ON DVD & BLU-RAY
King of Hearts (1966) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
A booby-trapped town taken over by oddballs
This absurdist satire is set in France near the end of WWI. A German colonel named Helmut von Krack (Daniel Boulanger) is forced to flee the town which he is occupying in order to escape from the advancing British forces. Before he leaves, however, he decides to leave a booby trap for his adversaries in the shape of a huge amount of explosives which have been placed in the blockhouse in the central square. These are wired to a mechanism in the clock tower, involving a clockwork knight which is invoked to strike the midnight bell. However, a French hairdresser (Paul Faivre) who is secretly working for the resistance decides to alert the British via a morse code message. Unfortunately, he is gunned down before he can finish the last part of his transmission explaining exactly where the blockhouse is. The other French civilians living in the town run past his body in the street as they evacuate.
When British Colonel Alexander MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi) receives the message, he assigns the French-speaking soldier Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to head into the town, ascertain the whereabouts of the bomb and disarm it. When he arrives, he is chased into a local lunatic asylum by a few remaining German troops. He evades capture by disguising himself as one of the inmates playing a card game. During their visit, he convinces his pursuers of his insanity by proclaiming to be the King of Hearts. However, this name sticks with his new friends, who decide that he is their new ruler. Once the Germans are gone, they all break out of the asylum, dress up in abandoned clothing, unleash some animals from travelling circus wagons and become the town’s new de facto inhabitants.
This leaves Plumpick with a bit of a quandary: he has to persuade these carefree oddballs that their lives are in danger and for them to help him before it’s too late. As time goes on, however, he begins to develop more of an affinity for them than he does towards his mission.
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War is the true madness
Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts went on to become a cult classic over the years thanks to the imaginative way in which it delivers an anti-war message. Watched nowadays, it seems even more revelatory because it clearly predates the sensibilities of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Terry Gilliam, Alejandro Jodorowsky and the French directorial team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, amongst others.
While there’s a definite narrative thread running through the film, it tends to take a back seat in favour of revelling in a sense of visual riotousness. There are lots of visual gags and setpieces here which seem to erupt from almost nowhere and are lent a distinctive splash of colour by the flamboyant costumes which these lunatics dress up in. At the same time, however, there’s little sense that the film is attempting to laugh at or belittle them. Their antics are more charmingly dreamlike than hilarious. They are granted a dignity, harmony and sense of personality which the numerous nearly identical-looking soldiers and their arrogantly irrational superiors so pitifully lack. It’s civilised society and its insistence on participating in wars that is the real madness.
There are plenty of treasurable moments here: three British soldiers drinking their whiskey canteens dry after watching a carriage being pulled by a camel, Geneviève Bujold tightrope walking from house to house along telephone wires, the King of Hearts’ impromptu court which has been set up in the town’s church, Le Général Géranium (Pierre Brasseur) playing chess with a circus chimpanzee, the lunatics commandeering two armoured cars and driving the Germans out of town simply by driving around in circles and so on. In fact, we’re almost given an embarrassment of riches of such moments since the 102-minute runtime feels a mite overlong. However, the climax - involving two armies facing off while the town’s quirky new inhabitants watch on in bemusement - hammers home the film’s point with sharply witty aplomb. There’s also a satisfying final twist which pushes the satirical knife even further into the funny bone.
Alan Bates is great as the central protagonist but the film is more of an ensemble piece belonging to a rogue’s gallery of talented (predominantly French and Italian) actors. The flamboyantly charismatic Duke (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Duchess (Françoise Christophe) are definite highlights here, as is Adolfo Celi who plays a pompously clueless British colonel. However, it’s the film’s walled town (an on-location shoot in Senlis, France) which is arguably the main star here. It forms a kind of sealed-off sanctuary against the encroaching tide of the brutal real world. The irony is that it is initially used as a fortress to aid in fighting a war, only to later be used as a bastion against the very idea.
King of Hearts could have been shorn by at least 10 minutes but still possesses enough surreal magic to make it well worth a look for any movie buff.
Runtime: 102 mins
Dir: Philippe de Broca
Script: Daniel Boulanger, Maurice Bessy
Starring: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur, Françoise Christophe, Jean-Claude Brialy, Julien Guiomar, Micheline Presle, Adolfo Celi, Michel Serrault, Daniel Boulanger, Paul Faivre
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This film’s cinematographer Pierre Lhomme supervised its 4K restoration here and boy, does it look stunning. The bright splashes of primary colours are almost obscenely rich, there’s a real warmth to the characters’ faces and the landscape shots are impeccably picturesque. This is one of the best restorations that I have seen in a long time.
Wade Major, a film critic for KPCC Radio Los Angeles, provides a solid commentary track which takes us through the film’s ongoing themes as well as looking at the various talents involved. He describes King of Hearts as being a film both out of time and ahead of its time; Philippe de Broca’s meticulous style feels more like the earlier French “Cinema of Quality” than the more in vogue Nouvelle Vague movement which was popular during this era. He also notes that both Alan Bates and Geneviève Bujold were on the cusp of major stardom at this point but not yet quite big enough to carry the film to major box office success. As a result, it didn’t make a huge impact during its original French cinema release and wasn’t widely distributed in America until 1973. Major also takes time to compare and contrast the film with its most obvious near-contemporary, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Geneviève Bujold Interview
An interview with the French-Canadian actress, who makes for a delightful 15 minutes’ worth of company. She talks about her early education in a Montreal convent, which she was thrown out of in her final year for reading a forbidden book. She joined a theatre company in the city and was subsequently discovered by director Alain Resnais while performing on stage in Paris. She then discusses her time working on King of Hearts. She seems to have a very positive opinion on the film and its depiction of a bunch of characters who decide to just be happy in the face of the irrational violence going on around them.
Pierre Lhomme Interview
The film’s director of photography discusses his time working on the film. He reveals that he was friends with Philippe de Broca since a very young age. One point of curious interest which he mentions is that, despite the film’s anti-war message, de Broca held right-wing views in opposition to Lhomme’s more left-wing outlook. He also notes that Alan Bates broke his ankle during a stunt where he jumps from the film’s blockhouse, meaning that he visibly walks with a limp during many shots.
Michelle de Broca Interview
Philippe de Broca’s former wife talks about the film’s funding (courtesy of United Artists) and notes the irony that this American company funded a number of French productions during this period despite the attendant snobbery surrounding this fact. She also talks a little more about Alan Bates’ on-set injury, mentioning that it meant that a couple of scenes where his character was supposed to dance couldn’t be filmed.
A trailer and collector’s booklet round out the extras.
Even if (for some confounding reason) you aren’t big on King of Hearts’ anti-war message, its eccentric charm and whimsical humanity are easy to enjoy. The 4K presentation is an absolute feast for the eyes and really seals the deal here