King Rat (1965)
King Rat is a terribly honest and brutally realistic film about WWII P.O.W.s -- a perfect counter to its story of terribly dishonest people living in brutal times.
Reviewed by Eli Kooris, Fri., Oct. 4, 2002
KING RAT (1965)
D: Bryan Forbes; with George Segal, Tom Courtenay, James Fox, John Mills, Denholm Elliott.
Unlike most P.O.W. films, King Rat is not about escape. Rather it is a "based-on-actual events" dissection of the class hierarchies established between the American, Australian, and British officers who were held captive by the Japanese during the latter years of WWII. While some prisoners starve on the sparse supply of rations, others thrive, like the brash American Corporal King (Segal), a business man and swindler who bargains with the enemy for better food, pressed clothes, and a steady supply of cigarettes. In the opening scene, he befriends a new Brit in camp named Peter Marlowe (Fox, in a career-defining performance), drawn to the young officer's fluency in Malay, the language of their captors. Yet Marlowe soon finds himself morally torn between living comfortably as the right-hand man to King and sharing the wealth with his suffering compatriots. This dilemma is only heightened by the presence of the rigid and noble camp Provost Marshal Tom Grey (Courtenay), an Aussie, who is constantly trying to catch Corporal King and his gang trading with the enemy. However, the eager young Grey himself soon learns that corruption runs all the way to the top of the camp, and that survival hinges not on who is most honest, but rather most cunning. Writer/director Bryan Forbes stays as true to James Clavell's novel as he possibly can, though he somewhat sidesteps the issue of affairs between the P.O.W.s, a prevalent theme in the book. Still a taboo subject in the mid-Sixties, homosexuality nonetheless winds its way in hints and undertones, and Forbes gets the real message across while successfully skirting the censors. Burnett Guffey's Oscar-nominated cinematography is stunning: too beautiful to be true to war, yet too gritty to be Hollywood gloss. King Rat is a terribly honest and brutally realistic film -- a perfect counter to its story of terribly dishonest people living in brutal times.