John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest may seem to today’s green-conscious audience to be a comparatively obvious message movie about how industrial and economic progress are at odds with the interests of the environment. But we live in an age in which environmentalism has become a P.R. bandwagon, with everyone from the smallest individual to the biggest corporation allying in efforts to “save the planet.” In truth, the planet is not what’s in need of saving. It was around long before us, and will be around long after we have either obliterated ourselves or transformed our species into something unrecognizable. Sometimes more habitable, sometimes less, sometimes not at all, the planet has nevertheless endured, pursuing its relentless course of entropy in time and space. We can’t stop, reverse, or even slow that entropy; and we cannot presume to “save” nature, for in everything we do, we are inexorably a part of it. It is in our nature to discover, invent, build, and destroy, and it is not a question of whether we can save the planet but whether we can save ourselves.
For Boorman, the motif of environmental spoliation was never the message but the metaphoric medium for his continuing vision of the human being—a curious sort of animal that has forgotten it is an animal, linked inescapably to its own nature as well as to the natures of the other creatures that surround it. The same tension between contemporary civilized men and the elemental nature they have forgotten is evident in Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), where the same metaphor was used: a dam is being created that will divert the flow of a once mighty river, simultaneously submerging a vast forest. That wilderness is what we have forgotten we are part of.
Immersion in water, a common symbol of religious awakening, is a prevailing theme in Boorman’s work. There is scarcely a Boorman film that does not have an important role for water, or a significant moment in which a human being is immersed and emerges with a new awareness. The titular sword in Excalibur is a gift from the water, and the image of an arm reaching out from under the water is a fundamental part of Boorman’s cinematic grammar.
The Emerald Forest remains today what it was in the summer of ’85—a key film in Boorman’s oeuvre, one that puts it all together, unifies the themes, images, and ideas that haunted his work from the very beginning. His fundamental vision has always been the recognition that a primitive consciousness and an inescapable spiritual and physical union with nature is alive beneath the many layers of what we call civilization.
Deliverance began with emphatic images of the modern encroaching on the primitive, then went on to grippingly depict the upsurge of the primitive against the excesses of modern construction and the softness of modern comfort. Hell in the Pacific used an idyllic Pacific island as the site of a microcosmic war between two stranded soldiers, one American, one Japanese. Zardoz juxtaposed a highly sophisticated, incurably bored intelligentsia with a rude mob of urgent, hungering primitives, and confronted the chaotic loss of control, purpose and balance that comes when intellect forgets its animal roots. In the first moments of The Emerald Forest, Bill Markham (Powers Boothe) tells his son Tommy that the roots of the ancient trees of the Amazon Rain Forest are actually very shallow, so “the bulldozers can knock ’em right over.”
In the underrated Exorcist II: The Heretic, Boorman depicted the conflict of formalized, rule-bound contemporary religion against the deeper, truer, and more physical spiritual reality of what the ancients knew. The upsurge of the primitive created not only demonic possession but the power to overcome it, and to calm contemporary anxiety. At the center of Excalibur, his luminous retelling of the Arthurian myth, Boorman placed Merlin, memorializing the one figure in literature who most perfectly combines the spirit of intellectual adventure with a fundamental recognition of the primitive, the supernatural, the magical.
Magic is, finally, the business that John Boorman is in. The “invisible people” who kidnap Tommy are described as “smiling people,” and they are small, impish, leprechaun-like. The term “Emerald Forest” might have been just a title if Boorman weren’t Irish, but here it’s hard to forget the Emerald Isle, the profound importance of the color green in Boorman’s lexicon of light, and the director’s own similarity—both physical and temperamental—to the leprechaun, a harbinger of good luck, a visionary, and a worker of mischief. And it’s no stretch to also relate the film’s title to the Emerald City of Oz, once one remembers the central role played by the Oz mythos in Zardoz. The simpler people, those closer to the elements from which we all emerged, have a harder life, but they know the secrets of a contentment and an acceptance that civilized humanity no longer enjoys.
Mind you, now, this is no simple-minded opposition of gentle Nature to crass, cruel civilized man. A primitive society is not Eden just by virtue of its being primitive; not all naked bodies are beautiful, by our standards or anyone else’s; and there is always trouble in Paradise. Boorman is not afraid to acknowledge that violence and cruelty are also part of that primordial heritage that we have forgotten. The awakening of consciousness of one’s participation in nature is accompanied by an acceptance, even an embrace, of violence—a motif found not only in Boorman but in the films of Sam Peckinpah and Terrence Malick, two other directors who consistently tie their characters to their natural environment. “Nature’s not kind,” Col. Tall tells Capt. Staros in Malick’s The Thin Red Line. “Nature is cruel.” In The Emerald Forest, the closer Bill Markham gets to the union with nature that industrial man has forgotten, the more he becomes a fighter, a commando, a saboteur. It is he who brings firearms to the forest primeval and becomes unwittingly responsible for the escalation of war between the two tribes known as the Fierce People and the Invisible People.
Far from a knee-jerk tract on how New World bulldozers ought not to be knocking at the edges of the rainforest, The Emerald Forest is a continual adventure of light, color, movement, and the getting and loss of understanding. It’s a film that shakes fundamental assumptions (even those of your most self-complacent 21st century “green” advocate) to their very roots, and whose shocks of recognition remain as new today as they did in 1985.
Robert C. Cumbow, author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, also contributed to our “Summer of ’84” series. His home base is the Seattle film blog The Parallax View, where much of his 40 years of film writing is archived.