Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Trailer Tuesday: KING OF HEARTS
KING OF HEARTS (1966)
This is a charming movie that may have fallen between the cracks today, but it’s out there on DVD and has a special place in my life... because it introduced me to director Philippe DeBroca who made comedy action films like THAT MAN FROM RIO (1964) and LE MAGNIFIQUE that would influence my writing. One of the things I find interesting looking back is how many movies and novelists have influenced *my* work, and I never know if that’s because I followed them or that they clicked with who I already was. I suspect the latter: that what appealed to me about directors like DeBroca and writers like Ross Thomas was that they shared my sensibilites... funny and action. KING OF HEARTS was probably the first DeBroca movie I saw, even though it wasn’t his first hit film in the USA.
The film stars Alan Bates and one of Geneveive Bujold's first movies. It's an anti-war comedy, made in the late 60s with a British star... and kind of became an anti Viet Nam War film. Probably wasn't even intended as such. The film has a strange history, because when it came out in the 60s, it flopped big time. Big time. It killed DeBroca's career... He had become famous for his action comedy films like MAN FROM RIO and then this film came out and died... and DeBroca was a has been in the USA. But a strange thing happened during the Viet Nam War, KING OF HEARTS started popping up in college area cinemas because of its anti war story. And was one of those movies that was playing *somewhere* up until 1975 when the war ended. In fact, there was one cinema that played it non-stop for *over five years* until the Viet Nam War was over. Imagine a film playing on the same screen for five years today! First time I saw it was at the UC Theater in Berkeley... and it played *somewhere* in Berkeley through the 70s... and brought back DeBroca's career in the USA.
The story is a light comedy that takes place in France during World War 1, the “Great War”. The German army has taken over a small village in France, but when they see a larger group of British soldiers (actually Scottish - kilts are funnier on film) approaching, they decide to evacuate... but hide a booby trap bomb in the town that will explode at midnight and kill all of the Scottish soldiers and their commanders. The next day, the Germans plan to return and re-take the town from any survivors. Great plan.
Well, a French underground guy radios the Scottish Army and tells them about this plan... but tells them about it in French. So things get completely lost in translation. And the bomb is set to go off at midnight... and the town has a beautiful ornate clock in town square where a mechanical knight in armor comes out to strike the midnight bell with his mace. This information really loses something in translation - nobody knows what it means. The problem with a World War is that we don’t all speak the same language... and here it creates a massive problem that could end up killing the Scottish Army in their funny kilts.
The Scottish Army sends in a man to disarm the bomb before they occupy the town. Since none of the demolitions guys speak French, they send in Alan Bates - a communications officer. A geek. A non-heroic guy. He speaks French, but has no idea how to disarm a bomb... shoot a gun... win a fist fight, etc. I could identify with this guy. A clever, literate, non action guy in an action situation.
Once he finds the bombs, they will either send in a demo guy or have a demo guy talk Bates through disarming the explosives. That sounds like a plan that is doomed to fail. It also creates a great ticking clock, in a *comedy* film. Just as movie like M*A*S*H mixed comedy and the serious horrors of war, this film is both funny and serious at the same time. That odd tone may have lead to its failure when it was first released, and its later success when we had seen the horrors of the Viet Nam War on the nightly news in the 70s.
The whole village evacuates because of the bomb.
And they accidentally leave the gates to the asylum open.
And the crazy people venture out, don clothes of the townspeople, and kind of have a looney-bin holiday.
So when Bates enters the town, well... the people are acting strange. And that's the set up. The rest of the movie compares the crazy people to the soldiers and the war... and guess which is crazier? And Bates has to figure out why the townspeople are strange, then figure out where the explosives are, then stop them from blowing up, then decide if this crazy-world is more sane than the war around it...
And he falls in love with Bujold in the process, and is crowned King of the crazy people.
The movie is charming. Not laugh outloud funny. What used to be called a "gentle comedy". It's kind of like going to the circus (hey, Bujold does tight-rope walking on power lines in a scene, and there are lions and bears!) - it's also a beautiful film... really well shot. DeBroca was one of those directors who could blend comedy and action and had a great sense of the absurd. After this film came back in the 70s, it revived DeBroca’s career so that he could go on to make a bunch of great action comedies like DEAR DETECTIVE and JUPITER’S THIGH and one of my favorites LE MAGNIFIQUE (about a nerdy action writer who fantasizes that he’s his macho action hero... and then has to become him). Hard to tell if KING OF HEARTS holds up - since it's already a period film, it can't really be dated. But it's a gentle film... kind of the anti-Michael Bay. And it still charmed me when I watched it on DVD before writing this entry.