Entertainment Magazine

King Rat

Posted on the 03 August 2014 by Christopher Saunders
King RatKing Rat (1965) provides a grisly antidote to prisoner-of-war films. Even sober POW flicks like Grand Illusion and Bridge on the River Kwai inject escape attempts or camaraderie to leaven the setting's grimness. Bryan Forbes, adapting James Clavell's autobiographical novel, recasts this familiar story as an existential hell without heroes or hope.
In early 1945, Allied prisoners languish in Changi, a Japanese camp in Singapore. Most of the prisoners suffer from starvation and ill health, yet American Corporal King (George Segal) enjoys fresh food, cigarettes and clothes. Lieutenant Grey (Tom Courtenay) suspects him of wrongdoing, but King's cleverness and indifferent officers stymy him. British Lieutenant Marlowe (James Fox) becomes part of King's inner circle, helping King's rackets selling food and bribing guards. Only the war's end, it seems, can unravel King's empire.
From its surreal opening images (an old man sitting in a graveyard, soldiers swathed in mosquito netting), King Rat is relentlessly oppressive. Novelist Clavell co-wrote The Great Escape, and Rat seems a rejoinder to that feel-good adventure. Notions of patriotism collapse amidst heat and isolation: the prisoners rig ration measurements and bicker over pets and clothing. Grey's efforts to uphold order are brushed aside: survival supersedes civilization. The Japanese are barely a presence, arriving to confiscate a radio and announce the war's conclusion. Escape is unthinkable.
Corporal King's closest antecedent is William Holden in Stalag 17, a very Hollywood cynic: for all his talk about self-preservation, Sefton still helped out the team. King has no such illusions: purely self-interested, he's no qualms about bribing or stealing to remain on top. A shrewd CEO, King enlists useful prisoners into his corner while preying off the weak and desperate. Marlowe's square morality baffles King, but he's easily corrupted with offers of eggs and money. Marlowe considers the Corporal a friend, but King only wants his language skills. It builds to a Lord of the Flies-style finale, where an Allied officer's (Richard Dawson) arrival instantly disrupts King's dystopia.
Bryan Forbes's disorienting direction elevates Rat to another level. Forbes matches Burnett Guffey's bleak photography with jarring style choices: New Wave-style hard cutting, relentless shots of sweating faces. One scene has King's followers cackling madly over a surfeit of dog meat, filmed in gruesome close-up like a scene from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This gruesomeness carries over into other scenes: the prison doctor (James Donald) harvesting insects for protein, King raising rats for an officer's meal. Even the staunchest "antiwar" films aren't so grimly despairing.
George Segal makes King the ultimate smooth operator, a swaggering bully bereft of real charm. Tom Courtenay provides good counterpoint, a righteous martinet stewing impotently. James Fox though is disappointing, colorless in a role mainly requiring him to react. John Mills conveys weary resignation as the senior Colonel; James Donald reprises his Kwai role as the camp doctor. The supporting cast includes familiar faces like Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Leonard Rossiter (Billy Liar), Joe Turkel (Paths of Glory) and Richard Dawson in minor roles.
With its amoral protagonists, gruesome imagery and oppressive atmosphere, King Rat is undeniably rough sledding. The unremitting bleakness isn't for all tastes, but Rat provides a unique (and uniquely credible) take on the prisoner-of-war experience.

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