Philippe De Broca’s 1966 cult comedy, King of Hearts, is a colourful, charming, and silly little film that fits in line with war-time farces like Richard Attenborough’s Oh, What a Lovely War! In the underlying message of King of Hearts, De Broca is warning us that a closely-knit society is the seed that plants mayhem. Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which straddles the theme of madness with a more serious portrayal of the human condition, King of Hearts is one with the insanity. De Broca hams up the characters at war and lets the madness roam free. But does that make King of Hearts an essential, forgotten classic on the bucket list for any film lover?
Newly issued on Blu-Ray by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, King of Hearts sees a commanding officer sending a Scottish soldier, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates), to quickly dismantle a time bomb found in the heart of a French countryside town. The retreating German army encases the device in concrete, and once the Clocktower strikes midnight, you can imagine the consequences. Plumpick rushes to the scene, but he quickly discovers the townsfolk are gone too, and the local inmates of the nearby asylum are running amok. The escaped patients see a lot of potential in Plumpick. Instead of attacking him, they elect Plumpick as their ‘King of Hearts’. Charles is now their leader to the throne of lunacy.
Plumpick is the only character who is unforgettable, and that’s mostly down to Alan Bates’s performance. We, the audience, see De Broca develop him from a small-time but buffoonish soldier into the unfortunate hero who saves the day. Picture this – Plumpick almost fails his goal a few minutes before the time bomb goes off. Charles soon comes up with the bright idea to scale the Clocktower and block the bell. As soon as the iron figure comes out to ring it, the hammer hits Plumpick square in the head and nullifies the sound causing the detonation of the bomb to reset. De Broca doesn’t make this into an act of heroism; his sense of biting satire stems from this place of irony. King of Hearts has many similar surreal and funny moments that provide a good chuckle.
The problem with King of Hearts is that the side characters all bleed into one. Outside of the inmates’ garish clothing like the priest, the courtesan, or the blacksmith, King of Hearts doesn’t have vivid character traits that distinguish one person from the other. Take One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it steered away from this by having each character that Jack Nicholson interacted with have unique features of their own. Forman and his screenwriters gave each character unique traits so that they became memorable – from Will Sampson’s deadpan ‘Chief’ Bromden to Louise Fletcher’s icy and calculated Nurse Ratched. De Broca can’t grasp Cuckoo’s Nest’s skill for characterisation. So, unfortunately, nearly everyone becomes extravagant but largely forgettable in De Broca’s frenzied vision.
Where De Broca thrives is his ability to keep the surrealism at bay. King of Hearts is mad as a box of frogs, but it doesn’t become annoying or an assault on the senses. For every scene where Bates commits a crazy stunt like driving a motorcycle into the concrete-encased bomb, De Broca follows it up with Plumpick quietly slouching on a baroque chair, Charles compliments on what to do next to stop the bomb reaching zero. De Broca is aware that Bates’s situation is a race against the clock, but he doesn’t create an aura of suspense; he is more interested in Bates’s string of failures. It is the haplessness of Plumpick that keeps Kings of Hearts an endearing yet silly film. King of Hearts is a cult oddity that deserves recognition for those who like anti-war farces, it’s a film that fits perfectly alongside Ealing’s golden run of British comedies in the 40’s and 50’s. King of Hearts is an easy film, perfect to watch on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, but keep in mind that it isn’t the greatest anti-war film ever made.