The Emerald Forest [DVD]
Screenplay : Rospo Pallenberg
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1985
Stars : Powers Boothe (Bill Markham), Charley Boorman (Tommy), Meg Foster (Jean Markham), Dira Paes (Kachiri), Eduardo Conde (Werner)
In The Emerald Forest, director John Boorman returns to the untamed wilds of nature in order to spin a mythic, violent fable about humankind's environmental destructiveness.
He covered similar territory in his classic 1972 film Deliverance, but where that film succeeded with the terrible force of its brute simplicity, The Emerald Forest often falters because it tries to do too much. Deliverance was based on a short novel by a poet, and it has the kind of lean, spare intensity that characterizes much modern poetry. The Emerald Forest, on the other hand, which is loosely "based on a true story," aspires to be something larger, more like an unwieldy epic. This is the direction Boorman had been headed all throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, with his twin epic debacles Zardoz (1974) and Exorcists II: The Heretic (1977), as well as the more successful, but still cumbersome Arthurian adaptation, Excalibur (1981).
But, even if Boorman can be faulted on a narrative level, his cinematic eye almost matches his mythic aspirations. The Emerald Forest, like all of Boorman's films, is visually impressive, filled with images the power of which is hard to deny. There is one particularly heart-rending shot near the beginning of the film, when the seven-year-old son of an American engineer named Bill Markham (Powers Boothe), who is living in Brazil in order to build an enormous dam, is snatched by a native tribe who has had no contact with the outside world. Boorman brings his camera in close as Markham pushes his way through vines and leafy foliage, crying out, "Tommy, Tommy!" Then, he stops, with a look of stunned horror on his face. What does he see? we wonder. Then, Boorman's camera slowly pulls back and up, and we are shocked along with Markham to see the vast extent of the Amazonian rainforest stretching out in front of him, seemingly endless in its scope. It is a stunning moment that establishes the breadth of the wilderness that will dominate the rest of the film.
For the next 10 years, Markham dedicates all his free time to searching the Amazon for his son. Work on the dam progresses, and Markham's dogged intensity does not wane in the slightest. He learns multiple native languages and becomes an expert survivalist, as he covers territory after territory, carrying with him the feathered end of an arrow from the tribe that took his boy.
It seems that this will be what the film is about--one father's dedicated quest to retrieve his lost son. Yet, less than an hour into the film, Markham finds Tommy, now a 17-year-old (played by Charley Boorman, the director's son) who is fully integrated into the tribe that took him, known as the Invisible People. Boorman intercuts scenes of Markham's search with Tommy's life among the tribe--going on hunting trips with his adoptive father, enduring the tribal ritual into manhood, and claiming a bride in a young woman named Kachiri (Dira Paes). Boorman emphasizes the innocence and natural rhythms of the tribal life, and one would be tempted to label him a hopeless idealist if he did not counter the harmony of the Invisible People with another tribe, appropriately known as the Fierce People, who are warlike and engage in cannibalism.
Boorman's ultimate goal, though, is to indict modern civilization in destroying not only the rainforests, but the ancient ways of life where we all once lived in tribes and were closer to the natural world that we now destroy to fuel our machines. It is later revealed that all of the problems encountered by the Invisible People are directly caused by the dam project headed by Markham--the son, having returned to his mythic, native roots, is still haunted by the father's sins. The Invisible People's battles with the Fierce People come about only because the building of the dam has displaced the latter tribe. Even Markham's attempts to find his son only cause more problems, as he inadvertently leaves behind a machine gun that the Fierce People learn how to use and employ in a devastating raid on his son's tribe.
Like most of Boorman's films, The Emerald Forest becomes more and more convoluted as it draws to its climax. The Invisible People's women are stolen by the Fierce People and sold into prostitution in exchange for bullets and know-how about the machine gun. Markham finds himself aiding Tommy and the remaining men of the tribe in retrieving the women, and in the process reverses his priorities and realizes that his son is better off living the tribal life in the rain forest, rather than returning to the concrete edifices and spiritual discontents of civilization. The narrative requires him to make a major decision at the end that some may find ridiculous, even though it works within the film's thematic scope.
Even if the film largely falls apart in its second half, Boorman still manages to keep it viscerally exciting and entertaining. He stages a number of action sequences that are thrilling in their own right, especially a hunt in which Markham becomes the target of the Fierce People. The cinematography by Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, Interview With the Vampire) emphasizes the raw beauty of the Amazonian rainforest--it contrasts large, sweeping panoramas that stress its enormity with close, intimate shots of wildlife going about their routines.
There is an embedded irony of the grand aerial shots of the rainforest because they instill a sense of vastness that is countered by the always evident realization that the modern world is encroaching, cutting down thousands of acres each day. The eye can be deceiving, Boorman seems to be saying. Don't be lulled into complacency just because the wilderness seems indestructible. If the rain forest constitutes another world in which people live as they have for thousands of years, it is a world that is in imminent danger of extinction, however impossible that may seem. It is quite appropriate, in this respect, that the Invisible People refer to the line at which the forest ends and the barren, cleared space of the dam project begins as "The Edge of the World."
|The Emerald Forest DVD|
|Audio||Dolby 2.0 Surround|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailer|
|The image on this DVD is quite good throughout. Nicely framed in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the image is consistently sharp and well-rendered, although a few of the darker scenes that take place at night reveal some graininess and a noticeably softer image (this is particularly true of a dim shot early on depicting Markham and a companion paddling down a shady river). Colors are lively and well-saturated, rendering the lush, thick jungle scenery in brilliant shades of green worthy of the title. Flesh tones appear natural throughout (and, considering the limited amount of clothing worn by most of the characters, there is a lot of flesh on display).|
|Presented in Dolby 2.0 surround, the soundtrack is also notably good. The soundtrack is filled with the ambient noise of the jungle environment--wind whistling through trees, limbs swaying, animals moving through the brush--and although it would have sounded better in a 5.1 mix, the 2.0 mix is more than adequate. Brian Gascoigne and Junior Homrich's ambitious score, which mixes orchestral strains, electronic music, and human voices, sounds rich and clear. Dialogue is easily understood, even if most of it is native languages. Whenever the characters speak in native tongues, electronic English subtitles automatically appear.|
|The only supplement included is the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1).|
©2001 James Kendrick