Monday, March 2, 2015

Reeling Backward: "King and Country" (1964)

"King & Country" is a very harsh and bleak anti-war film that's been largely relegated to the cinematic dustbin of history, despite being very well-regarded at the time -- enough to earn four BAFTA Awards nominations (the British equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Picture.

Tom Courtenay gives a top-drawer performance as a dimwitted soldier on trial for his life for deserting the trenches during World War I, and Dirk Bogarde is also quite good  as the officious officer charged with defending him. Narratively and thematically it's very similar to Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," though not nearly as well known.

I think what makes the film stand out is the way it was shot by director Joseph Losey and cinematographer Denys Coop. It was really ahead of its time in terms of cutting away from the actors to show other imagery while they're talking, especially still photographs, to illustrate what's going through their heads.

For instance, when Private Arthur Hamp (Courtenay) is speaking about some of the horrible things he's seen on the front, the picture will cut away to an image of a dead soldier half-buried in the mud, or equally disturbing pictures. Losey will often accompany it with a slow zoom in or zoom out on the photo, a technique that Ken Burns would become known for in his documentaries decades later.

These visual switches will somtimes occur in the middle of a scene, without preamble; I'm guessing audiences in 1964 were confused at first at what was going on. But including these harrowing visuals lends the actors' words additional power beyond what their own faces could show.

The film opens with a long, slow tracking close-up along a statue and facade that terrifically relates the grime and muck that typified WWI fighting. Following the twists of limbs, weapons and rocky outcroppings gives an immediacy to events long ago and helps set the stage.

"King and Country" is also a damp movie, quite literally: I'm not sure if it ceases raining during the entire course of the movie. Everything is filthy and caked with mud; the men live in moldy dugouts and caves covered with tin sheeting. Pools of filthy water surround the men at all times, as if rendering them castaways on some alien planetscape.

Story-wise the movie is pretty straightforward. Hamp abandoned his post and began walking aimlessly, and nearly made it to a disembarkation point on the western coast of France before he was captured. He claims to have been barely aware of his actions, other than he wanted to get away from the sound of artillery fire and go home. Though we soon learn he doesn't even have a home; his wife and her mother, who dared him to enlist in the war, have since abandoned him.

Now he's on trial for desertion, and seems not to understand that he could well be executed if found guilty. After three years he's one of the most seasoned soldiers in his unit, and Hamp imagines this legacy will protect him. Maybe he'll get some prison time, he reckons.

Captain Hargreaves (Bogarde) does not exactly have a sterling reputation among the soldiers for his abilities as a military defense advocate. A group of Hamp's fellow grunts act as a sort of Greek chorus, hanging around the periphery of the trial and commenting upon the events. They even perform their own mock version of the tribunal, with a lowly rat -- beaten out of the rotting belly of a dead horse -- standing in as their former comrade.

At first openly hostile to Hamp, Hargreaves eventually comes to sympathize with the young soldier and mounts a stirring defense of him. It's all a sham, of course. The presiding colonel can barely be bothered to pay attention, and when he does speak it's to undermine Hargreaves' case.

An effective cross-examination of the unit's doctor (Leo McKern) reveals him to be a pompous ass who believes any soldiers complaining of shell shock are malingerers, and his prescription for virtually every case is a dose of "No. 9" -- aka laxatives.

I also appreciated James Villiers as Captain Midgley, the prosecutor who seems very detached and unemotional, occasionally standing up to a great height to leer over the witnesses like some great bird of prey.

Since the officers participating in the trial are all from the same unit, many of them share quarters and interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. So there's an additional farcical sense to the trial, as in between sessions they decamp to their bunks to share meals and cleverly insult each other in that oh-so-British way.

At one point Hamp's commanding officer, Webb (Barry Foster), who had described him as an excellent soldier, complains to Midgley about turning the screws on him during his own appearance as a witness. But it's in a good-natured, bantering way, and it's pretty clear that Webb won't be terribly upset about whatever happens to Hamp. (Indeed, he's later put in charge of the firing squad as "punishment" for defending Hamp in his testimony.)

I admired "King & Country" more than I enjoyed it. It's a well-acted drama, beautifully bleak visually and made with great craftsmanship. It's so unrelenting in its dour message -- war is bad; war is dehumanizing -- that it ends up holding no surprises for us. Hamp's martyrdom carries less power than it should precisely because it is so inevitable. Evan Jones wrote the screenplay based on a play by John Wilson and a novel by James Lansdale Hodgson.

The filmmakers would have done better to give us a little more hope for Hamp.

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