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A Kind of Robin Hood Thing

March 7th, 2009 · 3 Comments

The General (1998)
Screenplay by John Boorman, based on the book by Paul Williams
Directed by John Boorman
Produced by Merlin Films/ J&M Enterainment
Running time: 124 minutes

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What the *&#! Is This About?
Emerging from his home on the southside of Dublin, Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) is shot in his driveway. Moving back in time, a young Cahill (Eamonn Owens) is chased home by police after nicking groceries for his family. Cahill’s petty robberies land the boy in a Catholic reformatory. 18 years later, he’s released from prison for his latest offense. His wife Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy) notifies him that the flat where they grew up and still live is being demolished to make way for a new development. Cahill files suit and refuses to budge, even as crews tear the building down around him. He holds out for a replacement flat in Rathmines, which prompts exasperated authorities to ask if he’d rather live closer to his own kind. “No, I’d sooner live closer to me work. All the big houses.”

Cahill supports his family of four as a burglar. When Frances urges him to buy a house, Cahill deposits $80,000 in a bank, which his men Noel (Adrian Dunbar) and Gary (Sean McGinley) promptly steal back for him. To establish an alibi while his gang is at work, Cahill hangs around the police station waiting for Inspector Kenny (Jon Voight). The cop fails to compel Cahill that there’s only one way that things can end for him if he keeps this lifestyle up. Arrested for robbing coins from an arcade, Cahill plots a heist big enough to support his family if he’s convicted, as well as humiliate the police in the process: O’Connor’s Jewelers. “Two million in gold and jewels, waitin’ for us.” So heavily fortified that even the Irish Republican Army walked away from the score, Cahill’s ingenuity results in the biggest heist in the history of Ireland.

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While Cahill fathers a child with his sister in law (Angeline Ball) – with his wife’s blessing – he also studies enough Irish penal code to win an acquittal at his highly publicized trial. Even after nailing one of his men (Eanna MacLiam) to a pool table believing he stole, loyalty in his circle remains strong to the man the press calls “The General.” When the IRA demands half of the O’Connor’s loot, Cahill refuses, “There’s nothin’ as low as robbin’ a robber!” Though he manages to stay ahead on the law, twenty-four hour police surveillance takes its toll on Cahill’s health. Stealing priceless works of art proves to be his downfall when Cahill finds a buyer in the Loyalists, sworn enemies of the IRA.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?

Wanting to make a film about contemporary Ireland, filmmaker John Boorman arrived on the tale of Martin Cahill, the infamous Dublin robber who was shot and killed by the IRA in 1994. Boorman was familiar with the exploits of the General because in 1981, Boorman’s home was burglarized. Among the objects lifted was a faux gold record the director had been presented for the soundtrack to Deliverance. He was notified that Cahill was likely responsible. Boorman recalled, “At that time, he was really just a cat burglar – he wasn’t doing any of these big things, but he was very audacious then, and provocative. The police recognized his modus vivendi, but also he always wanted to be known when he pulled off these things. He wanted the credit for them. It was also a challenge, you know: ‘Well, OK now try and prove it. I did that, now prove it.’”

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Crime reporter Paul Williams chronicled the details of Cahill’s life in his 1995 book The General. When Boorman and his producing partner Kiernan Corrigan inquired about the film rights, they discovered that producer P.J. Pettite had already scooped them up. Receptive to working together, contract negotiations dragged on for so many months that Boorman turned his attention to a film version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. He spent nine months in pre-preproduction before Paramount balked at Boorman’s $85 million budget for Narnia. He was set to direct A Simple Plan for much, much less when a dispute between producer Scott Rudin and Paramount’s financing partner scuttled that film two weeks before shooting was to begin.

Returning to Ireland, Boorman learned that Pettite was ready to sell the rights to The General. Optioning them out of his own pocket, the filmmaker discovered that a rival Cahill project already had a script and was out to financiers. In March 1997, Boorman plunged into a script of his own. With Paul Williams on hand to provide information not covered in his book, Boorman wrote, “The gang members were shadowy enough and I simply invented a group of characters and gave them the names of people in my village. Cahill himself sprung to life on the page. I had heard his voice. I knew his wiles. Frances Cahill and her sister Tina were a more difficult problem. They were not involved in criminal activities … I considered contacting them. Paul Williams advised against it. He said they would refuse contact with anyone outside their world. This was to be a fiction based on fact. The frameworks would be built of incidents that occurred. Beyond that I would rely on the truth of the imagination.”

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Finishing a first draft in three weeks, Boorman had a script – titled I Once Had A Life – and a budget ready to present to buyers May 1997 at the Cannes Film Festival. Gabriel Byrne and Gary Oldman were both suggested as potential leads, but Boorman had settled on Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson to play the General. Financiers were even more skittish about the tone of the project. Boorman recalls, “Because of the way Hollywood is, people are led to expect that the heroes are people you can root for, they’re sympathetic. When I was trying to finance the picture, Americans all said two things. One was, ‘Well, put a star in there.’ The other was, ‘Well, does he have to do these brutal things, and why does he have to die?’ They could see it as a kind of Robin Hood thing, but they didn’t want the complexity and they didn’t want the tragedy. I always said when I was making the film that this has to have a tragic dimension. If it’s not seen as a tragedy, it’s not going to work.”

