John Boorman finally got to make his film about Irish crime lord Martin Cahill, but it
might have taken him even longer had it not been for one crucial incident. "In 1981
he actually robbed my house," Boorman explains. Almost 20 years on, he thought it was
time to tell Cahill's story - albeit a somewhat idealised version. "His public
experiences, at the time I started reading about him, were quite extraordinary, and
despite the fact he was a gangster, he became a kind of folk hero." He waited till
after Cahill's death, "because while he was alive he was never convicted of any of
the crimes he committed, so it would have been libelous to have dealt with it. It was only
when he was shot by the IRA in 1994, that this became feasible."
"It's a story of an iconoclast,"
In a 20-year career marked by obsessive secrecy, brutality and meticulous planning,
Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) stole over 60 million dollars. Despite being Ireland's
most wanted man, he brazenly eluded capture, thumbing his nose at both the police and the
IRA, whom he despised - along with the Church and the State - as institutional authority
figures. He lived in a ménage a trois with his wife Frances and her sister Tina, siring
several children with both. While images of Cahill regularly appeared in the press, they
were always obscured, typically by Cahill's hand placed in front of his face.
Although Cahill was a legend in Ireland during his lifetime, his true identity remained
an enigma. "It's a story of an iconoclast," Boorman says, "Cahill invented
his own world, his own rules and lived by them." He comments that "the film
explores this complexity, the uniqueness of the man and the sheer exuberance of his
exploits." Boorman describes Cahill as possessing "a contempt for authority, a
rage at perceived injustice, a ferocious cunning, a sense of perpetual celebration, a dark
brutality - in fact the pagan characteristics of a Celtic chieftain. The public (and my
own) fascination with Cahill probably drew on something archetypal from the deep past, a
relish and envy for the freedom of one who dares defy the might of society."
In writing and researching the life of this uniquely brazen figure, Boorman set about
coming into contact with many who'd worked with him and his victims, "so I was slowly
able to build up this portrait of the man, and although his family refused to cooperate
with us, many others did." Yet Boorman's intent was not to make a simple biography.
"In the end, you have to rely on the truth of the imagination, and I think there's a
combination of both fact and fiction, more in the way we present him." The film may
deal with an Irish figure, but Boorman sees The General as being broader than that.
"This is the story of a man who was something of a rebel, a man who stands up against
society with enormous humour that is both Irish and appealing. He also had this unique
mixture of violence and cunning."
"Hollywood just doesn't know what to do with me - nor I
Despite it being black and white and fairly parochial, The General is one of Boorman's
most admired work in an astonishing career dating back three decades, winning his best
reviews in a decade and the Best Director prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.
Despite his worth as one of the world's pre-eminent filmmakers, Boorman still finds it
tough, he says, to find his own voice in a derivative film industry. "Hollywood just
doesn't know what to do with me - nor I with them."