In the small northern village of Marville, France, during the First World War, the retreating Germans have left behind a stockpile of munitions armed with a bomb in the hopes of blowing up the town and thwarting the advancing British army. Spies in the French underground warn the villagers who immediately evacuate. Before leaving, they manage to fire off a muddled message to British intelligence warning them about the bomb. The message is received by a Scottish legion, whose general has determined that this situation calls for an expert. He enlists the aid of a French-speaking private, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates), who is indeed an expert; however, he is an expert in ornithology not explosives. Unable to convince his superiors that he isn’t the man for the job, Plumpick is sent into the town, clueless, armed with nothing but a rifle, his kilt, and some pigeons. He must attempt to liberate the abandoned village…or what he thinks is abandoned.
Not long after our hero arrives, he discovers that the town has been taken over by its new inhabitants, the newly freed inmates of the town’s insane asylum. These local looneys have taken on the identities, occupations, and social standings of the fleeing villagers and have dubbed Private Plumpick their long lost king, the “King of Hearts”. With no hope of disarming the bomb, Plumpick tries to escort his lunatic friends out of town. But, with no concept of war or the dangers of it, the new villagers refuse to leave and breakout into an exuberant celebration of their King’s coronation. Plumpick then has no choice but to attempt to disarm the explosives in order to save his loyal “subjects”.
This 1966 comedy is perhaps the best known work of Philippe de Broca, as it was a huge success when it was released in America in the late 60s. King of Hearts is undeniably an anti-war film, but it never feels like one. It never panders to its audience with clichéd anti-war sentiments of peace and love. Nor does tit demonstrate the horror of war through intense displays of violence. Instead it demonstrates the ugliness of war by showing how beautiful the absence of war is. Through the actions and attitudes of the insane who do not participate nor even recognize war we see how insane war truly is.
In addition to being a charming and enjoyable film with a pertinent message, King of Hearts is an example of superior film making. The cast is talented and charismatic. The costumes and sets are creative, colorful, and seemingly magical. The film quality is dazzling: lyrical photography, splendid use of saturated, contrasting colors. Every shot looks like an oil painting. It is a shame movies do not look like this anymore. Upon one viewing, it becomes obvious why this film is considered a classic; but unlike some classics, this film becomes more wonderful, more magical, more relevant every time I see it.
French, German, and English with English subtitles
Reviewed by Maggie