King & Country
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Joseph Losey was riding high on the international acclaim of The Servant (1963), the director's first collaboration with screenwriter Harold Pinter and second film with actor Dirk Bogarde, when Bogarde presented him with the script of a small television play called Hamp. Set in World War I, it's a war drama with no battle scenes, the story of the court-martial of a young, uneducated working class soldier who, after three years in the trenches of World War I, simply walked away from the front lines in a hopeless attempt to walk home. Bogarde was very much interested in the project. He had served in World War II and recalled the trauma his father suffered after his service in World War I. He sent Losey to the Imperial War Museum and gave him a copy of "Covenant of Death," a book of photographs and paintings of World War I. Some of those photos found their way into the film, framing the story with images of death and devastation on the muddy battlefields.
Losey handed the script to Evan Jones, who had previously scripted Eva (1962) and These Are the Damned (1963) for the director. With Losey's blessing, Jones jettisoned the teleplay and returned to the source, and at his request added a kind of Greek chorus of soldiers to provide an additional perspective to the ordeal of the trenches. Bogarde, an author in his own right, also contributed to the script, rewriting some of his scenes and providing the background of experience, all of it uncredited on the film but acknowledged by Losey in later interviews.
Bogarde took the role of Capt. Hargreaves, an upper-class officer assigned to defend the private in the makeshift battlefield court martial, and rising star Tom Courtenay was Pvt. Arthur Hamp, the naïve, almost oblivious soldier who is never quite aware of the gravity of the trial. Losey had seen Courtenay in a stage production of The Seagull many years before and cast him in a project that never materialized. Since then, he had made a name for himself in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963). Leo McKern (later famed as Rumpole of the Bailey on British TV) represents the blustery old school military tradition of a bulldog of an army doctor whose standard prescription for exhaustion and shell-shock is a bracing speech and a laxative, and Barry Foster offers a more sympathetic portrait of command as an amiable, supportive Lt. offering testimony for the defense.
King & Country (1964), as the film was ultimately titled, was produced as a television film on a small budget and a short schedule, with 10 days of reading rehearsal and a shooting schedule of 18 days. The entire film was shot in the studio, which was transformed into a battlefield barracks mired in the mud and rain, in black and white. "That was a monstrous film to shoot because the stage was deep in mud, we brought these rats in, they got loose and the place really stunk like the trenches," Losey recalled to Michel Ciment. "We were working under artificial rain in mackintoshes and boots, and by the time we were finished with our eighteen days in that place, we really felt as though we'd been in the trenches."
In many ways, the film was a return to Losey's early days as a stage director with the Living Newspaper and the Political Cabaret, a message movie with a passionate commitment to the message. But it is also defined by stark imagery and striking technique, with startling flashbacks and an uncomfortable intimacy created by the small studio environs and the tight interior spaces of sets. "I was very limited to what I could do, so I concentrated as much as I could on the acting, on lines, on getting a feeling of claustrophobia, getting a real sense and smell of war without any guns being fired, excepting... the distant guns that are heard." Though produced for television, it was premiered at the 1964 Venice Film Festival, where Tom Courtenay won the Best Actor prize, and released in theaters later that year. It was a box-office disappointment but it earned good reviews and was nominated for four BAFTA awards, including Best British Film. New York Times film critic Eugene Archer called it "an uncompromising film. Some of its scenes are so strong they shock," and Losey biographer David Caute rates it as a "minor masterpiece" from the director.
Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, David Caute. Oxford University Press, 1994.
Conversations with Losey, Michel Ciment. Methuen & Co., 1985.
Losey on Losey, Tom Milne. Doubleday, 1968.
By Sean Axmaker