Thursday, May 26, 2011



      “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


  1. This is one of the top prisoner of war movies. The way camp conditions are depicted and the dynamics of the prisoners appear pretty realistic. A character like King probably would survive in a real camp. He's similar to William Holden in Stalag 17 only much less redeemably likable.
    KR is a hard movie to love. Its well done but very bleak at times. Its much easier to love TGE of course. If nothing else the fact that KR is filmed in B/W seems to drain the film of any flair. but hell, they are in a POW camp so it works. The book as i remember is an excellent read.
    I like the dynamics of the relationship between Tom Courtney and George Segal. It evolves into hero worship by the end, a twisted version of hero worship. Courtney grudgingly looks up to Segal and sees some redemption in him which really isnt there. He's just a survivor that helps others only if it helps himself. The ending on the truck is very good. I never thought of the Christ imagery. I just thought of it as King striking a blaise pose: I dont know if i really want to leave this place, but what the hell. When he disappears into the crowd of soldiers its fitting.
    I was never much of a George Segal fan, but this is his best role i think. You can see him being third choice behind the other two actors, but he does a great job playing the part. Steve Mcqueen would have been very, very interesting here too.
    To me this is a very British film, but starring an american. Luckily it has some good humor to it (the scene where the men almost have orgasms over eating stewed rat is memorable).
    Good, solid movie. It just suffers in comparison to other POW classics like Bridge Over River Kwai or The Great Escape simply because it is a darker, more stripped down story. A character piece i guess. But i'd place it in the top five POW pictures for sure.

  2. This sounds quite interesting and I wouldn't mind watching it at all. Since I didn't like The Great Escape it wouldn't suffer from a comparison. I think it sounds closer to Bridge on the River Kwai though. I see jayraven would even place it in the Top 5. I think I'll need to try and find it.

  3. I just remembered it was James Fox that "hero worshiped" Segal. Ah, the memory goes with age! My top five POW movies: Bridge, Stalag 17, Great Escape, King Rat, Empire of the Sun. The character played by John Malkovich in EotS is a scrounger "king" very similar to Segal's part in KR. I would replace EotS occasionally with another Brit B/W movie The Hill since im a Sean Connery fan. The power struggle in that one is simple and effective as KR. Up and down a damn hill in the middle of the desert for absolutely no reason. EotS has such a grand scope tho and is from the young boy's POV that its hard not to like it. Despite some Spielburgian excess of course. Nothing tops Bridge tho.

  4. Any discussion of WWII POW movies starts with - what is the second best POW movie after The Great Escape? Would anyone seriously argue that Jaws is not the best shark movie?

    Caroline, don't give Jayraven too much respect. He likes unorthodox movies. King Rat belongs in the top 5 no more than Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Oops!

    signed - War Movie Buff

  5. I can relate to King because I was once a money lender (naturally no interest charged) who had the First Sgt. and Mess Sgt. on "my payroll." A no-interest/no pay back loan (gift) of $100.00 per month (in 1965) just happened to be the magic amount to not be on the various duty rosters and get steaks at any meal whenever I wanted. On payday morning I would buy the daily Stars and Stripes which cost 5 cents while breaking a $20.00 bill. If I didn't have $500.00 on me the day before payday, I felt broke. My group would do my boot shining and polish my brass for no interest loans. I had excessive amounts of boots and fatigues which would be hidden for inspections. There was no need for protection because one word from a money lender could make life miserable (extra KP) for the aggressor. My monthly base pay was $200.00 and I lent out over $1500.00 a month on the average, naturally at no interest. I hated to not Re-up but I had better things to do in civilian life.

  6. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Clavell has said he was the James Fox character and he knew a King character. What's a little disconcerting (by its implications) is the homoerotic subtext Forbes injected in his mise-en-scene. Watch the celebratory dance King and Marlowe do together after Marlowe returns the money. It's very clear. Although the book contains some homosexuality (character of Sean) Marlow is not part of that clique.

  8. Interesting, but I can't see myself rewatching it to see your point. I'll just take your word for it.

  9. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Bryan Forbes Friday at

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks. I am working on a comparison of the movie to the book that should be posted soon.

  10. This film goes much deeper than most viewers have understood.
    When our upperclass officer has the accident and his arm is threatened the King enrols the aid of another ' operator ' the Australian who supplies the saving drugs. Now there's a scene where the King is negotiating and the Aussy says " us kind have to stick together".
    Unlike the book the director suggest that the King is a Jew which may explain why he finds the friendship from the officer so hard to accept.
    Anyhow once you accept this dynamic his behaviour and the role he plays becomes much more complex and challenging

  11. In the movie, the Provost-Marshal Grey denounces King to Marlowe, calling him a crook, a thief, a liar. Marlowe points out that King is indeed a liar, and so is everybody else (including Grey himself) --- but he’s certainly not a crook. He does not steal from anybody. All his deals are made voluntarily on both sides. In fact, he’s the embodiment of capitalist virtue. He manages to set up a thriving business empire, in almost impossibly negative conditions. Where others see nothing, he sees opportunity and takes advantage of it, with profit to himself. Since when do we consider making a profit a crime? It’s the way people get rich, which is what we’d all love to be. You cannot admire Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and at the same time deprecate Corporal King: he is spiritual brother to these --- a past master of private enterprise, who sees opportunity and takes advantage of it. This brilliant movie holds up a mirror to capitalist society, and to us who live approvingly in it. Corporal King is a model of private enterprise. He has lots of people who depend upon him, just like any other wealthy person. The fact that they accept this dependence, while at the same time secretly hating him, is a moral reflection on themselves, not on King.

    1. Interesting take. Thank you for sharing.

    2. I totally agree with your assessment of the capitalistic role that King plays and the subsequent hatred that the socialistic Grey feels. So is it power that drives King? Or the need for some other acceptance which isn't very clear

  12. If King had been murdered for his stash, camp law would suggest the killers would have to be brought to justice even if that was unpopular since stealing was a heinous offence (in the book, one of the Australians, Gurble, was ostracised for stealing food and apparently commits suicide, though later revelations suggest he was quite possibly innocent and the British officers were to blame). One of the good things about the story is that you can see all sides - Grey (apt name!) is trying to be honourable and keep order in a world where the old rules don't always work but secretly longs to be part of the upper class he can never join; the King is, in his way, both a capitalist exploiting the system he's in and a monarch dispensing favours; and the posh Marlowe is caught between the two but finds the lessons and help of the King more useful for survival in Changi. It does seem odd that the King is so shattered by the end of the war and his regime; someone with his nous would surely have a chance of making a go of things on the outside. Ron

  13. Also in the book - King's box was emptied of its contents - we later learn by (or at least for) one of the British colonels (who do seem to be the true villains of the piece given their ongoing theft of food). Interesting you find King so unsympathetic - the author's surrogate, Marlowe, comes to like and respect him and there's certainly an argument he genuinely has regard for Marlowe, at least. And there are far worse people in the camp: King at least has a code of ethics (he pays people who work for him, for example, and while he's a hard bargainer, he sticks to deals made). Ron


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