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The Great Anti-War Films King of Hearts

Dictionary.com 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.

De Broca (Cartouche, The Seven Deadly Sins) directs Alan Bates (Georgy Girl, 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.

In 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

In 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

The 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.

Colonel 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:

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

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

Plumpick: 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.

MacBibenbrook: 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?

Despite 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).

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

Meanwhile, 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.

Plumpick 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.

Unable 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

The 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.

In 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

She offers the services of one of her girls, Coquelicot, played by a young and captivating Genevieve Bujold (Anne of a Thousand Days, Dead Ringers). 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.

When 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.

Plumpick 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

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

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

Duke: Long live the king on my word as a Duke.

Plumpick: Duke? Who made you a Duke?

Duke: Who made you a King?

Plumpick: Brother, yesterday you were in a nuthouse!

Duke: Jealous? And where were you yesterday?

Resigned 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

He 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.

The 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:

von Krack: Victory! The town has blown up!

Officer: But Hamburger is too.

von Krack: The Iron Cross is precious. Even posthumously.

As 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.

The 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

u201CWhat funny people,u201D observes the eccentric Coquelicot.

Soon, 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.

Plumpick 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:

Plumpick, 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.

As 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.

King 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.

While 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

Georges 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.

The 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.

De 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.

As 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 notion.

The Great Anti-War Films:

December 18, 2001

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