Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Stories of WW2 prison camps almost always center on escape - The Colditz Story,
The One that Got Away, etc. This latter-day examination of a Japanese camp discards
all that in its explanatory title card, and proceeds with an adult version of Lord of the
Flies. Wartime captivity in circumstances of 'lessened optimism' is usually framed in
patriotic terms, with disparate men banding together for a common goal. Writer James
Clavell did the screen adaptation of the heavyweight of the genre, The Great Escape,
but here the exact opposite of heroism is examined, a mirror image of society where hopelessness and
desperation allow the rise of a selfish opportunist. George Segal is the quintessential loner hero,
whose willingness to work the system makes him a King in more than name; Bryan Forbes'
Art-movie prison camp epic stays true to this grim theme.
A thousand miserable English troops, along with a few Americans, wait out the
war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where escape is futile because there's nowhere to escape
to. Cpl. King (George Segal), an American, has a complicated
racket going, dealing with the Japanese guards on a barter basis. His clothes are immaculate
while the rest of the camp goes in rags, and his flunky helpers protect his scams from
detection by the camp Provost, Lt. Grey (Tom Courtenay). King strikes up a friendship with young
Peter Marlowe (James Fox), an Englishman who can speak the local native language and help in
King's negotiations. Is it corrupt to prosper while one's comrades suffer? King is the most hated,
and the most respected man in the prison.
The creep Yank played by William Holden in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 had more scams and rackets
going than Sgt. Bilko, and paid for his selfishness be being treated as a despised and selfish loner.
Corporal King is a more Darwinian conception: by cornering the market in the scarcest necessities, King's
power has trumped all existing systems. Both the military command and the informal prison code in the
steamy prison camp bow to his authority, as men of higher rank toady to him to receive the
benefits of proximity to the man who always has meat on the table and fresh cigarettes to dispense.
That King is a successful racketeer is evident from the first, when we see most of the prisoners, even
the commanding officer, wearing stinking tatters, while King goes about in freshly-laundered shirts (that
he immediately sweats through, one every twenty minutes). The secret of King's power is his ability to
barter on an equal basis with the camp guards, for himself and as the middleman for the officers. He takes
an exhorbitant cut of everything, and egotistically considers that he's doing a favor for the often
desperate men and officers he exploits.
James Fox's Marlowe character (chosen from Joseph Conrad, perhaps?) is one of the few prisoners that has anything
King needs, a knowledge of the local dialect that can allow the black marketeer to extend his activities. But
Marlowe also fascinates King with his refusal to be sucked into the same pit of subservient misery shared by
lackeys like Sgt. Max (Patrick O'Neal) or Tex (Todd Armstrong). He questions every gift and turns down most
as bribes, gestures that perversely bring out the friend in the cynical, lonely King. Each saves the other's
life, in a way.
In the abstract sense, King Rat is a powerful condemnation of free enterprise. King's demoralizing
influence is felt throughout the entire camp, which functions as a city of the dead instead
of an organized unit. The top law is Tom Courtenay's Provost marshal Robin Grey, who hates King and his
corruption and is obsessed with bringing him down. Burdened by his official status and a personal
necessity to stay within the military code, Grey is forced to do unsavory things, like order a soldier to kill his
beloved dog, for killing a Colonel's chicken. But he can't lay his mitts on his intended target, thanks to
the system of snitches that shields King's activities. Worst of all,
King's corrupting influence has the gutless top brass (John Mills, Denholm Elliott, Leonard Rossiter) in his
Grey catches the company cook cheating with the provisions - probably to produce an excess to sell to King on
the black market - his outrage is stymied by veiled threats and craven promises of promotion after liberation.
There's a nice inversion of prison camp conventions at work. King's snitches are there to snooker not the
guards, but the prisoners' own legal system. The barbed wire fence is only useful for Marlowe to hide
contraband outside its
perimeter. And going to authority for help is a sure way to get into trouble - a butcher unjustly framed for
stealing meat is found dead in a field full of metal tubes (what are those for, anyway?) - and nobody gives a
damn. King claims his ultimate aim is to be rich enough, when the time comes, to buy his life from his
captors, for he fears the Japanese may execute
them all rather than surrender to the allies. But his influence has turned what might be an orderly camp
into a ghetto of low morale and cynical despair.
Two major scenes show King's triumph. He serves up the condemned dog for the benefit of a select group of
insiders, which becomes a last supper-like feast of the disgraced. His greatest coup is raising rats in
secret, to be sold as 'animal meat' to the officer clientele. The sight of the brass snacking away at rat
while Segal and his crew revel in the degradation, is as strange and sick a sight as in any war film.
Just as the appearance of the naval officer at the end of Lord of the Flies causes a collapse in the
schoolboys' primitive society, the arrival of an Australian paratrooper (Richard Dawson) marks the end of
King's empire. He's a lowly corporal once more, but the only fit-looking soldier in a camp full of zombies.
The group hasn't the morale to impose a deserved lynching, as all share in the shame. Only a few have kept their
heads about them, and Marlowe is depressed to find that King now rejects their friendship. The only feeling
that seems to have survived is Lt. Grey's hatred.
Director Bryan Forbes' usual downplayed dramatics are bolstered by the eventful screenplay. The film has
no women or romance and
nothing to relieve the dramatic misery. Its downplayed ending is unhindered by commercial considerations,
something that is unthinkable now. Last year's Hart's War was a half-hearted attempt to be a Real Movie,
yet was sabotaged by the necessity for Big Drama and Big Issues and Big Action. In a spotty career,
King Rat is easily one of Forbes' best pictures.
Forbes has skilled peformances from
some top names, with talents like John Merivale (almost unrecognizable) and Joe Turkel in tiny roles. We get
a chance to see how studio contracts work, as both John Standing and Teru Shimada return from Columbia's
Walk, Don't Run, probably working off an obligation.
Dehholm Elliott is his dependable, effective self, while James Donald appears yet again as a camp
sawbones ("Madness! Madness!").
Todd Armstrong's Texas accent is so good, we quickly forget his fame from Jason and the Argonauts. Only
Patrick O'Neal is hard to buy as King's #1 lickspittle. Even though he gets a top scene, breaking down while
asserting his newly-relevant rank, his character is one of the few with a predictable arc.
Columbia's DVD of King Rat is adequately mastered in 16:9, although the box only says widescreen. This new
omission is a bit scary, as if Columbia were preparing an abandonment of 16:9 enhancement by ignoring it.
Hopefully Savant's suspicion is only DVD Weenie worry.
The black and white is suitably ugly under the glaring sun of the camp, which looks to have been shot in
the same disused quarries seen in innumberable Hammer films, with a few limp palm trees added. Helping to
break the grim tone is John Barry's interesting music score, always a plus.
There are some 'bonus trailers', and subs in English and Japanese, but the other six 'special features' listed
on the dog tags on the back of the box are just tech specs. May Columbia keep bringing out treasures like this
one from its second-tier library. Amen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
King Rat rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 9, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson