Ralph McLean's Cult Movie: King Of Hearts sets its sights on the madness of war

Ralph McLean

Le Roi De Coeur (King Of Hearts)
Ralph McLean

SOME have claimed that Le Roi De Coeur (or King Of Hearts as non-French viewers may know it) is one of the greatest films ever made.

While director Phillippe de Broca's charming and still relevant anti-war fable may not quite justify such lofty praise it's certainly worthy of reappraisal more than five decades on from its original release.

Aside from directing duties de Broca, whose career stretched over an impressive 50 years itself, also produced and co-wrote this stylish parody so it's maybe no surprise that he rated it as the very finest film he helmed. Far from a personal vanity project, though, this is a sweetly surrealistic comic gem that still holds the power to move you emotionally despite the passing years.

Set towards the end of the First World War, Alan Bates is a Scottish soldier, Charles Plumpick, who is sent by his commanding officer (Adolfo Celi) to defuse a bomb planted by a retreating German army in the little French town of Marville. Along the way Plumpick finds himself pursued by German soldiers and winds up hiding out in a nearby insane asylum where he makes friends with the inmates inside. One of them, Poppy (Genevieve Bujold) the token love interest of the film, even goes as far as to christen the new arrival the 'King Of Hearts'.

As the war creeps ever closer to the town the staff of the asylum take to the hills, absent mindedly leaving the doors to their establishment open as they go. As the colourful inmates flee into the town Plumpick feels obliged to help his new friends and together they try to locate the bomb and save to town from destruction.

Very much a 1966 production, King Of Hearts is a light and frothy concoction at times but the points it makes about the madness of war are beautifully realised. The strong anti-war message at the film's core is well handled and de Broca keeps the blend of comedy, romance and political point making bubbling along nicely over its 102 minute running time.

The cast, led by Bates, are uniformly excellent and together with Pierre Lhomme's beautiful cinematography and George Delerue's memorable score it all adds up to a modern classic.

It's odd then to find out that the film tanked in France on its original release. Strangely, for a film so European in its feel and visual style, it found a home in the hearts of American audiences, however, and went on to play in cinemas across the states for many years after its initial release.

The recent re-release by Eureka Entertainment presents the film in a glorious new 4K scan. The crisp colours and ambitious visuals jump off the screen and the score from legendary composer Delerue is sublime.

Enhanced by an array of tasty extras, including a critical commentary track from Wade Major and interviews with many of the key players, from cinematographer Lhomme to actress Bujold, this is a stately package fit for a king. Well worth investigating.

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