Thursday, November 08, 2018

As We Enter The Final Phase Of The 100th Commemoration Of World War I With Armistice Day-November 11, 1918-Thoughts On The Film “King Of Hearts” (1966)

As We Enter The Final Phase Of The 100th Commemoration Of World War I With Armistice Day-November 11, 1918-Thoughts On The Film “King Of Hearts” (1966)

DVD Review

By Josh Breslin
King of Hearts, Alan Bates, Genevieve Bujold, 1966    

These days, apparently, we can no longer just go through our paces and do whatever review or commentary we were assigned but also have to comment on how and why we received the assignment from our still fairly new site manager Greg Green. Greg has encouraged, if not demanded, that we go to genesis, so the reader can be more informed about how the new field of on-line publication works with the new technology. These kinds of insights in publishing used to be reserved in the now old-fashioned hard copy days to insider memoirs by publishers, writers and editors. Greg has told me he is trying to demystify the whole process and get the story out while it is “hot” and fresh. 

That said, normally anything of late having to do with commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I would be the purview of Seth Garth who has been running a couple of series the past four years (the duration of  that war from August, 1914 on until November, 1918) around the effect that the carnage had on the flower of the European youth especially the cultural worker, the writers, artists, poets, musicians, and occasional dancers who were engaged in this conflict along with the rest of their generation. He worked, is working still, on retrospectives for the extraordinary number of cultural figured killed or maimed in the war. And of those who maimed or not survived the war and as a result produced a very different kind of work, noticeably different than either their own pre-war work or that of the leading schools and academies in the various disciplines. The reason I got this review of the classic French film King of Hearts though, even though Seth very much wanted the assignment as part of his take on World War I, was that way back when, back in 1973 if I recall I had reviewed the film for The East Bay Other. I had actually seen the film in Cambridge where it played continuously for many years at the now long-gone Central Square Cinema to usually sold-out crowds and became a local cult classic which people would have contests over how many times they had seen the film or cite various lines from the film off the cuff for fun. Greg’s idea was for me to compare that first review with my recent re-watching (along with Seth and our respective companions) and do a comparison. Genesis over here goes.         

There are many quotes, many of them by military figures who should know the hard face of war and have opinions on its futility even if they cannot go the distance and in effect become conscientious objectors to war after the fact. Famously key Union Army General U. S. Grant said “war was hell,” bemedaled Marine Corp General Smedley Butler said “war was a racket,” Colonel James Johnson said after Vietnam that war was not a fit occupation for human endeavor and those who profess otherwise should be in an insane asylum, a mental hospital, a nut house is what he actually said but I wanted to soften the blow for today’s sensibilities about the mentally challenged. That latter comment gives me a segue into the film under review where the metaphor, and the reality of that statement meet.

We have all heard about the inmates running the asylum and in this case not only are they running the asylum but are running amok, harmlessly running amok during the catastrophe of war and who is to say that they are not better off for their troubles, Certainly compared with the inmates who are running the war which has come to their door. Let’s set the stage (Sam Lowell, good old, what did one young reviewer here call him, oh yes, wizened, Sam Lowell used to harp on giving the ‘skinny” but Greg Green has frowned on that expression since none of the younger writers and stringers know what the damn thing means) for this beauty of an anti-war film which stops everybody in his or her tracks when you see the very visceral comparison between the mentally ill asylum patients in their harmless splendor and the mentally ill guys running the rack on French soil toward the end attempting to kill every last enemy and a few extra if necessary in the fog of war, October 1918 to be more specific, tidying up the loose ends of the war machine, of the war that would end all wars if I recall somebody rashly said in defense of starting the whole thing at all.     

The Germans, facing defeat, facing mutiny in their navy and in some army units and unrest back home in the factories in dear Berlin, are in the last throes of their military activities in northern occupied France. As a parting gift they are setting up enough explosives to blow the whole town to kingdom come. Nice gesture toward armistice, right. The British who are in front of the town and who have been there for years it seems in the stalemated trench warfare that defined that conflict are informed of that provocation and are prepared to take measures to ensure that when they retake the town for their French brethren they too are not blown to bits. Fair enough. Those measures, rather that measure is to send an explosives expert, played by Alan Bates, to disarm the whole munitions dump. Problem, problem number one, really this private soldier doesn’t know thing number one about explosives being part of the messenger pigeon unit. From there it is one escapade after another as he tries, as any “good” soldier would to do as ordered. No luck, none really since he can’t decode the information headquarters has received about its location. Don’t worry in the end that dump will be neutralized. That’s the subplot anyway and would make this film a snorer with the silly antics around disarming the dump if there wasn’t a stronger message.

Here is the real deal. Since the Germans have left as have all sane citizens once they know the place is ready to blow the only ones who are clueless, who don’t know what is about to happen are the inmates, are the cuckoos in the insane asylum. Since the good Sisters in charge have scrammed the inmates open the door and walk into town where they make the place a playground for fun and amusement. Meanwhile that earnest private is trying to do his best to disarm the munitions-and is drawn into their doings-drawn in as their very own king of hearts for whom they have been waiting. Nice.

To make a long story short because both the antics of the “simple-minded” who somehow seem very sane and made me wonder why they were the ones locked up and the soldiery trying to disarm the dump need not detain us let’s get to the point, points rather which are drawn from this film. On the war front the Germans find out that the British have disarmed the munitions dump and march back into town and the British in turn assuming the coast is clear are ready to march in and do so. Enemies again they square off-not in the trenches of yore, none are around but each side going back to some bizarre and arcane 19th century drill formation set up firing lines against each other. Bang, bang every freaking soldier is uselessly dead over this pratfall. Except our King of Hearts who was elsewhere hanging around a beautiful butterfly of a young woman, one of the inmates, one too delicate for the real world, played by Guinevere Bujold who many guys, maybe gals too, would lose sleep over. As the townspeople return and the King of Hearts sullenly goes back to his regiment, or what is left of it, the inmates seeing that reality is far from what it cracked up to be if what they witnessed with the combative soldierly was any example return to the asylum and lock themselves back in. Beautiful. Better, better still the King of Hearts torn maybe between two duties heads back up the road to the asylum. Desertion yes, but another beautiful scene.              

All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, Johnny Got His Gun may all be extremely good examples of cinematic excellence around the madness of World War I. Throw this one in the mix too and you will not be too far off.

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