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King of Hearts (1966) [Masters of Cinema] Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition
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(Jul 16, 2018)
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A cult comic masterpiece from acclaimed director Philippe de Broca, King of Hearts was a flop upon initial release in France, but was a smash hit in the US, where it ended up running for five years straight.
During the latter part of World War I, Private Charles Plumpick ( Alan Bates; Women in Love) is chosen to go into the French town of Marville and disconnect a bomb that the German army has planted. However, Charles is chased by some Germans and finds himself holed up at the local insane asylum, where the inmates are convinced that he is the "King of Hearts." Feeling obligated to help the inmates, Charles attempts to lead them out of town, but they are afraid to leave and frolic about the streets in gay costumes. Will Charles be able to deactivate the bomb in time and save his newfound friends?
Featuring a score by legendary film composer Georges Delerue and also starring Geneviève Bujold ( Anne of the Thousand Days, Dead Ringers), King of Hearts is presented here from a gorgeous new 4K restoration in its UK debut as part of The Masters of Cinema Series, in a special Dual Format edition.
DUAL FORMAT SPECIAL FEATURES
- Limited Edition O-Card slipcase ( first print run only)
- Gorgeous 1080p presentation from the Cohen Media Group 4K restoration (with a progressive encode on the DVD)
- Original LPCM mono audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Feature length audio commentary by film critic Wade Major
- Geneviève Bujold on the making of King of Hearts - An interview with the Academy Award nominated actress from 2017
- Interview with Pierre Lhomme the cinematographer discusses working with Philippe de Broca, and the techniques used for filming King of Hearts
- Interview with Michelle de Broca Producer and ex-wife of director Philippe de Broca talks about working on King of Hearts
- Eureka! trailer for the 2018 UK theatrical release of King of Hearts
- A collector s booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp
"A surrealistic jewel of a comedy which you realize, when you can catch your breath between laughs, has made the case for the sanity of the lunatics and the madness of the war-waging sane. --Los Angeles Times
Stylish and offbeat, King of Hearts became a cult favourite --Emanuellevy.com
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The common and natural response to this monstrosity is tears, the thing tragedy induces. But an alternative is laughter, seeing a side of it for what it is — pointless absurdity. The Great War on one hand was great farce and satire, its madness endemic, a virus that spread everywhere during the years of fighting (1914-18).
This beautiful and classic French film laughs at the war and its participants, using lunatics from a local asylum to question (un-self-consciously) its sanity. It’s a charming fable, an elegant and delightful parable, childlike in its honesty and simplicity. We the sane are meant to be shamed by it, made to face our own latent insanities by the insane. It’s comical and funny, but also sobering and disturbing, our civilisation shown for what it is — a fragile idea, a flimsy edifice.
Charles Plumpick (played to perfection by Alan Bates) is a Scottish infantryman, his farcical name suggesting he was plum picked for this plum assignment, a tour of duty in France. He wears a black-and-red cloth Highland cap, a kilt and knee socks, attire earnestly unfitted for war. He has seen the trenches and shell holes, the missing faces and limbs, the mud, barbed wire, rats, lice and dead horses. He has seen enough and doesn’t like what he’s still expected to see and do. But he has no choice unless it’s to be shot for desertion. In short, he’s no hero, if hero means killing strangers, in this case German conscripts. He keeps thinking he’ll wake from the nightmare but does not. He must, as they say, soldier on.
The film opens in October 1918. The war is in its death throes but the Germans carry on as if it isn’t. The German army has looted and pillaged a town in northern France. Prior to their retreat they plant a massive bomb in the blockhouse in the town square, a huge chunk of concrete that looks like it was the base for a statue that has been pulled down. At midnight the following night the bomb is set to explode, blowing the town sky high. The explosives are wired to the town’s clock tower, which acts as a timer. At midnight a clockwork mechanical knight emerges from the tower and rings the bell by striking it with his iron mace. A few French civilians are still in the town and overhear what the Germans are planning to do. One citizen, the town barber, is also in the resistance. From his barber shop he sends a coded message to French and Scottish regiments encamped outside the town. The absurd code phrase he uses to identify himself is “the mackerel likes frying,” which we can suppose it doesn’t. As he tries to explain next by phone what is happening in the town he can only utter two sentences: “The Germans will blow up the munitions dump” and “The knight strikes at midnight.” The second sentence is inscrutable. Before he can add more information German soldiers shoot and kill him. The townspeople lay the barber’s body out in the street and flee. The German army evacuates the town as well. They hope the French and Scottish regiments will be in the town when the explosion goes off. Such is the logic of war.
The message received by the Scots through the French is garbled, only half understood. They know the town has been wired to explode but they haven’t any idea what the second sentence means. Private Plumpick is summonsed by the Scottish general and given orders. The private is a pigeon keeper and trained in sending messages. He’ll be sent in alone to both apprise the situation and defuse the bomb. He protests to no avail that he has no expertise in bomb disposal. He and the two pigeons he carries in a bird cage go in.
