DIRECTED BY: Philippe de Broca
FEATURING: Alan Bates, Jean-Claude Brialy, Françoise Christophe, Geneviève Bujold, Adolfo Celi
PLOT: Signal Corps pigeon-keeper Charles Plumpick is mistakenly sent into the recently abandoned town of Marville to defuse German explosives, but his mission hits a road block when released members of the local insane asylum adopt him as their king.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Hearts is whimsical, farcical, pacifist, fairly amusing and even sometimes tense—but not weird. Film-maker Phillippe de Broca lets his hippie-freak flag fly high, but the tone and story are altogether too bright and straight-forward for this to parade anywhere near List candidacy.
COMMENTS: It is altogether natural that a movie like this—an atypical period film (WWI) made during a disruptive decade (the 1960s) concerning a small French town taken over by the inmates of an asylum—appeared on our radar. Though filmed during the (stage) theatrical run of another asylum-themed drama, King of Hearts is preaching more to the pacifist/anti-establishment choir than dealing, cinematically, with any madness other than the folly of war. While it is set during the first World War, it’s more of a fluffy predecessor to other counterculture anti-war films like Altman‘s M*A*S*H or Nichols‘ Catch-22.
It is safe to presume that in contemporaneous times, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) would have been a draftee. The Great War was a strange beast, though, and as an Englishman there’s every reason to believe that this bookish lover of birds would have volunteered the minute he heard that Jerry was on the march. As a signals officer for the military (specialty: carrier pigeons) with a name similar to a bomb disposal expert, he is sent off to the recently evacuated—and recently booby-trapped—town of Marville. Feeling guilty, one of the townsfolk unlocks the insane asylum as he flees. After wandering out, the inmates find all kinds of diversions: dressing up fancifully, enjoying shaves and haircuts, and staging ad hoc parades. Our hero Plumpick is mistaken for their King, and spends the movie being feted, scurrying madly to find the bomb trigger, and getting seduced by a cinematically antediluvian manic pixie dream girl.
I was reminded of my love of darker cinema when I first watched King of Hearts: it is entirely missing any aura of unease, much less menace. The “insane” people are all highly functional, charming, and seemingly guilty of nothing more than harmless delusions and a capacity for wonder. The British soldiers are Scottish, the only reason for which I could deduce was so the film-maker could have a bunch of kilted yobbos running around (there’s a trio of soldiers sent after Plumpick that wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the constables in The Pirates of Penzance). The Germans are boobs in the “Hogan’s Heroes” mold. The showdown between the two sides when they descend upon the city is the only bit of violence, and its orchestrated in a manner that screams, “Hey! I think war’s stupid!”
What kind of movie would it have been if Plumpick were infiltrating a bomb-laden city peopled by actually insane citizens? Obviously the movie would have been very different; and almost certainly much less beloved. King of Hearts was received lukewarmly at its release, but developed a considerable cult following since. There are some decent laughs, some clever lines, and yes, despite my complaints, I largely enjoyed the thing. However, throughout it all I couldn’t help but wonder, “How much darker, troubling, and altogether more glorious could this have been if the inmates had been more like those found in Charenton?” Ah well.
WHAT CRITICS SAY:
“…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.”–Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times (DVD)