King Rat (1965)

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Mr. Arkadin
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King Rat (1965)

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In his novel, James Clavell calls Changi; Genesis: Beginning again. These men have indeed encountered rebirth. Dealing with incarceration in a Japanese prison camp, King Rat (showing on TCM 2-21) holds none of the usual clichés of a WWII P.O.W. film. There are no escape attempts, uprisings, or flag flying patriotism scenes here. Instead, we see real men gnawed by hunger, physically broken, and fighting to retain their sanity.

1945. Flanked by the sea on one side and surrounded by deep jungle, Changi is an isolated camp on the eastern coast of Singapore. There is nowhere to run. The Japanese control the men mainly through starvation and lack of medical attention. Rule of the camp is left to those inside the wire with British, Australian, and American officers in charge of their own men. The death rate is high.

One man, a nameless American corporal, seems to have the best of everything. Through shrewd cunning and trade, “The King” as he is known, has become the wealthiest man in the camp. Provost Marshall Robin Grey, is sure that the corporal’s riches come at the expense of others, and is determined to see justice done. The two begin a game of cat and mouse, but we’re never sure which is predator or prey. Entering this personal war is Flight Lt. Peter Marlowe. An upper class Brit, Marlowe is first valued by the King as an interpreter who could help his trading abilities with the Japanese guards. As time wears on and the two men gain respect for each other, Marlowe must make moral choices between what he’s been taught about honesty and fair play vs. survival.

Although Clavell had written a best selling novel, many of the situations and storyline of King Rat were un-filmable under the Hays code. Fortunately, Clavell was also an excellent screenwriter (To Sir With Love [1967], The Great Escape [1963]) and chose to adapt his own work for the film. While some parts of the book were excised for language, sexual content, and time constraints, King Rat comes to the screen very much intact regarding it’s message and intent. That many scenes, including overt homosexuality managed to escape the cutting room floor, is a credit to Clavell’s deft storytelling ability.

This is a very stylized picture, but it never loses its authenticity or drops the threads that hold its story together. Director Bryan Forbes utilizes many techniques popularized by the French New Wave. His use of freeze frames, quick cutting close ups, and superb camera movement, act as our eyes, drawing us into the camp and the lives of these men. Composer John Barry’s lyrical score adds a mournful quality, blending eastern and western instruments, and enhancing the moodiness of the film.

But it’s the great acting that makes this work live and breathe as few films ever have. George Segal as the King, gives the best performance of his career here in an understated tone, while Tom Courtenay (Grey) and James Fox (Marlowe) are vivid characters that walk wide emotional lines. Also, look for Patrick O’Neal as Max, playing a great supporting role. Although Clavell makes all these characters multidimensional and sympathetic, the entire cast interprets them with a heartbreaking realism rarely seen in motion pictures.


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While King Rat can be appreciated purely as a war film, it deals with life on many different levels. Its focus is not actual war or escape, but individuals living under difficult circumstances and how they react within them. Are they adapting and changing their circumstances--or merely changed by them?

The movie also deals with class structure and political ideals in the three leads. The anonymous corporal is of the lowest rank, yet uses mettle to supercede all rank. Some might identify the King with the vermin of the film, but that’s much too easy an answer. His friendship with Marlowe is real—which is also the reason why it cannot remain as such when the war ends. Grey’s socialistic ideas of merit and seething hatred of class are pitted against his insecurity and inability to take individualistic stands—even when the cause is just.

Peter Marlowe is our touchstone, our identifying character. Unwilling to grovel, he is respected by the King. The American in turn, teaches him that a stiff upper lip cannot feed a hungry man or save his friends. Knowledge and ability are power and should be used as such. Does the King corrupt Marlowe’s nature? Or is he simply opening his eyes to the facts of life and the façade he’s been living under all these years?

It’s interesting to note that those who are deemed failures in society are the ones who flourish in the camp. Precisely because they exploit their abilities and know that life without respect is better than death--because they’ve never had respect to begin with. Steven, the homosexual nurse, is able to cadge cigarettes and all kinds of other things that would never be given to a heterosexual male. Also, his skills and compassion as a caretaker save lives and ease the suffering of many men. The King lives by a hustler’s street code that allowed him merely to survive on the outside, but here with the playing field leveled, he comes into his own. These two men (and others) teach Marlowe that all men are members of the human race, irrespective of class or background.

All in the camp make compromises. As Marlowe tells Grey, “We’re all liars. You’ve got to be a liar to stay alive.” But does the pressure cooker grind actually change a man’s nature—or bring out what was already inside him? King Rat seems to suggest the latter, and for many, the greatest terror is coming to terms with what lurks deep within. Corruption is everywhere and takes many forms, but as in everyday life, the truly diabolical are often the most self-righteous. Although maimed and scarred, physically and spiritually, these men have come to a new understanding of what life is, and the fuel that sustains it—be it food, camaraderie, faith, or pure hatred. Survival is not a matter of strength, but adaptability and mutation. Life is no longer just a heartbeat or pulse, but the ability to live in a cruel unconscionable world without being broken by despair. This is Genesis: Beginning again.

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Last edited by Mr. Arkadin on May 29th, 2010, 9:31 pm, edited 5 times in total.
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sugarpuss
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Post by sugarpuss »

Mr. Arkadin, I mentioned on the other board how much I wanted to see this movie. I watched it the other night and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It really exceeded my expectations.