Some mop-up remnants of the German army remain in the town. Plumpick cautiously enters the town and tries to make his way to the town square. But he is spotted and fired at. He sets the bird cage down in a safe spot and runs through the open gates of the local lunatic asylum. The nuns and nurses who mind the patients have fled and forgot to lock up. He enters the building, finds the patient wards, takes a key from off the wall, unlocks the door, seats himself with some male card players in the centre of room. The Germans burst in. One man at the table stands up and announces that he’s The Duke of Clubs. Another says his name. Desperate, Plumpick (now dressed in a white cap and hospital gown like all the other patients) looks at the cards in his hand and announces, “I’m The King of Hearts.” The room gasps, awestruck. The patients fall to their knees before him. “Your Majesty,” they say, grateful for his humble return and presence among them. Perplexed, the Germans finally realise where they are — inside a loony bin. This frightens them and they flee. Private Plumpick, now a king, flees too.
But he doesn’t get very far. He’s knocked out in the town by an accident and lies unconscious in a back street for some hours. He awakens to find the town taken over by the asylum inmates. It’s a party for them, the whole town to themselves, and they make the most of it, dressed in brightly coloured hats, costumes and regalia. Among them is a duke and duchess, a general, a cardinal, a hairdresser, a ballerina and the distinguished madame of the town’s lone brothel. Plumpick meanwhile remains the reluctant king among his worshipping people. They will not let him forget who he is.
But he’s agitated, has other things on his mind: namely, war, death and the future. Everyone has less than 48 hours to live and he’s under orders to save them (and himself). He alone, the rational one among them, is driven mad and frantic by this knowledge. The others? Well, they live as they always do — for and in the moment. Life is joyous, a carnival, a dance, a party. So that’s what they do, live it as such despite what their nervous king thinks.
One of the pigeons Plumpick has sent to his regiment is shot from the sky by the Germans, message intercepted. They know a Scotsman is in the town and he may thwart their plans. So, some German troops return to flush him out. When they reach the town a carnival and celebration are well underway. It’s the King’s Coronation Day and he is to be crowned in the cathedral by the cardinal. Meanwhile three Scottish soldiers have also entered the town, their orders to find Plumpick. They do, determine he has gone insane (dressed as he is as a king and wearing his crown), knock him out with one punch. But before they can kidnap him and take him back to headquarters the Scotsmen are frightened off by the sight of a wandering elephant, a camel and a few German soldiers still loitering in the town.
But the Germans are as confused and befuddled as everyone else. The extravagant costumes, circus animals, marching bands, wine, kissing and dancing makes them wonder if they are suffering from shell shock. Eventually they flee as well, just as the Scotsmen have. Meanwhile, even though he’s going to die tomorrow night, the king finds tender moments to make him forget his impending fate. One of these is when Poppy, the pretty ballerina (played by the gorgeous Genevieve Bujold), walks across a wire strung over the town square and enters the king’s chambers through an open window. How utterly romantic! He thinks so too and lets the moment subdue him.
They are married: quite informally, of course, but she becomes his beautiful queen, still dressed in her bright yellow tutu. They are in the royal chambers on the night they are to die. It is three minutes to midnight, which means they only have three minutes left to live. Poppy says three minutes are a lifetime when one is in love. The king, finally relenting to the inevitable, agrees and kisses her passionately.
But then, gasping for air and separating herself from her adorable husband-king, she says, “Look. Across the square. The knight strikes at midnight.”
”The knight strikes at midnight” — the bloody password!
The king, now Private Plumpick again mentally, scrambles down the stairs and across the town square. He races up the clock tower and makes it onto the ledge outside the cage where the knight resides. Inside the clockwork grinds and the knight begins to move. The metal cage doors scrape open and push Plumpick against the bell outside the clock tower. The knight is huge and imposing — as big as Plumpick. He’s also relentless and keeps coming. He raises his iron mace and swings it at the bell. But there is no bell sound and explosion because the mace has hit Plumpick in the back of the neck. He shouts in pain but also in joy. His ballerina wife, the queen, has helped save him and the town. After this a real celebration ensues (or real in Plumpick’s mind). He shouts for joy to all the assembled, “All hail the queen!”, and puts his crown lovingly on her head.
The party goes on well past midnight. Into the crowd the Scottish regiments now wade, having reached the town after it didn’t explode at midnight. Bagpipes play, drums are sounded, they dance, kiss the ladies, drink whisky. War isn’t so bad after all. The Scottish general tells his troops to let off fireworks. “But we have no fireworks, sir,” Captain MacFish reports. The general, clearly annoyed, tells them to fire off anything they can, including cannons. Then he goes back to the important business at hand — kissing the two floozies from the brothel who are clinging to him. The noise from the cannons and orange fire they emit in the night sky convinces the Germans the town has blown up after all. They’ll enter it in the morning and see what booty remains.
