King of Hearts (1967) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I suppose the 60's and early 70's were the golden age of anti-war pictures. The Europeans had their own approach to the subject, churning out a spate of offbeat films about the lunacy of World War One, even though that wasn't the war that was really on their minds. It's just that the Europeans had their own oblique way of making their statements about Vietnam in the form of fairy tale looks at World War One.

I can never seem to keep these films straight in my head. There was "King of Hearts", "Oh, What a Lovely War", "How I Won the War", and "King and Country", to name just four anti-war pictures from the mid to late 60's with British faces in the starring roles. One was a musical, and one starred John Lennon, but that wasn't the musical, and I don't know. I keep blurring them in my mind.


Alan Bates is naked from behind in the last minute of the film.

Genevieve Bujold wears a very low-cut gown, and her breast falls quite a ways out of it, but without any clear nipple exposure.

King of Hearts is at least fresh in my memory because I just re-watched it.

As World War One is coming to an end, the Germans set a booby trap for the approaching English army. They plan to evacuate, then blow up an entire French town. The French overhear the plot, desert the town, and get a message to the British. The British need somebody to go into the town as a scout, so they send their military ornithologist (he trains pigeons to deliver messages), because he's expendable. The bird trainer doesn't know he's a sacrificial lamb, and has no idea how dangerous his assignment really is. When he arrives in the abandoned town, it turns out that there is nobody there but him and the inmates from the nearby insane asylum, who have taken over the town since everyone else  evacuated. The escapees fish around the town for finery, and end up attired in various character roles - barber, bishop, duke, general, hookers. The town also had a small zoo, and the loonies set free the wild animals. At last they decide that they need a king, so our poor Scotsman, being the only sane man to be found, is crowned. Thus, our setting is a doomed town exclusively populated by circus animals, colorfully costumed insane people, and a Scottish pigeon trainer.

There is an especially good comment at IMDB which summarizes the spirit of the film quite eloquently and, in my opinion, accurately. I didn't like the film as much as he seems to, but here are his comments in their entirely:

De Broca's delightful and surreal anti-war fantasy quickly attained a cult status when it was first released, but in recent years it has dropped more and more out of sight. A shame, because it is a charming film, the whimsical, romantic nature of which is entirely French. Even though the underlying message, that of preferring one kind of insanity to another is a simple, absurdist one, the viewer is still carried along by the Gaullic charm of it all.

As the much-put-upon martial ornithologist, It's not just because Bates is the only English member of the cast that one is aware of some awkwardness in his casting. For English cinema goers in particular, familiar with his career, his usual jocular masculinity is hard to reconcile with an child-like character, wept along by events. Those who remember Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling nude in 'Women in Love' (1962) from the same period, or his cocky Vic in 'A Kind of Loving' (1962), may bulk at Bates portraying such a confused innocent. Having said that, Bates' actual performance is balanced and restrained, all of a piece with the rest of the cast.

'King of Hearts' is primarily an ensemble piece. Many of the film's most delightful moments spring from the fancy-filled and flirtatious lunatics who quickly fill the streets, shops and occupations left by the fleeing villagers, their interaction with each other, and Plumpick. This world of fantasy is curtailed by the village walls, which physically as well as mentally encircle their environment. Outside is reality (no matter how ludicrously it is presented), conflict, death. Inside the walls is harmony of sorts, life celebrated. This distinction between outside and inside is made clear in the film. As soon as Plumpick attempts to ride a horse back into the real world for help, the music and the mass accompaniment of him by the inmates has to end until he is obliged to return.

As the 'King of Hearts' Plumpick is at the center of his motley 'people', as well as of Coquelicot's (Geneviève Bujold) affections. Once he awards himself his name, in a panic and on the run, his 'subjects' call out for him. He is promptly 'crowned' (both by banging his head, inducing his initial confusion, and though acquiring his 'kingship'). He is awarded a bride, and accepted as an unique traveller into the society of the amiably mad. Their acceptance of him anticipates the final scene of the film, when a chastened Plumpick re-admits himself into their company, having rejected the larger insanity of warfare.

It's fitting in a way that the least successful parts of the film lay outside of the village, where comic stereotypes replace whimsy and the comedy is drawn with much broader strokes. In particular Colonel MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi, better known as Emil Largo in 'Thunderball') is uncomfortably close to parody, and his part would have been much better cast with an actor like Trevor Howard who could excel with a line in ironic bombast. The Germans fare no better and, although amusing and lightweight in their capers, one misses the delicacy with which the lunatics are portrayed. One suspects that De Broca associates more with the geniality of the insane, as we all do given the options, and this sympathy is reflected on screen

Tellingly, the lunatics are not completely oblivious to the hostile world which surrounds them, although they are content to ignore the immediate threat of destruction and Plumpick's warnings. At the end of the film, once the opposing forces have symbolically destroyed themselves, Marcel says: 'I'm tired of this game, let's go back to our rooms'. With deliberate sadness, they divest themselves of their play robes and return to their asylum, a divestment scene at the same time quiet, serious and eminently sane. It is clear that they are mad - but not crazy.


DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterbox, 2.35:1

  • no features

As you can ascertain from the above, King of Hearts is a dotty, queer little film. To make strange things even stranger, it is about in equal parts in three languages (French, German, English), although there is very little dialogue at all, and one of the German enlisted men is a young Adolph Hitler.

Although I'm not really into whimsy, and I found the humor too slapstick for my taste - about like watching a Benny Hill skit - the film's serious moments were sometimes touching. The contrast between the innocence of the inmates and the corruption and stupidity of the "sane" people produced some very affecting moments, and I liked the ending very much. It is a very literate little movie with plenty of quotable apothegms, but it never attempts to gain any grasp on reality. It doesn't try to portray the inmates as realistic mental patients, and it doesn't try to portray the soldiers or others as realistic sane people. It is simply a fairy tale fantasy, and if you just "go with it", it can be quite powerful at times, in its own innocent way.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.5 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+, I guess. Oddball film for somebody in search of a change of pace.

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