Taking out bank loans in order to get production off the ground, Boorman opted to shoot The General in black & white. Apart from his stylistic preference for the dreamlike nature of black & white film stock, the director felt that an unsaturated look would give audiences safe distance from events that had transpired so recently. A casting director, a production manager and cinematographer Seamus Deasy were each hired. Soon – with a budget of $13 million USD – an eleven week shooting schedule commenced August 1997 in Dublin. In a concession to potential buyers, Boorman had agreed to shoot on color film stock so that a color version of The General could be sold to television. Theatrical prints, however, would be struck on a black and white negative. A distribution deal was at last reached with J&M Entertainment; The General would be released by Warner Bros. in the U.K. and Sony Pictures Classics in the States.

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As the film’s May 1998 release grew near, many in Ireland already had an opinion on The General. Boorman recalls, “There was something in this picture to offend everybody. The police weren’t very happy about it being made. We were nervous as to how the criminal community would take to it, or not take to it, and whether they would take action against us. It attacks the church, and the government, and corruption, and hypocrisy. So there was a lot of controversy. Then the press started to dig up victims of crimes, people who felt offended just by the act of us making the film. This was all before it came out. When it came out, all the controversy disappeared. All the bits I was being accused of, like glamorizing crime. Clearly, the film doesn’t do that. It’s a balanced picture of the guy.”

Critics greeted The General warmly upon its release in December 1998. Derek Elley, Variety: “With The General, his first feature in three years, the 65-year-old Boorman has not only come up with a pic that puts many British New Wave filmers half his age to shame in its energy and ’60s esprit, but he has poured all his love of his adopted homeland, Ireland, into a movie that says more about the rebellious Irish psyche than any heap of overtly political pictures.” Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “And he presents this film (photographed by Seamus Deasy) in such seductively beautiful black and white that it has the visual precision of a photo essay. The black and white tones (shot on color stock) are so rich that the ski masks of the burglars wind up looking like velvet.” But despite hope for Academy Awards nominations, The General never expanded beyond 41 screens and was completely ignored by the industry. It grossed only $1.2 million in the States.

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Why Should I Care?
John Boorman – who wrote, produced, directed and comes as close to being an “auteur” here as you get – has had a gloriously erratic career, celebrated for Point Blank and Deliverance, mocked by some for Zardoz and Excalibur and generally ignored for everything since the mid-1980s. He makes up for the absence with this film. The General works beautifully in so many different modes: as an independent film, cops versus robbers flick, foreign film, tragedy, social satire. It’s brilliantly acted, impeccably photographed, scored superbly well and acutely written, comically exposing the hypocrisy of various institutions in the state of Ireland and affectionately celebrating the character of the country Boorman has called home for 30 years, in the humor, intelligence and resiliency of its people. So I guess I liked it.

While Boorman does frame the cunning Cahill as something of a folk hero, The General doesn’t escape scrutiny for lining his pockets at the expense of his community. Brendan Gleeson – who became heavily in demand as a supporting player in Hollywood after this film – is so real that he made me forget Gabriel Bryne or Gary Oldman were ever suggested for the role. Boorman’s decision to shoot in black & white – the DVD features both the theatrical version and the colorized one – gives the film a noble, elegant sheen unmatched by most movies from directors far younger and supposedly more vigorous than Boorman. Irish jazz saxophonist Richie Buckley composed the sensual musical score, while Van Morrison’s “So Quiet In Here” and “It Was Once My Life” add considerable panache to an already class production.

© Joe Valdez

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Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“A Personal Account on the Making of The GeneralBy John Boorman. The General – Production Notes. Sony Pictures (1998)

“Safe haven” By Charles Taylor. Salon, 1998 December 17

“John Boorman” By Joshua Klein. A.V. Club, 1999 January 20

Tags: Based on book · Gangsters and hoodlums · Heist · Hitman · Interrogation

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Sep 14, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Love, love, love Brendan Gleeson. Haven’t seen this, but it sounds fascinating, so I added it to my queue. Thanks, Joe!

  • 2 Pat Evans // Mar 9, 2009 at 4:29 am

    For some reason this film was more or less remade in 2000 as “Ordinary Decent Criminal” starring Kevin Spacey which was nowhere near as good although it probably would have been more acceptable if I’d not seen “The General” first.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Mar 9, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: You are in for a treat. It’s not often that you get to see a great character actor cut loose as the lead in his own film. Brendan Gleeson plays the cunning clown so superbly well here. The establishment ends up looking like the buffoons. This is such a good flick.

    Patricia: Ordinary Decent Criminal was the rival Martin Cahill project from Little Bird that appears to have been retooled after John Boorman beat them into production. It never got a release in the States that I know of. Miramax apparently thought it would make more money that way. Thanks for commenting!

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