Tag Archives: World War I

CAPSULE: KING OF HEARTS (1966)

DIRECTED BYPhilippe de Broca

FEATURING: , , Françoise Christophe, ,

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 dramaKing 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 ‘ 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)

42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

“How can you tell what is a dream and what’s real when you can’t even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?”–line from Joe’s internal monologue in Johnny Got His Gun

DIRECTED BY: Dalton Trumbo

FEATURING: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland

PLOT:  Joe is an ordinary young man with a sweetheart back home who goes to Europe to fight World War I and is blown apart by an enemy shell. The accident leaves him limbless, deaf, and blind; the doctors assume he is brain dead, but keep him alive in hopes of learning how to cure similar brain injuries in the future. Left alone in a hospital bed with only his own thoughts for company for years on end, Joe drifts in and out of memories and dreams, while during his lucid moments he struggles to find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Sill from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1938; it won that year’s National Book Award for “Most Original Novel.”
  • Trumbo became a sought after screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the American Communist Party, and in 1947 he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the “McCarthy hearings”). Along with 9 others (the “Hollywood 10”), Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the grounds that he believed the First Amendment protected his right to political association. Trumbo served several months in prison and was later blacklisted by Hollywood. While the blacklist was in effect he wrote the script for The Brave One; the screenplay won an Academy Award, but no one showed up to the Oscars to claim it. The person credited for the screenplay was actually a producer’s nephew.
  • Luis Buñuel, whom Trumbo had met while in a self-imposed exile in Mexico, was originally set to direct the adaptation of the novel. The two men went so far as to collaborate on a screenplay. When the deal fell through, Trumbo decided to direct the film himself. The image of Christ driving the locomotive was one typically Buñuelian touch that made it into the final product.
  • Johnny Got His Gun tied for the Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes.
  • The movie inspired the popular Metallica song “One,” and footage from the film features heavily in music video (included on the DVD).
  • There is also a 2008 version of Johnny Got His Gun available on DVD, which is actually a film version of the stage play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Jesus Christ howling out the window of a locomotive engine as he drives doomed doughboys to the front.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The bizarre flashbacks and fantasies Joe endures for years on end as he lies in a nightmarish paralysis. His dreamlike reveries—including conversations with Jesus and imagining himself as a freakshow exhibit in a carnival traveling though a barren desert—are never gratuitously weird, but always relate tightly to his psychology and to the antiwar theme.


DVD trailer for Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

COMMENTS:  It’s difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario—to be paralyzed in a Continue reading 42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)