“Queen & Country”: No time for sergeant-majors

In the extremely enjoyable Queen & Country legendary English director John Boorman treads familiar ground we’ve seen in various films wherein recruits are in conflict not so much with the enemy du jour but the military brass. Queen is far lighter than Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 From Here to Eternity and Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam antiwar classic Full Metal Jacket. Like Robert Altman’s 1970 MASH, it is a humorous movie set during the Korean War era.

In addition, Queen has the wink-wink nods some filmmakers lovingly include, referencing movies in order to give shout-outs to their cinematic influences and roots. Queen‘s characters quote Bogie in 1942’s Casablanca, Clifton Webb saying, “Murder is my favorite crime” in 1944’s Laura, 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, Hitchcock flicks and so on. Boorman even visually quotes from one of his own most popular pictures, 1972’s Deliverance, with a river scene, wherein he also seems to cite Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece The Man with the Movie Camera. These insider asides are, in particular, found in French films, especially in François Truffaut’s oeuvre. Indeed, with Queen‘s semi-autobiographical allusions to anti-regimentation by regiments as well as to motion pictures, it reminded this film historian of Truffaut’s wonderful 1968 Stolen Kisses, wherein his screen self, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is in or leaving France’s armed forces.

Having said this, just because Queen‘s themes and sensibility may be familiar, it doesn’t mean that I have contempt for them. Rather, I welcome both as old friends – movie historians can never get enough of those in-the-know moving picture citations. (It makes us feel smug that we “get it.”) Plus, American and UK audiences – whose governments are endlessly at war with the world, invading this or that non-offending nation whose natural resources and the like are coveted by their ruling classes – can never get enough anti-militaristic, anti-authoritarian messages. Indeed, Queen is opening in L.A. right after the Academy Awards beat back the threat of conferring Oscar’s imprimatur upon Rory Kennedy’s odious “mockumentary” Last Days in Vietnam and on Clint “Dirty Harry” Eastwood’s American Sniper, which celebrates the psychopathology of unprovoked invasions of nations under false pretexts that did us no harm – and the atrocity of picking off 160 human beings trying to defend their country from foreign intruders who have absolutely no business being there.

In this sequel of sorts, Queen follows the writer/director’s alter ego, Bill Rohan, the child growing up during the Battle of Britain in Boorman’s 1987 Hope and Glory. A decade or so later, His/Her Majesty has embroiled the UK in the latest of those perpetual wars Britain is forever fighting, this time in Asia, which the grown-up Bill (Callum Turner, who appears in the latest screen iterations of the literary classics Frankenstein in 2015 and the 2016 mini-series War and Peace) has been drafted to fight. However, unlike MASH, Queen‘s action takes place on the home front, not in embattled Korea. (So presumably the BBC and the picture’s other producers need not worried about being hacked by Kim Jong-Un, LOL.)

The comic coming of age of Bill and his fellow conscript Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones) is complicated by being draftees and having to contend with military rules, regulations and officers. In particular, they go up against Sgt. Major Bradley, expertly portrayed by David Thewlis as one of those clueless, humorless, by-the-book, ramrod-up-the-rear-end, mirthless, mindless militaristic martinets. Richard Grant likewise excels as the aptly named Major Cross.

There are the usual hijinks and pranks committed by irrepressible youth, aimed at deflating authority figures and the hierarchy of power relations, as the irreverent conscripts confront brigadiers, brigades, the brig and courts martial and, in general, question the Cold War. During their leaves Bill and Percy pursue sexcapades, go to the movies – Bill and his girl Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton portrays the Oxford-attending blonde who is out of Bill’s league) watch Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon – and the like. Bill lives in an islet in the River Thames near Shepperton Studios and watches movies being made – which could account for Boorman’s choice of avocations.

If so, we lucky moviegoers are the better for it. Boorman’s credits are too long to list in their entirety, but highlights include the stylish 1967 thriller Point Blank and 1968’s pacifistic Hell in the Pacific. Both starred Lee Marvin; the latter was shot at one of Palau’s Rock Islands, and every Palauan of a certain age has their favorite Lee Marvin story, which usually involves lots of drinking and carousing. In any case, Hell co-starred Toshiro Mifune (who is glimpsed in Queen during the abovementioned Rashomon sequence – a sly tip of the homage hat, if ever there was one!) who is stranded on a tiny island with Marvin during WWII, and was seen as an anti-Vietnam War allegory.

Boorman went on to helm the 1972 Deliverance (which could have been subtitled “The Hillbillies are Alive with the Sound of Snorting”) with Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and who can ever forget a desperate Ned Beatty, grunting like a pig? 1985’s The Emerald Forest likewise had an environmental theme – although its “savages” were far nobler than Deliverance‘s demented hillbillies. As indicated, 1987’s Hope and Glory was Boorman’s movie memoir of growing up during the Nazi blitz of London. 1995’s Beyond Rangoon starred this year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Boyhood in this pro-human rights feature opposing Burma’s Rangoon goons. And so on.

Like Jean-Luc Godard, the 82 year old John Boorman is still going strong, but Queen & Country could, alas, be his cinematic swan song. Be that as it may, it is a well made, entertaining movie about the human spirit rising above military madness and depersonalization in a quest for love and art. It opens in Los Angeles on Feb. 27. Watch for national release.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.