The Movie Waffler ReRelease Review - KING OF HEARTS (1966) | The Movie Waffler

ReRelease Review - KING OF HEARTS (1966)

KING OF HEARTS (1966) review
Escaping asylum residents take over a small French town at the close of WWI.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Philippe de Broca

Starring: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur, Adolfo Celi, Françoise Christophe, Michel Serrault

KING OF HEARTS (1966) poster

Over the decades, many American movies that failed to find an audience in the US have been rediscovered and embraced by the French - the Paris based critics who would go on to lead the French New Wave made a career out of shining a light on the overlooked artistry of Hollywood's b-movies. It's rare however for Americans to return the favour and take an unloved French production to their hearts, but that's what happened in the late 1960s with Philippe de Broca's anti-war comedy King of Hearts.


Released in its native France to poor reviews and a disinterested public in 1966, King of Hearts would find a new life three years later in the revival theatres of American college towns. With revolution in the air, along with the distinct whiff of hash, a generation of turned on, tuned out stoners fell for the dubious charms of de Broca's madcap satire. Will today's generation similarly embrace King of Hearts on its rerelease in this new 4K restoration? I'm not so sure, as I'd like to believe today's students are all too aware of the dangers of tuning out.

De Broca's film takes place in the closing days of WWI. With the allies liberating France, the German occupiers of a small Northern French town rig the village with explosives, set to trigger when the town square clock strikes midnight.

Receiving a message from a spy about the Germans' plans, a nearby unit of British troops select a soldier to sneak into the town and dismantle the bombs. There's a miscommunication however, and rather than assigning the job to ordnance expert Pimpernickel, it's hapless ornithologist Plumpick (Alan Bates) who gets the unenviable job.


Arriving in the town, Plumpick is chased by German soldiers and hides out in the local asylum. Leaving the facility, he neglects to lock the gate after him, before being knocked unconscious by a felled telephone pole. While Plumpick is out for the count, the residents of the funny farm head into the town, taking up the positions vacated by the evacuating townsfolk. When Plumpick comes round, he has no idea that the odd villagers he must collaborate with are actually all clinically insane.

As set-ups for a comedy go, King of Hearts' is a real winner, one straight out of the Ealing stable. Unfortunately, once the parts are in place, de Broca fails to find any way to exploit the potential of his high concept premise. The only real character in the film is Bates's Plumpick, as the asylum residents have no defining characteristics in the manner of those of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a decade later. They take up the classic roles of a small French town - the mayor, the priest, the madam - but all that distinguishes them from each other are the distinct costumes they wear, and there's not much mirth mined from the confounded Plumpick's interactions with them.


King of Hearts may have found love among the '60s dropouts who soaked up its blunt 'lunatics have taken over the asylum' theme - indeed, the pantomiming loonies here are indistinguishable from the London rag week pranksters seen in Antonioni's Blowup, released the same year - but today it plays like an extended episode of '80s sitcom 'Allo 'Allo! with the one-liners chopped out, and I came close to tuning out myself at a few points during its running time. I'm with those '60s French critics on this one.

King of Hearts is in UK cinemas June 8th.