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In the engrossing, cynical, and well acted war drama King Rat (1965), George Segal plays Cpl. King, an American held captive in a WWII Japanese-run prison camp along with 10,000 other American, British and Australian POWs. Cpl. King has built a personal empire of sorts in the camp, heading a black-market operation through which he barters with guards for food and supplies which he sells to other prisoners. Fit and well-dressed even as all his fellow POWs become weak and emaciated, he even gets officers to do his bidding, inevitably creating huge resentment. One of King's many scams is to sell an "Oriental delicacy" called a "deer mouse" as food to prisoners; in reality, they're rats, which King breeds in secret. Throw in extreme brutality on the part of the Japanese guards, as well as discipline-obsessed British officers, and you end up with a vivid portrait of a harsh, god-awful hellhole in which everyone does what is needed - including compromising one's morals - to stay alive. King is like a rat himself, prospering under these dehumanizing conditions.
Written for the screen and directed by Bryan Forbes, King Rat is based on a novel by James Clavell, who was himself a POW in Singapore during WWII and reflects his own sense of truth; the movie's overall attention to detail is especially striking. Clavell started his film career by writing the sci-fi classic The Fly (1958). He also co-wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape (1963), wrote and directed the Sidney Poitier film To Sir, with Love (1967), and penned the novels Shogun and Tai-Pan.
Forbes, who has worked as actor, writer, director and producer, was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar® for The Angry Silence (1960) and later was one of several writers to work on Chaplin (1992). On King Rat, Forbes oversaw a talented crew which garnered two Oscar® nominations, for Black-and-White Cinematography (Burnett Guffey) and Black-and-White Art Direction (Robert Emmet Smith and Frank Tuttle). Both categories were won that year by Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools (1965).
Forbes also directed all-around excellent performances from a talented cast. George Segal got the lead after Paul Newman and Steve McQueen turned it down; combined with his performance in Ship of Fools, 1965 was a banner year for the rising star. Tom Courtenay, James Fox, John Mills and Denholm Elliott (who had spent three years in a POW camp himself) turned in equally notable performances.
Critics were generally kind to King Rat. Variety observed that it was shot entirely on the outskirts of Los Angeles yet "has the feel and casting of an overseas pic." The trade paper described the film as "grim" and "very raw," praised "Burnett Guffey's outstanding B&W camera," and called the King character "the Sammy Glick of POW life." The New York Times noted the movie was occasionally "gruesome" but admired how "the sheer displays of horrors are vigorously and ruthlessly achieved, and the actors [are] unflinching."
As for King Rat's reception by audiences, Ellen Snyder, writing in Magill's Survey of Cinema, has summarized it well: "The American public stayed away. In 1965 the theme of moral failure and survival at any cost was a few years ahead of its time. The anti-Vietnam War protests had hardly begun and the American audience was not interested in a totally nonheroic portrayal of Allied POW behavior. It was not until the late 1960s, when the protests were gaining great momentum, that people began to see King Rat and make it into a cult film. However, even if historical events had not made its story popular and relevant to contemporary issues, the film would still be a classic because of its story, acting, directing, and cinematography."
Producer: James Woolf
Director: Bryan Forbes
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes, James Clavell (novel)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Robert Smith
Music: John Barry
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Cast: Corporal King (George Segal), Lt. Robin Grey (Tom Courtenay), Peter Marlowe (James Fox), Top Sgt. Max (Patrick O'Neal), Lt. G.D. Larkin (Denholm Elliott).
by Jeremy Arnold