King of Hearts
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In the latter days of World War I, German occupying forces retreat from the town of Marville, France, after planning to destroy the village with a secret bomb set to go off when the figure of a knight on the town's clock tower strikes the midnight gong. The townspeople get wind of this and flee in panic, alerting the Allied forces. Private Charles Plumpick, a gentle young Scotsman who cares only for poetry and his carrier pigeons, is sent to investigate. What he finds in Marville are the inmates of the town's asylum, who take to the streets, houses, and shops and create their own eccentric community. Plumpick is declared "King of Hearts" by the lunatics and finds himself caught up in their lives while trying to find and defuse the bomb. In the course of his adventure, he falls for a pretty young inmate and soon begins to realize that the world of these so-called "mad" people is far preferable to the "sane" societies that wage meaningless war on each other.
King of Hearts (1966), French director Philippe de Broca's comic anti-war fable, was not a commercial hit upon its release, but it soon became one of the most enduring cult favorites of its time, and its popularity continues in many circles to this day. Even considering the somewhat heavy-handed obviousness of its message and the whimsical approach de Broca took to the story, the film resonated with a generation of non-conformists and opponents of the Viet Nam war. The notion that those deemed insane by society may actually be saner than the people who put them away was, of course, a highly romanticized view that glided past the painful realities of mental illness. Still, the questioning of authority and senseless brutality was reflective of the counter-culture movement in much of the literature and drama of that era, and it reached a peak of mainstream acceptance with the multiple Academy Award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).
De Broca began his career in the early 1950s making shorts and documentaries before stints as assistant director to Claude Chabrol on three films and Francois Truffaut on his first feature, The 400 Blows (1959). He then moved into directing his own features, most often comedies, beginning with The Lovers (1960), starring Jean-Pierre Cassel and featuring Chabrol himself in a small role. De Broca's work began to attract an international following with such comedies as Cartouche (1962) and the spy spoof That Man from Rio (1964), both starring one of France's leading actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo. This brought him to the attention of United Artists, one of the Hollywood studios most actively searching for new talent to import from among Europe's growing stock of daring young directors, among them Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Louis Malle, and Costa Gavras. After a French premiere late in 1966, King of Hearts was selected as one of nine foreign-language films released worldwide through a distribution deal from UA in 1967.
The genesis of the movie can be traced to de Broca's experience serving as an army newsreel cameraman in the Algerian war. He later said it was his time in North Africa that shifted his focus to comedy, a reaction to the ugliness and brutality of the world around him. The germ of the story itself came from a news item about 50 French mental patients during World War I who left their hospital after it was bombed, dressed themselves up in the uniforms of dead American soldiers, and wandered the countryside until they were mistakenly massacred by German troops.
De Broca's production was international in scope and shot mostly on location in the little town of Senlis, France. He assembled a fine cast of mostly French and Italian actors, including veteran star Pierre Brasseur (Quai des Brumes, 1938; Children of Paradise, 1945); Jean-Claude Brialy, a favorite of the nouvelle vague directors (Godard's Une Femme Est Une Femme, 1961, and Jacques Rivette's Paris Nous Appartient, 1961; Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962), Micheline Presle, an important French actress since the late 30s; and Italian actor Adolfo Celi, known to world audiences from productions in Italy, France, the U.S. (Von Ryan's Express, 1965), and Great Britain (the James Bond picture Thunderball, 1965). For the lead role of Plumpick, de Broca chose British actor Alan Bates, fresh off his successes in Zorba the Greek (1964) and Georgy Girl (1966). And as the young woman Plumpick falls for, the director brought in French Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold, whose international career would soon take off with a starring role opposite Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969).
The part of the German commander was given to de Broca's frequent collaborator, actor-writer Daniel Boulanger, who had been Oscar®-nominated for writing That Man from Rio and who wrote the screenplay for King of Hearts. De Broca himself appears in one auspicious cameo (uncredited) as a young captain named Adolf Hitler who is crushed to learn his idea of burning the town down has been rejected by his commander. It was a sly reference to a war film released only a few months earlier, Is Paris Burning? (1966), its title taken from an eager quote by Hitler, who wanted his commanders to torch the French capital if they could not hold it or if the Allies got too close.
Critical response to King of Hearts was mixed. Vincent Canby of The New York Times noted a "curious and disturbing dimension to the theme" by having the inmates appear willfully insane, but nevertheless called the film an "extravagant and highly comic morality play" and "wildly raffish slapstick and satire," praising the work of much of the cast, as well as the mock coronation scene, which he wrote "might have been choreographed by the Marx Brothers." On the other hand, Gordon Gow, in the British journal Films and Filming found it to have a damaging slowness in "getting on with the plot" despite being charming and "the sanest of satires."
Although King of Hearts disappeared fairly quickly from first-run theaters, it soon found an enthusiastic audience in repertory cinemas and revival houses. It reportedly played for several years at one theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with similar runs in Seattle and Portland.
The cinematography is by Pierre Lhomme, who shot Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969), Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), and the award-winning Camille Claudel (1988) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1990). The haunting theme music is by Georges Delerue, composer for Women in Love (1969) and Julia (1977) and an Oscar® winner for A Little Romance (1979).
Director: Philippe de Broca
Producers: Philippe and Michelle de Broca
Screenplay: Daniel Boulanger, based on an idea by Maurice Bessy
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Editing: Françoise Javet
Production Design: François de Lamothe
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Pierre Brasseur (General Geranium), Jean-Claude Brialy (Le Duc de Trefle), Geneviève Bujold (Coquelicot), Adolfo Celi (Colonel MacBibenbrook), Alan Bates (Plumpick).
by Rob Nixon