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Blu-ray: King and Country | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: King and Country

Blu-ray: King and Country

The class war rears its ugly head on the Western Front in Joseph Losey's bleak classic

In the trenches: Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay in 'King and Country'StudioCanal Vintage Classics

British anti-war films inspired by “the war that” failed “to end all wars” include Oh! What a Lovely War, The Return of the Soldier, A Month in the Country, Regeneration, Mrs Dalloway, The Trench, Testament of Youth, the different versions of Journey’s End, and Terence Davies’s haunting swansong Benediction.

For simplicity of form and style in rendering the pity of war – and the war waged by officers on their men – none improves on King and Country (1964).

Joseph Losey’s desolating film, which stars Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay at the peak of their powers, is set in a rat-infested British trench one filthy night at Passchendaele in 1917. Denys N Coop’s black and white cinematography renders the claustrophobic space as a miasmic reflection of dehumanisation as surely as Douglas Slocombe’s rendered the posh London house of Losey’s The Servant (1963) as a site of upper-class ruination.

Private Hamp (Courtenay), a dim young London cobbler and father of one, who joined up at the urging of his soon to be faithless wife and her mother, faces court-martial for deserting his battalion when on duty. The trial is indecently quick, for dawn will bring a new mobilisation. Hamp’s appointed counsel Captain Hargreaves (Bogarde) appeals in vain for clemency on the grounds that Hamp was suffering from shellshock when he walked away spontaneously from his position and travelled vaguely in the direction of England before he was apprehended.

When Hamp stood at a latrine a few feet from a mate from his street, he hesitantly tells Hargreaves, the mate was blown to smithereens. Hargreaves might have pressed the gravity of Hamp’s traumatisation on the adjudicating officers, chaired by Peter Copley’s by-the-book colonel.

But they would have been unmoved. They take on faith the testimony of the belligerent battalion doctor (Leo McKern), a dispenser of laxatives for all remedies, who dismisses Hamp as a coward. “He makes a damn good cup of tea,” is the best Hamp’s weak C.O, Lieutenant Webb (Barry Foster), can offer in his soldier’s defence. 

The final decision on Hamp’s sentence is kicked up the line to the commander of the BEF on the Western Front (the unnamed Douglas Haig). His main concern is “army morale” or, more precisely, discipline. There’s little doubt how he will respond or what Hamp’s fate will be, though for most of the film he is in denial, believing his status as his unit’s lone survivor from the Somme will save him.

Hamp shakes Hargreaves by thanking him for his defence in a tone that suggests he is more principled than Hargreaves thought him. It seems never to occur to him to pity himself or beg for mercy; Hargreaves, in contrast, is increasingly self-blaming. Emotionally, they all but switch places. Bogarde and Courtenay’s body language is as expressive as their voices; Copley and Foster no less skilfully espouse different varieties of mess room desiccation.

The class system flourishes in the mud. The public school accents of the prosecutor Captain Midgley (James Villiers) and the legal expert Lieutenant Prescott (Barry Justice) betray nothing as harsh as contempt for the uneducated pleb in the dock – Losey is too subtle for that – but mere indifference. Midgley says he hopes that Hamp will avoid a firing squad, but without feeling. 

Yet Hamp’s “mates” (foremost among them Jeremy Spenser’s Welsh man-child Private Sparrow) are as callous as their “superiors”. They mock Hamp’s trial by "court-martialing" and stoning one of the rats they’ve scared from the bloated carcass of a horse. When Hamp needs solace, they steal into his cell with flasks of stolen rum and make him the centre of a horrific Goya-esque masque.

Hargreaves is the film’s conscience. His frosty attitude to the naive and hapless Hamp shifts into compassion for him. His appeals to his fellow officers’ humanity having fallen on deaf ears, he punishes himself for his ineffectiveness in front of his disapproving colonel.

The latter calmly counters Hargreaves’s denunciation of (legal) facts – which the captain conveys metaphorically through a Lewis Carroll quote – by quoting back at him from a John Masefield poem that argues facts are evanescent and less trustworthy than the happy moments in a life. Their conversation would mean nothing to Hamp, who has no literary gens with which to succour himself, only a mouth organ. (Larry Adler composed and played the film's plaintive score.)

Fresh from their collaboration on The Servant, the blacklisted American director Losey (1909-84) was able to get the low-budget film financed because of Bogarde’s involvement. The son of the World War I veteran Lieutenant Ulric van den Bogaerde of the Royal Artillery was keen to make the picture having been a World War I hobbyist as a youth and following his harrowing World War II experiences.  An intelligence and air reconnaissance officer with the 2nd Army,

Bogarde was scarred by the sights he saw at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the time of its liberation. Timed to the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s start, the movie eventually opened on 3 December 1964 (11 days after the BBC completed the run of its monumental 26-part documentary series The Great War). (Pictured below: Courtenay, Keith Buckley as the Corporal of the Guard, and Bogarde consult with director Losey)

The idea for it had originated in a radio play by a defence lawyer who had been unable to save a court-martialled soldier, Losey told the French critic Michel Ciment. The screenplay was adapted by Evan Jones (1927-2023) from John Wilson’s play Hamp, which he’d based on a 50-page section of James Lansdale Hodson’s 1955 novel Return to the Wood

Jones’s script – the second of four he wrote for Losey – does not equivocate about the moral injustice meted out to Hamp. Midgley’s rebuke of Hargreaves – “A proper court is concerned with law. It’s a bit amateur to plead for justice” – sounds hollow given the horrific context, though it contains the rule that led to 291 executions of British Army and Commonwealth soldiers for desertion, cowardice, and abandoning a post between 1914 and 1918.

Hodson’s story extends to World War II and agonises about the justifiability of sending men into combat, which, the author concludes, is a necessary evil. Bogarde knew from the horrors he saw at Belsen that this was indisputably true. It doesn’t mitigate the anger he endowed to Hargreaves when he confronts his colonel on hearing of their commander's decision: “We’re bloody murderers.”

The film has been restored on 4K from the original negative, greatly enhancing the beauty of Coop's chiaroscuro images. The two main extras on the Vintage Classics Blu-ray is a new interview with Courtenay, who has some touching memories of Bogarde and an old soldier who did some carpentry for him at the time, and a short contemporaneous interview with Bogarde himself.

Hargreaves's frosty attitude to the naive and hapless Hamp shifts into compassion for him

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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