The General is John Boorman’s gritty, factual biopic based on the life of Martin Cahill, a Dublin gangster who emerged with major notoriety in the 1980s as the mastermind of a series of audacious robberies. It is an impeccably made film, stunningly photographed in black and white, and featuring powerful performances by the entire cast.
Boorman skillfully weaves present and past, carefully establishing motivation for Cahill’s adult behaviors and painting a realistic, ultimately tortured portrait of the charismatic title character. While the somewhat Robin Hood-like aspects of Cahill’s antiestablishment nose thumbing earned him a certain esteem amongst the poor of Ireland and, as well, engage sympathies in the film audience, Boorman does not let us forget that the man was, in no uncertain terms, a ruthless and violent criminal, not beyond brutally crucifying one of his own gang members on a billiards table.
Without belaboring his points, Boorman lets us see just enough of the poverty in Dublin to understand the upsidedown moral values that emerge when people suffer deprivation. Cahill, as a teen thief, earns his mother’s love with his booty of potatoes and cigarettes. In scenes in a school dormitory, a Jesuit priest lashes bare buttocks with a belt, only to return later to pursue his pedophiliac interests. Cahill’s disdain for the church and the upper classes takes on full credibility in view of such experiences.
Early in the film, too, Boorman establishes the nearly lifelong battle of wits between Cahill and the local police inspector, a relationship that calls to mind the ruthless pursuit of Jean Valjean by Javert in Les Miserables, though Cahill was surely more culpable than Valjean. The running conflict between Cahill, played by Brendan Gleeson in one of the most fully realized screen portraits of recent years, and Inspector Ned Kenny, played by John Voight at an unexpected level of depth and subtlety, provides a firm protagonist/antagonist structure that keeps the film from turning into merely a series of heists.
In the end, both realize that the once "straight" inspector has been brought down to the unprincipled level of his quarry, even as he has haunted and harassed Cahill to a near paranoid state. Against the background of religious and class warfare that defined life in Ireland for decades (the IRA is a player here, too), no one comes out a winner.
Here is still another example of a first rate film resulting from a writer directing his own material. Boorman is a filmmaker with interesting things to say and a wide range of skills for telling us his tale. His script provides thoughtful themes and believable dialogue while his director’s eye relates the story with fresh and original visual style.