Dawn arrives. Everyone is tired, exhausted, drunk from the all-night partying. But they are roused awake when the Scottish general signals for his men to fall in, their objective to secure the town now having been reached. Just then, however, the German army re-enters the town — two or three regiments. Both armies spot one another and the war, that bloody thing, resumes. They line up in the town square and face one another. The first line of Scots soldiers kneels and raises its rifles. The first line of Germans does the same. The command on both sides is simultaneously given. The hail of bullets kills all on both sides except the generals. They are mounted on horseback with revolvers drawn. The Scottish general shouts for the German general to surrender. ”Never!” the ugly monocled Hun with pointy pickelhaube helmet and oversized moustache shouts back. Both fire simultaneously and fall dead from their horses.
On the balcony of the king’s palace the audience looks on but doesn’t clap. They didn’t like the performance. The mad French general from the asylum mutters, “Terrible overacting.” Poppy, the ballerina queen, says mournfully, “What funny people they are.” The King of Hearts, also among them, kidnapped by them and gagged (because he’s a king, not a soldier!) says nothing because he can’t.
But he removes the gag and goes down into the street. He stands there among all his dead comrades and the German dead. Just then the French army enters the town in their crisp powder-blue uniforms. With them them are the townspeople who return to their homes. The war is almost over and the town will now remain French. A French general gives Plumpick the Croix de guerre and pins it to his bird cage, then kisses him on both cheeks.
“Long live the King,” the assembled mass had shouted when he wore the crown. But now he doesn’t anymore and is demoted to a private, yet again, in the other king’s army — the King of England’s. The private is reassigned by headquaters. He’ll go with his unit farther north to another village to defuse another bomb there.
Meanwhile all the patients have returned home to the asylum where they want to be. The days with The King of Hearts were fun, but they know in some portion of their being that it was make-believe. The party couldn’t last forever and didn’t. Even Poppy calls the king Charles when she departs from him, not Your Dear Royal Majesty which is what she whispered to him during their lovemaking (one presumes).
There is a famous drawing on the DVD and VHS covers of some versions of King of Hearts. It shows a naked man from the back holding a bird cage. That man is Private Charles Plumpick, Scottish infantryman and King of Hearts. He stands at the gates of the asylum, met there by two astonished nuns. He has turned his back on the world, the army, hate, violence and war and longs instead for a greater dear sanity — love in the arms of his beloved queen.
But first the anti-war thing. Brit Soldier Alan Bates is in an abandoned French town at the end of WW1. The French townspeople have abandoned it because the Germans have planted a kind of Armageddon style bomb that will flatten the whole place if detonated. Alan Bates’ job is to defuse it. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the local insane asylum are out and and about and are gaily assuming ownership of the town. The utterly lovely Genevieve Bujold plays a lunatic and Bates’ love interest.
So we get the anti-war message that the Germans are evil and the French are unfeeling cowards who have abandoned their vulnerable and mentally sick fellow citizens. War makes bastards of us all. Except that it doesn’t. The Germans are real stinkers alright, but the insane, in this context, can’t be held to be truly insane when measured up against everyone else. Quite the reverse, they seem totally reasonable.
But there is more beyond the anti-war message. If I’m reading this film right, what I think it’s also saying, aside from being a condemnation of the evil misery of military human carnage, is that wars, once started, never end. The German’s Armageddon bomb is a metaphor for the ongoing destructive capacity that war, all wars, guarantees into the indefinite future. The fleeing French are abandoning the theatre of war and leaving it in the hands of people they have previously incarcerated for their failings. Destiny is left in the hands of those who were previously branded as incapable, incompetent and dangerous to society.
Which brings me to my final point about where we find ourselves today. At the time of its 5 year run in that Boston art house, America had just extracted itself from a war without end - Vietnam - and seen off a crooked president who himself was branded in just the same way - that is, incapable, incompetent and dangerous to society. And today, in both the UK and the United States you could be forgiven for characterising the brutal pantomime of our respective political systems as one in which the lunatics have truly taken over the asylums that were long since abandoned by their previous, presumably sane, inhabitants who, fearing a formless, but nevertheless very real Armageddon situation, have moved on, in a hundred different ways.
Of course I may be reading too much into ‘King of Hearts’. But it’s that kind of film. It’s a huge wide open canvas that invites intelligent interpretation. If there is something about post WW2 history that you feel you don’t understand, or can’t explain, I urge you to watch this film. And to do what I have just done, and write down how you feel about it. Maybe even post a review of it here on Amazon. A beautiful restoration and stacks of extras including interviews with the Producer (also the Director’s wife), the Cinematographer and the eternally fascinating Genevieve Bujold. 5 stars.
A charming film with a serious message about war and humanity. But that does not tell the truth. WW1 was horrific. My father was in the trenches and later a prisoner of War and my uncle was killed at the Somme in1916, so this film is more of a travesty, a gentle fairytale compared to their experiences. Yet it manages to convey its anti war message without any of the horrors, which can readily be viewed in newsreels even today.
Even the disdain shown by the officer class for the ordinary soldier is highlighted. But don't allow me to get started on that topic.
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