“King and Country” is a WWI court room drama. It was directed by Joseph Losey. It was based on a play by John Wilson and a novel by James Lansdale Hodson. The movie was low budget and was shot in only eighteen days. It was a critical, but not box office success. The movie is set during the Battle of Passchendaele on the Western Front in 1917. It deals with the topics of shell shock and desertion.
The movie opens with a shots of dead soldiers and a soldier memorial. Vibe set. Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtney) is in a cell awaiting court-martial for desertion. Hamp, a volunteer and veteran, walked away from the trenches and headed home. He was the only survivor from his original unit and is a classic shell shock candidate. His assigned counsel, Capt. Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), is an asshole who is less than sympathetic. He believes the party line on shell shock – it’s cowardice. When he first interviews the naïve Hamp, there are soldiers bailing water in the trench in the background. The very deep focus of the scene emphasizes the noteworthy cinematography of the black and white film. Hamp tells him he cracked after he almost drowned in a shell hole. He deserted when his unit was in the rear. He is lucid and reasonable, but is surprised when he is told he faces the death penalty. Hargreaves decides to go with a temporary insanity defense. A man can only take so much – “so much blood, so much filth, so much dying.”
“King and Country” has a similar feel to “Paths of Glory”, but is more play-bound. There is no action, but it is not just set in a courtroom. Hamp’s scenes are intercut with scenes of a few Tommies in the trench nearby. Mates who are potential shell shock victims. The set is authentically rainy and muddy. They provide the gallows humor appropriate for the Western Front. They capture a rat that they roust from a dead horse. And then put the rat on trial for biting one of them! The movie’s symbolism is not subtle, but it is appropriate. The movie is dialogue-driven and, although it is not laden with memorable lines, screenwriter Evan Jones (“Victory”) handles the predictable trial with aplomb. The movie is as predictable as a 1960s movie about WWI desertion would be expected to be. Predictable especially if you have seen “Paths of Glory”. However, the decision to play with the audience’s emotions by way of the twist in the court decision defies credulity if you have any knowledge of the British Army’s policy toward men like Hamp. One unpredictable element is the Hargreaves character. Bogarde is excellent (it was supposedly his favorite role), but his conversion from antipathetic to empathetic is not truly believable. It’s a good thing for Hamp that he comes around because as a lawyer, he ranks with Dax. Courtnay is also excellent as the naïve Hamp. He reminded me of Pvt. Slovik. Except that Slovik had more reason to be naïve. Hamp, a veteran of three years, would certainly have had some experience with the military ethos. He should have known he had as much chance as the rat.
“King and Country” is a must-see for anyone interested in WWI movies. It does not wink at anti-war sentiments. It oozes (literally, with all the mud) that sentiment. You won’t soon forget it.
GRADE = B+