The Great Anti-War Films King of Hearts

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defines insanity as u201Cpersistent mental disorder or derangement.u201D
A wise man once said that the definition of insanity is u201Cdoing
the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.u201D
Both definitions are on display in Philippe De Broca's quirky anti-war
film King
of Hearts
(1966). I'll leave it to you to decide which definition
better applies to the wars of the State.

Broca (Cartouche,
Seven Deadly Sins
) directs Alan Bates (Georgy
, Women
in Love
) as a Scottish soldier in World War One, or The
Great War. I feel compelled to ask: what was so great about it?
I nominate this perversion of language for Misnomer of the Century.

October 1918, the war is almost over. The Allies are advancing and
the Germans are preparing to blow up a small town in northern France.
German General von Krack (screenwriter Daniel Boulanger) explains
his strategy to his underling Lieutenant Hamburger (Marc Dudicourt)
during a haircut, telling him u201CSir Lancelot chimes at midnight.u201D

an early indication that De Broca will use comedy to help deliver
his message, a young Adolf Hitler makes a cameo, asking, u201CShall
we burn the town, sir?u201D

barber, a spy for the Resistance, sends word of the impending fireworks
to the British via a secret telegraph. He also alerts the townspeople.
They flee.

MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi), commander of the Scottish regiment,
orders a subordinate to find a u201Cvolunteeru201D to go into the town to
locate and defuse the bombs. Enter Charles Plumpick (Bates), an
ornithologist who reads Shakespeare to his carrier pigeons. MacBibenbrook
explains the mission to the private, who is confused as to why he
was selected:

I wonder, sir, if you have the right Plumpick, sir. You see, I'm
an ornithology specialist.

This calls for a specialist, Pumpernickel. You think we pulled
your name out of a hat?

It's the explosives, sir. I wonder, sir, if perhaps one of the chaps
with ordnance may not do the job just a wee bit better, sir.

Send two men in that inferno? See here, man: that town can
go up at any moment. You're asking me to risk the lives of two
of my troops?

wondering why his life is worth risking, Plumpick, trained
to follow orders, takes his gear and his carrier pigeons into the
war-torn town. He encounters the remaining German troops, who chase
him into a nearby building. We see (but he doesn't) that it is a
lunatic asylum. Plumpick quickly dons the appropriate garb and blends
in with the others just before the Germans burst in. Upon seeing
the Germans, one of the patients identifies himself as the u201CDuke
of Clubs.u201D Taking this cue, Plumpick says he is le roi de cour
(the king of hearts).

Germans, apparently afraid that mental illness is contagious, run
off in panic. Plumpick follows soon after. He bumps his head and
passes out.

the asylum inmates discover that the doors they have been locked
behind are suddenly open. They stream into the town and revel in
their sudden freedom, like children escaping the last day of government
school. One woman finds a dressing table in a bombed out building
and applies garish makeup. Another man enters a barbershop, puts
on a pompadour wig and assumes the role of barber. All the others
descend into the dress shops and find costumes and take on various
roles: dukes, bishops, generals and benign whores.

awakes from his cranial contusion and encounters the inmates. To
say the least, he finds their behavior bizarre, including that of
the barber, who pays his customers, u201Cotherwise the shop would be
empty.u201D He then encounters General Geranium, who has become the
ringmaster of an abandoned circus. Plumpick recoils at the sight
of a yawning door to a lion's cage. Only when he rushes to close
the gate does the lion make a move to escape. Geranium explains
that the lion has been locked up so long, it's the only reality
he knows. Undoubtedly, this reminds anarcho-capitalists of the oft-uttered
objection to a Stateless society: we've always had government and
we always will. Most people don't recognize their caged reality.

to find the blockhouse containing the bombs, Plumpick sends off
notes via his carrier pigeons. One, describing the strange atmosphere
of the town, reaches MacBibenbrook, who theorizes that Plumpick
himself is nuts and then speculates about his loyalty: u201CPumpernickel:
isn't that a German name?u201D

second pigeon is shot down and its missive is intercepted by the
Germans. Alarmed that u201Cthe blockhouse has disappeared,u201D they return
to the town in two armored cars.

the meantime, Plumpick wanders into the bordello to warn the Madame
and her stable of whores of the impending danger. She is unfazed
and unafraid. u201CI'll tell you my secret,u201D she says. u201CI live for the
moment. That's what counts.u201D

offers the services of one of her girls, Coquelicot, played by a
young and captivating Genevieve Bujold (Anne
of a Thousand Days
, Dead
). He falls in love with her at first sight (who
wouldn't). Before the tryst can begin, the nuthouse gang whisks
him away for his coronation as their king.

the Germans arrive, they stumble upon the peculiar parade and are
showered with confetti and cheers: u201CLook, soldiers!u201D The armored
cars are commandeered by the lunatics. At first they just pursue
each other around the square, but then when the Germans try to reclaim
the vehicles, they open fire on the soldiers, chasing them back
out of town.

soon discovers the blockhouse; it had been camouflaged by the inmates
in preparation for the coronation. He tries in vain to breach it,
but it has been rendered impenetrable by the Germans. Realizing
that the only hope is to leave the town, he tries to get the inmates
to follow him. But when they hear the distant rumble of war, they
urge the king to stay and warn him that the countryside is full
of wild beasts, and that u201Cthere is murder in their hearts.u201D

that they are correct, he decides to stay. They are relieved:

Why travel, sire? You've everything you want at home.