I'm showing my age here, but the most I knew about George Segal was "Just Shoot Me" (Horrible show), the super dark comedy Where's Poppa? and to a lesser extent, Ship of Fools. I was blown away by how good he was as the King. There were moments, where he reminded me of Burt Lancaster in terms of bravado and charm. I thought James Fox was really good as well--they were a great pair together. Yin and Yang.

I loved how they introduced King at the beginning of the movie with all the quick, jump cuts and how clean and neat he was compared to the other bedraggled soldiers. I though the freeze frame endings to certain scenes were fun as well.

I can't believe they ate the DOG. I nearly died when I saw that, although I had a suspicion that's what the King was hacking away at for the stew.

But it was the ending that kind of threw me for a loop. I wasn't expecting it to end the way it did. I was a bit confused by how Marlowe reacted to the arrival of the character played by Richard Dawson at first, but I'm guessing it was because an outsider had arrived at the camp. It shattered the realism (or lack of) that they had all gotten used to.

Bhat really got me was how the relationship between King and Marlowe changed after the liberation. I don't know why, but it made me a bit depressed especially after the way King took care of Marlowe's arm. For someone who was so indifferent to everyone but himself, he really went out on a limb (ha, no pun intended!) to save Marlowe. And that's why I was a bit put off by the ending. After all they went through, King began treating him like nothing. Was it because they were going back home and reverting to what they were before their POW camp experiences? That back home King would be a nobody and this realization depressed him?

I'm not the kind of person who looks for homosexuality in movies, but I thought there was something more than just friendship between King and Marlowe. I've been reading about the book, and from what I've gathered, the only homosexual character was the nurse. But the translation to film can add a different subtext. There was a delicateness about Marlowe--even in the opening shot of him, he's wearing that traditional skirt--and a roughness about King. Could that be part of the reason why King rejected him at the end as well? Maybe he showed Marlowe a sense of sensitivity and caring that he had never shown to anyone else before. And especially in such a cold, hard place. That POW camp was a nightmare. The Great Escape and Stalag 17 makes you think living in one of those was a picnic!

Anyway, it was almost as though King were hurting Marlowe on purpose, pushing him away and telling him he was nothing more than an employee, when it was clear that he was more than that. He even trusted Marlowe with the money from the sale of the diamond and even risked his own life so that Marlowe could get away! I don't think King had ever trusted anyone like that. And that final shot, of Marlowe running to say goodbye and the truck driving away with King just standing there in the back. It was sad. After seeing how much they went through together, it was heartbreaking. I'm such a girl.

From your description, I'm guessing you read the book. Would you recommend it? I'm always up for a good read.[/i]
"Some of the best parts of life are frivolous." - Arthur Kennedy in A Summer Place
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Mr. Arkadin
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Post by Mr. Arkadin »

Hi SP,

Glad you saw and enjoyed the film. I think you've answered many of your own questions. The men's reaction to Dawson is indeed one of mistrust and disbelief as he is akin to a visitor from another world so unlike their own.

The King and Marlowe's relationship changes because as you stated--he is not "The King" any more. He was nothing before this camp and he will return to being nothing again. We see that this corporal--who has never shared his real name with anyone--had his entire self worth tied up in these short years of imprisonment. The King had everything but true friendship, which he finds in Peter Marlowe. It's not that he hates Marlowe, but that he has lost all respect or "face" before him. Marlowe can accept this, but the King clearly cannot.

You are right in the fact that he was more open with Peter than anyone else. Marlowe probably knew him better that any other person in the world, but for Marlowe's stature to be returned, the King's must be destroyed. The King saw himself tragically as only worth as much as his power to help or control others (as he taught Marlowe, and helped him to survive). When that was gone, he could never be an equal with Marlowe. Therefore, by his own standards he could not accept Marlowe's friendship. In the book, Marlowe realizes this and says to him: "You're sorry it's over, aren't you?"

In the book (and I think this film) the King and Marlowe are heterosexual (Clavell wrote both the book and screenplay). They slip beyond the wire and go to a village where the King has a prostitute and Marlowe falls for the Chief's daughter. Marlowe learned to speak Malay, by hiding among them when his plane was shot down. He had a wife that the village elders gave him. The skirt Peter wears is also in the book. Called a sarong, it's typical native dress which Marlowe became used to after living with them. Marlowe's best friend Sean, does in fact become a homosexual which drives Marlowe around the bend. Sean is in the book, but only briefly mentioned in the movie.

One thing you may not know about P.O.W.s, is that men associated in close groups of 2 or 3. One man could forage and find food, another could work. It was very much like a family (As the book says, Peter, Mac, and Larkin were a unit. The King was sufficent unto himself.). Also, it was essential to your livelihood if you ever got sick. Someone had to be able to take care of you, or you'd die. This is why Gurbel's being kicked out of his regiment was so tragic. It was essentially a death sentence. This was even more tragic when we found out he was not the one responsible for stealing the food.

The book is wonderful and very easy to read. I would highly reccomend it. Other great works I like by James Clavell include Tai Pan and Gai Jin.
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Post by sugarpuss »

Thank you so much for your insights and answer to my post, Mr. Arkadin! It's always good to get the opinion of someone who's more familiar with the film than I am. And even the info about the POW camps. I'm really unfamiliar with war history. I never paid attention in my history classes in high school and now I regret it.

I'll probably pick up the book on my next Amazon shopping spree, because all the extra information really intrigues me. Plus, it's easy to read, which is always a bonus. Thanks again!
"Some of the best parts of life are frivolous." - Arthur Kennedy in A Summer Place
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