Thursday, May 26, 2011
FORGOTTEN GEM? "King Rat"
“King Rat” is a WWII prisoner of war movie released in 1965. It was based on the novel by James Clavell. The film is set in the infamous Changi Prison Camp on the island of Singapore in 1945. It is a tale of survival, not escape. The main character is an American in a mostly British camp. He is Corporal King (George Segal) and he unofficially runs the camp because he is the go-to guy for anything a prisoner might want – at a price. He is amoral and enjoys it. Because he has profited from his acquisition “skills” he looks spic and span and eats well. Most of the inmates resent him, especially the Provost Marshall, Lt. Grey (Thomas Courtney). Grey is an officious British officer who is obsessed with bringing King to justice. He is having a hard time catching the King red-handed, however.
King develops a dysfunctional relationship with the suave, upper class Brit Peter Marlowe (James Fox). He wants him to act as an interpreter (he speaks Malay) and tries to put him on the payroll by offering him an egg. Marlowe cannot be bribed, but he is intrigued by the charismatic King and takes the job.
King has a posse, which includes toady Sgt. Max (Patrick O’ Neal), that he lords over. They come up with a scheme to breed rats and sell the meat as mouse deer. Meanwhile, Grey discovers corruption in the food distribution. When he brings the accusation to Col. Smedley-Taylor (John Mills), he finds out the brass are involved and is told he should ignore it. He is incensed, but the offer of a promotion calms him down. So who is worse – King or the camp leaders?
King is a strange character. When he is almost caught with money gained from trading with the Japanese, he gets Marlowe to hide the evidence and then gets expensive medicine to save Marlowe’s gangrenous arm from being amputated. Is he doing this out of friendship or because only Marlowe knows where he buried the money? It is unclear because King is such a dislikable person.
The British officers are called in and the commandant shocks them with news that the war is over. Everyone in the camp celebrates except King who realizes that not only are his salad days over, but the sword of justice now hangs over his head. He barely survives a fit by the seething Max. When a single British paratrooper (Richard Dawson!) arrives to liberate the camp, he pointedly asks King why he looks a lot fitter than the other prisoners. The hand-writing is on the wall for King. Marlowe defends King’s actions to Grey by pointing out that hatred of King is what kept Grey alive. However, King turns his back on Marlowe’s attempt to part on good terms. Is King trying to save Marlowe from guilt by association?
At the end of the film, King is leaving with the other Americans in a truck. He stands in the back of the truck with his arms out like Christ on the crucifix – an image that, if planned by the director, does not fit his character at all.
This is a pretty bleak movie, although it has its moments of black humor. It does accurately reflect conditions in a Japanese prison camp. We can assume this because James Clavell spent three years in Chongi. The conditions are not exaggerated in part because Chongi was actually one of the better run Japanese camps. What’s bleak is the men themselves. The prisoners are gaunt and they sweat a lot. Only King is not a scarecrow. They also smoke cigarettes whenever they can get them which makes butts a type of currency in the camp. This is a movie that will make some non-smokers and all vegetarians sick. The camp brings out the worst in some men. There probably were men like King in every camp, but you do not see them in most POW movies.
Some of the movie strains credulity a bit. King does not hold sway because of physical intimidation. He is in the distinct minority as an American and is disliked by the vast majority, including members of his entourage. Realistically, he would have been killed for his stash (which his posse knows the location of).
The movie is well respected in the prisoner of war genre. It contrasts well with the more up-beat and optimistic ones like “The Great Escape” or “The Colditz Story”. It is interesting to note that TGE came out in 1963 before the 60s cynicism hit Hollywood and KR came out in 1965 about the time that cynicism begins to be felt. To see what I mean, compare the scrounger in TGE (Hendley – James Garner) to King. Being more realistically depressing does not make it a better movie than TGE and it is probably a bit overrated. But you have to give it credit for showing survival over escape. It came as a surprise to me that it was nominated for two Academy Awards (cinematography and art direction). The acting is good, especially Segal who has to be unlikable (Paul Newman and Steve McQueen turned down the role). Watch it if you want a different point of view on prison life.
Rating – 7/10