Long live the king on my word as a Duke.

Duke? Who made you a Duke?

Who made you a King?

Brother, yesterday you were in a nuthouse!

Jealous? And where were you yesterday?

to the fact that he can neither persuade them to leave nor abandon
them, Plumpick spends what he believes will be his final minutes
with the stunning Coquelicot. As he laments that the time has reached
three minutes to midnight, Coquelicot responds, u201CYes, but what a
wonderful three minutes.u201D

suddenly realizes where the fuse to the bombs is and succeeds in
preventing the explosion. Off in the distance, the Scots and the
Germans look on from their respective vantage points. When the bombs
do not go off as expected, von Krack, chagrined at Hamburger's putative
failure, orders him executed by firing squad.

Scots march into town to celebrate. MacBibenbrook is overwhelmed
by sudden female companionship and orders his men to shoot off fireworks
in celebration. When von Krack sees this, he becomes exuberant:

: Victory! The town has blown up!

But Hamburger is too.

: The Iron Cross is precious. Even posthumously.

bagpipe players lead a celebratory parade, the Germans strut into
town to relish the destruction they have wrought. When the opposing
forces notice each other, they face off in a gun battle that kills
every last soldier. MacBibenbrook and von Krack each demand surrender,
and each refuses. They too kill each other. After they fall to the
ground, their horses run off together.

inmates watch it all, but don't fully understand what has happened.
In a line that made me laugh out loud, one of them deadpans, u201CI
think they're over-acting.u201D

funny people,u201D observes the eccentric Coquelicot.

the liberators arrive, and the inmates sense that the party is over.
They meander back to the asylum. After discarding their costumes,
they retreat inside the iron gates to their true home, taking the
key with them.

receives a medal for his heroism, which he hangs on the birdcage
in honor of his fallen feathered friend. Still believing that he
is a munitions expert, his commanders apprise him of his next assignment:

you're going up to the front again, immediately. (Pointing to a
map,) The Germans are still holding onto this town, and we're going
to blow it sky-high.

a troop truck pulls away, Plumpick looks back forlornly at the asylum
and makes the only decision he can: he deserts. Mirroring the inmates'
rejection of the lunacy of war, he sheds all his clothing, keeps
only his caged carrier pigeon, and rings the bell to the asylum.
Ultimately, Plumpick chooses the mild insanity of the company of
delusional eccentrics to the greater insanity of the truth of war.

of Hearts is at once a small and grand movie. Small, in the
sense of a simple anti-war parable that eschews battle scenes and
special effects and instead takes the time to develop its characters
in a series of poetic vignettes. Grand, in the sense of its flamboyant
costumes, its scenes of spontaneous parades and songs, and surreal
touches that evoke Fellini.

perhaps not a bust-a-gut comedy, De Broca nonetheless employs humor
to rewarding effect. He portrays the military officers as buffoons,
while the asylum inmates are drawn in such a way that they are u201Ccrazy
like a fox.u201D

Delerue’s score adds to the mood and compliments the cinematography
of Pierre Lhomme, who paints the screen with a palette of vibrant
colors. It is a dazzling film; a sumptuous treat for both the eyes
and the ears.

cast of loony characters is delightful, especially the coquettish
Genevieve Bujold. Anyone who saw the film in 1966, or in 1970 when
it enjoyed a resurgence on the art house circuit, could have predicted
that this role would propel her to a long and successful career.

Broca makes his anti-war message clear: the supposedly insane denizens
of the asylum have a better understanding of what is virtuous and
genuine in life than the theoretically intelligent and sane war
makers of the State.

a bonus, the film is presented in its Original
Aspect Ratio
(OAR). If you still labor under the false belief
that you are missing something because of the u201Cblack barsu201D that
are visible on your TV screen when a film is presented in the letterbox,
or wide screen, format, please follow
this link
so that you may be permanently disabused of this erroneous
is compiling a list of great anti-war films and books. If you have
a suggestion for a book or film that you think should be included,
send me an email with the
title and a one- or two-sentence synopsis or blurb. This will be
valuable not only to,
but also to me as I write reviews for this series.

Great Anti-War Films:

18, 2001

Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The
Valley News.

Gee Archives


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