Friday, 30 May 2014

King And Country (1964)

I really don't know why this one is as overlooked as it is. For my money it stands perfectly well against more famous and applauded films covering similar ground such as Paths Of Glory and Breaker Morant.

Directed by Joseph Losey and adapted by Evan Christie from the play Hamp by John Wilson, King and Country is a suitably pessimistic and gloomy polemic about the horrors of the First World War and the then military establishment's disregard for shellshock, more concerned are they with 'morale'. Losey equips his melodrama with typically arty 60s flourishes of the time, such as archive stills of the battlefields of WWI and surreal snapshots of the homefront, complete with knowing looks to camera.  There's also much heavy symbolism, specifically in scenes in which the rest of the platoon catch rats and submit them to theatrical mock trials in the same manner their comrade is going through at the time.

The comrade in question is Arthur Hamp, beautifully played by Tom Courtenay, despite being saddled with a largely unconvincing London accent. Courtenay is a favourite of mine and this era saw him play, through a series of new wave/kitchen sink features, hapless figures who have been dealt a bad hand in life. In some films, Courtenay can invest such a role with cynicism and anger (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner immediately springs to mind) whereas in others such as this, he imbues it with a great deal of heart-rending pity which immediately gets the audience on side, even though the outcome is obvious from the off. Courtenay went on to win the Best Actor award for his performance here at the Venice Film Festival of 1964 and, whilst I feel he gave better performances elsewhere, I am in full agreement that this was a worthy win.

Equally first rate is Dirk Bogarde, just a year after his incredible performance in Losey's The Servant, as Captain Hargreaves the officer chosen to defend Hamp against the accusation of desertion. It's an excellent performance which shows the compassion and sense of justice such a character feels yet is tempered by his overall sense of duty. Hargreaves may understand Hamp's actions and he feels passionate about the kangaroo court set to try him, but it doesn't mean he can condone the man for deserting his post. It's a pleasing complexity that in lesser hands may not have been explored as well as Bogarde does here.

A solid anti-war film that doesn't outstay its welcome and details the grim, cruel reality of life in the trenches and the futility and tragedy of combat and the established order who thrive upon it.

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