In 1918, a German regiment occupies a small French town, to which they hope to lure the advancing British army before blowing the place up with hidden explosives. Getting wind of the plan, Colonel Alexander MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi) sends Scottish soldier Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to defuse the bomb in this farcical yet poignant satire.
Arriving in the town, Plumpick narrowly escapes detection by the departing German soldiers, only to discover that its remaining residents are all escaped lunatics from the asylum. Frantically searching for the bomb, the friendly but delusional townsfolk mistake Plumpick for the ‘King of Hearts’, lauding him as their leader.
Director Philippe de Broca’s central thematic concern is laid bare, from the red-faced English Colonel huffing and blustering his way through his command, to the title’s homage to Alice in Wonderland. Yet there’s more to King of Hearts than platitudinous observations on the madness of war – in amongst the farce and satire is a film riven with conflict’s needless brutality.
Rather than condemning insanity, King of Hearts posits that if a sane world can produce the tragic theatre of war, then perhaps it’s better to throw one’s lot in with the comedy of madness. On arriving, the town appears a bizarre haven of childlike innocence, where even the prostitutes are unsullied by the corrupt world. The costumes and personas that the townsfolk adopt are seemingly drawn from story books, flown in from a fairy-tale nostalgia for a past that never existed.
Nevertheless, fanciful nostalgia is preferable to the present nightmare. The mad fantasy of the town dominates the frame, while the real conflict is pushed almost entirely out of sight. An early arresting shot of Plumpick, crossing a barren field towards the town is almost Bergman-esque in its quiet bleakness, yet it quickly gives way to the colourful storybook fantasy. When reality does intrude, such as when the German soldiers return during the ‘marriage’ ceremony, their nightmarish reality is subsumed into the fantastic dream of the town. Cheered as noble returning soldiers, the townsfolk laud them with confetti and costumes, assimilating them into their topsy-turvy carnival. If war’s power derives from mechanical, rational brutality, then the townsfolk’s solution is to simply deny rational reality.
Reality, however, has a way of asserting itself, and Plumpick’s victory, a ludicrous, Harold Lloyd-homaging race to disarm the bomb before the town clock strikes midnight is ultimately Pyrrhic. After saving the town, the inmates return to their asylum, joined by a Plumpick who has seen enough of the madness of the real world. The kicker comes when the British army, who after succeeding in saving the town, decided to blow it “sky-high” to prevent it being retaken by the Germans. As sanity and madness become indistinguishable, so too does comedy and tragedy.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell