Director: Joseph Losey
By Roderick Heath
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a major tonal shift manifested in cinematic approaches to tales of conflict and warfare. This is especially discernable in those films made in Britain, where the film industry had been sustained through much of the ’50s by high-flying entertainments celebrating the victories of World War II in fairly unequivocal terms. Even the likes of Charles Frend’s severe The Cruel Sea (1953) and Guy Green’s existential Sea of Sand (1958) hardly argued with the moral exigencies of “the bloody war,” only the pains of waging it. Two films of 1957, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, initiated a distinct new phase in war movies. My father, then ten years old, saw River Kwai with his own ex-professional soldier father, who had seen and done some stuff that would stand your hair on end in places like Palestine, Burma, Libya and Crete, on a trip to London: my grandfather still had the shrapnel of mortar bombs in his flesh to the end of his days. They also happened to witness Bertrand Russell’s famous ban-the-bomb march on the very same weekend, and the coincidence of protest and art revealed the curdling attitude of the post-war community which had been living with not only the social fallout of the war but the threat of more literal fallout ever since.
By the early ’60s, dark antiwar fables and bleak satires on militarism were increasingly common on screen. Joseph Losey, the expatriate American director, had already contributed one such fable with his impressive scifi chiller The Damned (1962), and, with the unexpected success of the class satire The Servant (1963), had been elevated to a new level of importance as an art film director. His immediate follow-up, King & Country, was something of the solemn antithesis to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove of the same year, as well as echoing Paths of Glory (1957) in portraying a lowly serviceman’s politically dictated execution for cowardice. King & Country, was adapted by Evan Jones from the play by John Wilson, which itself was adapted from a story by James Lansdale Hodson. Indeed, several British films of the ’60s with acerbic things to say about the war came out of the Angry Young Man-inflected stage, including Leslie Norman’s The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), and Richard Attenborough’s version of Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Such works offered an antiwar sentiment through the relatively tangential revival of the WWI-era genre that, before WWII, had been a vehicle for similar sentiments regarding that remarkably pointless calamity.
King & Country, unlike many of those other films, spurns an urgent, innately hysterical note, but is instead a resolutely sober, low-key chamber piece. Most immediately striking is Losey’s unflinching evocation of the physical environs of the trenches of the Passchendaele campaign, utilising real-life photographs of the devastated landscape and rotting corpses to flesh out the otherwise tight focus on a particular army company over the course of 24 hours. It’s a world of wet, rot, rats, and constant cannon fire in the distance: dead horses and dead men riddled with vermin lie around barely noticed. Young Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay, British cinema’s anointed victim-hero before John Hurt supplanted him) has been apprehended by a patrol close to Calais after having strolled out of the lines wearing his battle kit in an apparent attempt to walk home. Capt. Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) is his assigned defence in the court martial, so hastily arranged the company’s Colonel (Peter Copley), the convening officer, also has to serve as the president of the court.
Hargreaves, a conscientious but firmly upper-class type, is initially wary of his task and dismissive of his prospective client. When he listens to Hamp’s story and absorbs his demeanour, and in spite of his misgivings, Hargreaves believes the young man guileless. Hamp is the only survivor of his entire original unit, recently received a Dear John letter from his wife, and seems to have experienced a spell of dissociation before which he was an effective soldier without a blemish on his character. In the trial proceedings held in a ramshackle dugout, Hargreaves attempts to make a case for Hamp’s suffering from incipient shell shock brought about when a mate was blown up next to him and when he himself almost drowned in a shell crater. Hargreaves takes on the blustering, contemptuous, but anxious unit doctor, Capt. O’Sullivan (Leo McKern), who holds firm to his opinion the Hamp was only suffering cold feet, and examines Hamp’s sympathetic immediate superior, Lt. Webb (Barry Foster). Meanwhile, Hamp’s unit buddies enact a mockery of the proceedings when one of them, Pvt. Sparrow (Jeremy Spencer), is bitten by a rat, prompting him and his fellows to go out, catch any old rat, and put it on trial. Hargreaves can’t mount an entirely effective defence, and the court decides to declare Hamp guilty with a recommendation for clemency. The recommendation is, however, rejected by HQ, and Hamp is sentenced to die in the morning.
Jones’ script does little to open up the play, but Losey still stages some effective cinema in his intimate recording of the scenes. Losey begins with his camera prowling about the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the agony of the Great War embodied in neatly stylised forms and quotes from Shakespeare. As Hamp recounts his story to Hargreaves, Losey superimposes images of blasted landscapes and the sound of omnipresent rain to inform us that the men are united by their common, despairing sense of the world just above the relatively sane, safe confines of the trenches. Later, when Hargreaves confronts the Colonel about the decision to execute a man because he “went for a walk,” Losey has the Colonel holding the centre of the room and looming large in the frame, seated and becalmed, whilst Hargreaves skirts the peripheral shadows, ducking under beams and glancing into mirrors, eyes burning accusatory as he revolves around his superior. The most strikingly visualised sequence sees Hamp’s fellow soldiers sneak into his cell. Sparrow embraces the increasingly catatonic Hamp and reassures him in fatherly fashion that there’s no shame in his upcoming fate, one most of them will certainly soon share, and then, in a moment of drunken play, the men flock around Hamp in a teasing game whilst he stumbles around with a blindfold on, evoking the icon of blind justice embodied in its most pathetic and degraded state.
The dominant mood of the film is one of deflated necessity, infused with suppressed despair, particularly welling from Hargreaves: it’s only subtly, allusively noted that another similarity between him and Hamp is that he, too, is the only man left from an original corps of 1914 volunteers. When he grills his Colonel, accusing them all of being complicit in murder, the superior only tiredly, glibly explains the politics behind the verdict, suggesting that any such moral precepts have nothing to do with what they’re there for: nobody’s going home soon, and that point has to be unstintingly recapitulated to all and sundry. Hamp’s execution, rather than a term of imprisonment or detailing to a punishment duty, is necessitated by the fact that the unit will be returning to the front the following day, and all reluctance must be forcefully dispelled. The word “duty” is constantly spoken without any true definition, except in terms of the mutual reliance of the men. No one man can excuse himself if the others remain, and the others remain because no one man can excuse himself. The firm delineations of social power are kept well in place, for Hargreaves is, at least theoretically, friends with both the snotty prosecuting lawyer, Capt. Midgley (James Villiers), Webb, and the Colonel. And yet the film portrays the moment of psychic disintegration of such certainties: after the war, one senses, there will be no reason for any of these people to look each other in the eye again.
The blasted mood is coolly sustained by a Larry Adler harmonica score, and the visuals beautifully captured by Denys Coop. With their aid, Losey’s maintenance of a frayed, ambivalent, unfussy tone imbues the film with a gravity and convincing rigour it wouldn’t otherwise possess. If King & Country, much lauded at the time of release, is a touch less than overwhelming now, it’s because the novelty of this type of drama has long since worn off. Looking past the fine work of the director and the actors, the material isn’t all that substantial, and finally, the underlying script is merely solid, dark dramaturgy. There’s not much layering or irony to its political cynicism, and even if free of big Stanley Kramer-esque speeches, the points are still communicated through obvious characterisations. Hamp, the garrulous, clueless victim, is too uncomplicatedly and manipulatively offered as a sympathetic sacrificial lamb, whilst his other working-class fellows are barely sketched, Brechtian shit kickers whose elemental mix of casual compassion and thoughtless cruelty is a too-convenient a way of affirming the base duality of humanity and the stalwart status of the common man. Hargreaves is a sensitive bourgeois disappointed by everyone who can’t live up to his standards (he still makes sure to berate both his Colonel and Hamp for such failures), but he’s still the automatic hero of the piece; other characters, like Webb, Midgley, and O’Sullivan, are pretty broad. Very little of substance is said or revealed about any of these people.
Losey also had a fondness for sloppy symbolism that has also dated badly: the meaning of the mock rat trial is more than a bit hackneyed and only reiterates the obvious animalism underlying the procedural structure, and combined with the later scene when they play with Hamp, comes close to confirming accidentally the officers’ dismissal of their men as coarse, lesser beings requiring severe treatment. In many ways, the drama is rather broader and less affecting than the generic but altogether stranger The Damned, and Losey’s gift for communicating dread through elision more fully realised in the subsequent Accident (1967). The inevitable Christ imagery that collects around Hamp as he takes communion prior to being pumped full of morphine by Webb is equally one-dimensional. The desperate humanity of the soldiers, finally, feels a bit contrived.
The film, in essence, belongs to Courtenay and Bogarde, particularly the latter: if Hamp’s a slightly too passive and muted a character for an actor of Courtenay’s innate intelligence to really wrap himself around, Bogarde is in his element as Hargreaves—haunted, angry, but dutiful and disciplined beyond a doubt. The final scene is horridly memorable as the stupefied Hamp, not finished off by the firing squad composed of his friends, who all aim away from him, topples into the mud, and Hargreaves takes on the job of delivering the final bullet, cradling the soldier like a baby and shooting him in the mouth, as if fulfilling a contract of care between the two men. Who’s getting off lightest here becomes, at last, a rather moot point. l