You’d think that a movie based on one of Thomas Hardy’s cheerier novels, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates in their prime, with Peter Finch and a surprisingly sexy Terrence Stamp, and directed by John Schlesinger, would be pretty great, but you’d be wrong.
I saw it years ago, and remember being bored, but decided to give it a second chance the other night. Halfway through the three-hour epic, I found myself nodding off, so it took me two nights to finish the thing. I’m just glad that it’s been thirty years since I read Far From the Madding Crowd—which I loved—so I don’t feel betrayed on that score. I’ll probably reread the novel now, to get the film out of my head.
As Roger Ebert said in his review at the time, “The spacious landscape of Dorset is photographed in stunning beauty, and we get panoramas of hillsides with heroic characters running up and down them.” That’s about it, I’m afraid. Excellent cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and a nice soundtrack with plenty of English folksongs.
Here’s Stamp’s character, mourning his dead lover:
Fizzy and effervescent, like a glass of champagne. Who isn’t charmed by the story of a group of lunatics taking over a French town during World War I and crowning the sweet Scottish soldier played by Alan Bates their king? But don’t be fooled by the light touch of director Philippe De Brocca. “King of Hearts” was not a cult film on college campuses during the Nixon years for nothing.
Start with Bates’s character, a lowly enlisted man who reads Shakespeare to his unit’s carrier pigeons. Sent to defuse a German bomb single-handed, he arrives in the town just as the enemy is leaving, unsure how to carry out his orders but terribly well-intentioned. It takes him a little time to catch on to the fact that the inmates he first encountered in the asylum are now at large, strolling the streets in fancy clothes, having assumed the occupations of the town’s inhabitants, who have fled. A few things clue him in: circus animals freely roaming the streets, the sight of a “general” playing chess with a chimp. But really, it’s the joyfulness that tips him off. These people aren’t normal. They’re too happy, too much in love with life, too indifferent to real-world concerns like waging war or making money.
The vibrant colors of this film, along with the surrealist scenes, give “King of Hearts” a trippy feel. Watch the trailer and you’ll see what I mean.
Yes, the movie came out in 1966, but it’s still relevant. Watching the allies liberate their town from the enemy—a scene which results in the death of both armies–one lunatic turns to another and comments, “This farce has lasted long enough.” If only it were true.
(17 May 2011)