Prisoner of war films are often about escape in one form or another. In The Great Escape (1963) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) those escapes were literal. In Hart’s War (2002)the escape was both literal and a little more figurative. They hold a certain cache, I think. It’s like a miniature epic in that you have your tyrants holding power over nameless minions that keep a small band of heroes under their thumb. The only question is how the revolution will take place. It also has elements of survival and resourcefulness that are clever and so fulfilling with small successes. They show us how we’d like to think we’d act under such circumstances.
Cpl. King (George Segal) has his own dominion in Changi POW camp. He’s accumulated wealth through advantageous deals and resourcefulness. Lt. Grey (Tom Courtenay) is military police and has a particular hatred for King and what he takes to be basic theft. King has a crew of lackies like Max (Patrick O’Neal) and Tex (Todd Armstrong) who keep their eye out and do his dirty work. Rank doesn’t mean too much to too many. King strikes up a friendship with RAF man Peter Marlowe (James Fox) when he finds out that Marlowe speaks Malay and brings him into his circle. Gray is the official police, but Lt. Col. Larkin (Denholm Elliott) is an enforcer for the unforgiveable sins. Taking a man’s watch at poker, or selling it to your advantage, is one thing, but stealing food is another. The men are near starving—other than King—and the sound of an egg frying is torture. What goes for food or feasts is best not discussed.
What a movie. King Rat (1965) is probably the best movie I’d never heard of. After I saw California Split (1974) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), I knew George Segal was a strong actor and personality. He’s an actor like Paul Newman that you can really connect with and you want to watch. So I bought this movie that paired Segal with World War II, the greatest film topic of all time. It is sold under the unpromising series “Columbia Pictures Combat Classics”—presumably Columbia’s answer to Fox’s “Fox War Classics” which count The Thin Red Line (1998) among their members—with a cover betraying nothing of the content (though the poster above is flat-out misleading which is worse). Don’t judge a movie by its poster, I guess.
“Why are you so different?” someone asks of King. You could ask that of this movie. Why is it so different? From the opening scroll (quoted at the top), it was clear that this was an answer to The Great Escape. Things just seemed to work out in that movie. Even the failures were victories. In King Rat most of the victories are failures. They don’t make feasts out of moonshine, but of a single egg. A midpoint in tone between The Great Escape and King Rat, just to give you an idea, is Bridge on the River Kwai (James Donald was actually in all three). Midpoint may be a bit of an overstatement because King Rat is much darker than The Great Escape is lighter. Bridge on the River Kwai starts off with a field of graves dug by William Holden and King Rat shows you how they got there. They live like rats and King is good at it.
The way every other character lets you down also makes this movie stand out. Compare it with yet another POW movie, Stalag 17 (1953),where Holden (again) seeks a kind of redemption (or vindication) despite his cynical exterior. Here, King isn’t quite half good but no one else wins a prize. I like how my own expectations of archetypes are upset by this movie at almost every turn. And the acting that supports these characters is excellent.
I love this movie. I love the way the action keeps going while the credits roll. I love what the end of the war means to each of the characters. The music from John Barry is well fitted. The movie is written and directed by Bryan Forbes who does grade-A work on both fronts. I expect the former credit should be shared by James Clavell who wrote the novel (grounded in his own experiences in that prison) upon which the movie is based. But the direction is all his. There are some things I would call imperfect, much as with Z (1969), like the use of freeze frames that strike me as odd and jarring, but so much more of it is noticeably good. It’s like Forbes is an Englishman who likes French and German films so that he cuts out most of the pretense and sticks with what works.
What a movie.
It’s a steal at twice the price ($8). I don’t know how it isn’t famous.