The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - KING AND COUNTRY | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - KING AND COUNTRY

King and Country review
In the trenches of WWI, a young private faces execution for desertion.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joseph Losey

Starring: Tom Courtenay, Dirk Bogarde, Leo McKern, Barry Foster, Peter Copley, James Villers

King and Country bluray

Like Kubrick's Paths of Glory, Joseph Losey's 1964 film King and Country is centred on a WWI trial for cowardice. It has a similar basic setup, with an officer pleading the case for one of his men accused of desertion, but there are some key differences. While not entirely as impactful as Kubrick's film, this is a far grittier, far more unflinching take on the idea. Where Kubrick's Hollywood production passed the buck to the French army, this British production doesn't shirk from highlighting the cruelty of its own military.

Adapted by screenwriter Evan Jones from a play by John Wilson, itself based on a book by James Lansdale Hodson, King and Country takes us deep into the British trenches at Passchendaele. There we find a man confined to a makeshift prison. Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) awaits trial for desertion, having left his post and begun walking to England only to be picked up by police at the French coast. Assigned to his defence is Captain Charles Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde). Hamp naively believes he'll escape execution because of his service record, having been the only survivor of a previous posting that wiped out the rest of his platoon. Hargreaves lets him know in no uncertain terms that he will most likely face the firing squad, but that he'll do his best to ensure he gets a fair trial.

King and Country review

The trial sees the working class, poorly educated Hamp brought before a panel of men who are far from his peers, three officers of blueblood stock who barely view him as a human. In another area of the trenches a group of soldiers are simultaneously conducting a mock trial for a rat accused of biting a chunk out of one of the men's ears. As both trials progress it becomes clear that the rat stands a better chance than Hamp.

A young Courtenay is outstanding as Hamp. He plays the part in an ambiguous fashion that leaves us to guess whether he's feigning ignorance or is simply that innocent regarding the brutality of the military and its rules, or whether perhaps he's suffering shellshock. Hargreaves attempts to centre his defence around the latter idea, but is scuppered by a gruff doctor (Leo McKern) who dismisses the idea. When Hargreaves mentions "mental health," he's scoffed at by the panel of judges, a reminder of how that concept was viewed until quite recently.

King and Country review

Most war movies push the idea of men finding brotherhood among their fellow soldiers, but Losey has no time for such a romantic notion. Hamp's fellow privates don't seem to care about the outcome of his trial, and when he tells Hargreaves of how he almost died in a muddy sinkhole he confesses surprise at being rescued, having seen another man die in a similar scenario as his fellow soldiers watched him disappear into the mud. When a party is thrown for the condemned man the drunken soldiers fight among themselves over the last jug of wine, and Hamp is blindfolded and teased in a cruel mockery of his impending fate. We're left in no doubt that none of these men will think twice about putting a bullet in Hamp's chest if they're selected to join a firing squad. War has turned these young men into the stranded schoolboys of Lord of the Flies.

Conversely, despite having a heated debate during the trial, the officers convene immediately after for very civilised tea and cake. For them, the war is something for other men to fight as they keep themselves warm and clean below ground. The commiserations given to Hargreaves' always doomed defence are offered with the casual air of sympathising with a friend whose football team just got knocked out of the cup.

King and Country review

Losey doesn't have the sprawling sets Kubrick exploited so famously in Paths of Glory but the Shepperton sets are no less convincing. Losey employs a clever trick of opening scenes with genuine photographs of the horrors of the trenches and dissolving into the fictional drama. It works a treat, and by the end of the film the line between reality and fiction has been blurred to an almost indistinguishable degree. The sets are grimy, caked in mud and carpeted with filthy water, with body parts poking out of walls and rats scurrying everywhere. Despite its limited means it's one of the most realistic depictions of the horrific conditions of trench warfare.

The image that will linger long after viewing is that of the faces of Courtenay's Hamp and Bogarde's Hargreaves in their final gruesome exchange. For the former it's one of disbelief at the coldness he's been subjected to, but for the latter it's simply one of tired resignation.

King and Country is on UK DVD, bluray and VOD from November 6th.