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  • Benjamin May

King & Country (1964) Review

It is 1917, and Arthur Hamp is a volunteer Private with the British Army. After the rest of his company are killed, Hamp decides to “go for a walk,” with the deluded intention of making it home to Old Blighty from Belgium on foot. He is caught and put on trial under charges of desertion. If found guilty, Hamp will surely be executed. It is up to Captain Charles Hargreaves to defend the man and prove he was a victim of shell-shock, not a coward. Will Hargreaves be able to save Hamp’s life, or will the young man face the firing squad?

Directed by Joseph Losey from a screenplay by Evan Jones, and based on a play by John Wilson- which was, in turn, inspired by a J.L. Hodson novel- ‘King & Country’ is a devastating anti-war film up there with Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory.’ A frightening depiction of the injustices faced by shell-shocked soldiers in The Great War, it boasts strong dialogue and characterisation, with a gritty narrative both engaging and affecting.

‘King & Country’ is not just an anti-war film, though. As Losey had done previously with ‘The Servant,’ the film skewers the British class-system, showcasing its inherent inequality. It portrays the officers as arrogant, aloof and detached from the reality of the war going on around them. They are also indifferent to the plight of the soldiers at their command, who are conversely shown to be loyal and compassionate, for the most part. The narrative also exposes the bias and cruelty of the military court, which disregards Hamp’s mental breakdown, condemning him as a yellow traitor.

The film boasts striking black and white cinematography from Denys N. Coop, which enhances the despondent tone of proceedings. Coop uses high contrast, low angles and close-ups to accentuate the feelings and reactions of the characters, while his utilisation of low-key lighting and deep shadows heightens the tension and drama of scenes. Highly impactful, Coop’s sterling work is one of the reasons ‘King & Country’ is so memorable.

Additionally, Richard Macdonald’s atmospheric production design creates a damp and despairing environment that immerses the viewer in the harsh conditions of warfare. Macdonald uses realistic costumes, props and sets to recreate the look and feel of a rat-infested World War I trench. ‘King & Country’ was shot on location in a purpose-built pit near Shepperton Studios, which enhances the authenticity and intensity of the film. Furthermore, Larry Adler’s haunting and melancholic score complements the narrative’s mood and tone adroitly, lending the film additional power.

‘King & Country stars Dirk Bogarde as Captain Hargreaves alongside Tom Courtenay as Hamp, supported by Peter Copley, Leo McKern and Barry Foster. A nuanced and sensitive actor, Bogarde never turned in a bad performance- even if he disputed that- and as Hargreaves he delivers a multifaceted masterclass. He displays the characters’ arc- from cynic to compassionate crusader- astutely, while co-star Courtenay is heartbreaking as the innocent, naïve Hamp; a gentle man for whom the endless slog of war proved to be too much. Moreover, Copley and McKern are both brilliant as arrogant officers, while Foster steals his short scene as the unbiased Lieutenant Webb with ease.

A strongly acted, well-written treatise on the class system, Joseph Losey’s ‘King & Country’ is a powerful and poignant anti-war film that ranks alongside the very best of the genre. Boasting stunning cinematography, rich production design and a stirring score, it impresses on every level. Thought-provoking and intelligently made, ‘King & Country’ will linger with you long after the credits have rolled. It is- if you’d pardon the pun- a film that is absolutely fit for a king; and a country.


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