UK Release Date: 8th June 2018
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Philippe de Broca
Writer: Daniel Boulanger
Starring: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Adolfo Celi, Jean-Claude Brialy
Synopsis: In the dying days of the First World War, a Scottish soldier is dispatched to liberate a French village that has been rigged to explode.
Within the first 10 minutes of 1960s war satire King of Hearts, we’ve been treated to a brief cameo from a young Adolf Hitler, determined to push his ideology on to his retreating superiors as they prepare to flee the quiet Northern French town they have occupied during the First World War. That’s a taste of the anarchic weirdness that will unfold over the next hour and a half in this bizarre, messy confection of a movie, which is back in a limited selection of UK cinemas this week.
The plot, such as it is, sees Scottish soldier Charles (Alan Bates) dispatched by his tea-swilling superior (Thunderball villain Adolfo Celi) to the town, which has been rigged to blow by the fleeing Germans. The townspeople have fled and so, when Charles arrives, the only remaining residents are those within an asylum. Charles unwittingly frees them all from the institution and, when he arrives in town, they have assumed the roles of the townspeople. They refuse to understand the danger they face, but consider Charles to be their long-absent deity – the King of Hearts.
King of Hearts is an unusual movie and one that requires a certain amount of patience from its audience. The first hour, with the exception of the Hitler cameo, is largely devoted to setting up the strange universe of the story and is light on any sort of comedy. Its depiction of the asylum residents is an expression of the stereotyping that was prevalent in the cinema of the time and feels rather off-kilter to a modern eye.
At its midpoint, though, the movie turns 180 degrees on its axis and becomes an incisive commentary on the maddening effect of emerging from a long period of war. The asylum is a metaphor for the madness of war, with the resultant chaos a result of the combination of enthusiastic and colourful relief at the end of the conflict and ignorance of the looming violence to come – literally the impending destruction of their town and, figuratively, the oncoming storm of another World War. Once this becomes clear, the script packs in its fair share of laughs.
Director Philippe de Broca revels in the script’s anarchic sense of chaos and, subsequently, brings splashes of exuberant colour to all of the central characters. Leading man Bates himself – a vision of befuddlement – is locked within the push and pull between the regimented grey colours of his military world and the alluring, vibrant rainbow hues of the townspeople – most notably prostitute Poppy, played with delightful innocence by future Oscar nominee (Geneviève Bujold).
It struggles to get moving in its first half, but King of Hearts really finds its comedic rhythm when it begins to move into its consistently surprising third act. A final gag, in which two evenly matched military battalions cancel each other out, is one of simple power that epitomises the anti-war message of the entire story. It’s not a classic by any measure, but this is a movie that deserves its reputation as a belated cult hit.
Pop or Poop?
Great, committed performances and an enjoyably satirical second half power King of Hearts to a surprising degree of success given the uneven weirdness of its opening. Philippe de Broca keeps a decent handle on the chaos as his movie spirals even further down the rabbit hole of an uncertain postwar world. Alan Bates and Geneviève Bujold keep everything moving and, by the end, it’s tough not to fall under the film’s bizarre spell.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
King of Hearts is back in selected UK cinemas now for a limited run, prior to a UK Blu-ray release later this year courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.