. He wants us to hate the superior officers as fascists akin to Mutiny on the Bounty or Paths of Glory.
This last point may be the true flaw: in order for an audience to enjoy individuals thumbing their noses at authority, there has to either be a likable anarchist or a compelling fascist. Whiplash works because of the ferocity of Fletcher’s sadism. We permit Bill Murray to undermine military procedure in Stripes because it’s so entertaining to watch.
Queen And Country lacks both the charming anarchists and the compelling fascists to give audiences an interest. While Callum Turner and Caleb Landry Jones both turn in fine performances, neither of them maintains the level of charisma necessary to get the audience on their side.