May 31, 2005
The King of Hearts (1966)
Grade: 61/100

Director: Philippe de Broca
Stars: Alan Bates, Genevieve Bujold, Jean-Claude Brialy

What it's about. In the waning months of World War I, retreating German soldiers booby-trap a French village to destroy an advancing French regiment. Private Plumpick (Alan Bates) is sent to defuse the bomb, but instead finds himself involved with escaped residents of an insane asylum. Cutest among them is a young Genevieve Bujold.

How others will see it. A charming French comedy, but badly dubbed in English. Viewers are certain to notice, but most probably would not prefer to read subtitles, anyway. Beyond that, some may wonder if those locked up as insane are in fact merely loafing actors waiting for the town to empty to take a holiday. Sure beats working for a living, generally speaking.

A majority of war films are in fact anti-war films. The exceptions are propaganda. The King of Hearts falls in the former category. In this film, soldiers are a blundering and murderous lot. It's little wonder that Alan Bates would rather go AWOL and join the well fed actors club, than wait for his turn to die in the grown-up game of war.

Will a contemporary American audience respect The King of Hearts? The photography and costumes are welcome enough, but the fanciful story, and its pointed slaughter of opposing regiments, will not likely be appreciated. Americans instead prefer the Black Hawk Down genre of war movies, which feature scared young men in intense battlefield crises.

How I felt about it. Are locked up crazies simply harmless posers who like to dress up in costumes and pretend they're important aristocracy? In other words, are they just large-sized children at play? This stereotype of madness, the man who thinks he's Napoleon, probably does not apply to many actually imprisoned or insane.

But perhaps things are different in France, or were during the first World War, when pretending insanity was a great improvement over manning a trench, waiting for a shell to hit you, or the Germans to crawl over the land mines and barbed wire to visit your bunker. Or even worse, you might be sent on a similar journey to a German trench. No, I think I'm the Duke of Clubs instead. Where's my parasol?

Alan Bates constantly has thrust at him a teenaged and gorgeous Bujold, who is about half his age. This being a movie, Bates never really takes advantage of her. But she'll definitely be of age come World War II, and perhaps the inmates will have another holiday then. Hope strings eternal.