Director: Joseph Losey
Screenplay: Evan Jones
Based on a Stage Play by: John Wilson
Also Based on Writing by: J.L. Hodson, A.E. Housman
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Tom Courtenay, Leo McKern, Barry Foster, Peter Copley, James Villiers, Jeremy Spenser, Barry Justice
Running Time: 86 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
King and Country is a British WWI film directed by the great Joseph Losey and starring Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay. It is based on the play ‘Hamp’ by John Wilson, which itself was based on the 1955 novel ‘Return To The Wood’ by James Lansdale Hodson, and was adapted for the screen by Evan Jones.
The film opened to critical praise and won Courtenay the award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival on top of garnering four BAFTA nominations. However, it reportedly made a loss at the box office and has faded somewhat from the memories of filmgoers.
Looking to give the film greater recognition, Studiocanal are releasing King and Country for the first time on Blu-ray and digital, as well as a new DVD, all sourced from a brand new 4k restoration, as part of their wonderful Vintage Classics series. I got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.
The film is set during World War I, in the British trenches at Passchendaele in 1917. The story centres around a soldier named Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) who is accused of desertion. Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) is assigned to defend him at court-martial.
Hamp had been a volunteer at the start of the war and had survived the deaths of all his comrades. One day, he decided to “go for a walk” and contemplated walking home to London. However, after more than a day on the road, he was picked up by the military police and returned to his unit to face a court-martial for desertion.
Hargreaves is initially frustrated with Hamp, who seems simple-minded. But as he learns more about Hamp’s case, he begins to identify with him. At the trial, Hargreaves argues that Hamp may have been suffering from shell shock, but the doctor who testifies (Leo McKern) is unsympathetic and dismisses Hargreaves’s argument.
Hargreaves does his best to argue the case and Hamp believes the Captain’s persuasive arguments will sway the court but it seems disturbingly likely that those in charge will be forced to ‘do their duty’ and put the young man to death.
King and Country is a relentlessly grim study of the senselessness of war and the idea of doing one’s duty. It’s very much a chamber piece, as you might imagine from its stage origins, focusing on a small cast of characters in a confined space. Losey ensures the film looks as cinematic as possible though, framing with depth and an artistic sensibility, as well as making great use of low-key lighting and the heavy shadows that brings.
The sets look remarkably authentic too, being caked in mud and sodden with a constant downpour of rain. This all adds to the grim atmosphere and sense of despair.
Chamber pieces live or die by their cast and, thankfully, King and Country is centred around a pair of excellent performances. Courtenay paints Hamp as a haunted, exhausted figure who’s simply had enough of the horrors of war and has an almost childlike innocence that prevents him from appreciating the full extent of the grim situation he’s facing. Bogarde initially seems to be delivering your bog standard ‘by Jove’ officer portrayal but, as Hargreaves gets closer to Hamp, he develops a sympathetic side and the performance grows more nuanced.
I found the film more nuanced than at first glance, in general. There are some blunt moments, such as when Hamp’s blight is mirrored in that of a rat his squadmates have captured. However, when the question of duty comes into play and you realise the superiors are only doing theirs in punishing Hamp, despite sympathising with him, there’s food for thought beyond any simple ‘war is bad’ and ‘officers are clueless and soulless’ message. If they don’t put Hamp to justice what’s stopping other soldiers doing the same and putting the lives of their comrades in danger?
Being a WWI drama centred around a court-martial, it’s hard not to compare King and Country to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. They take quite different approaches to similar material though. Most notably, Losey avoids showing any fighting, whereas Kubrick has some terrifyingly visceral sequences early on in the film. In general, King and Country is a quieter, more intimate film which some might find too stagey but I found intensely focused and personal.
Overall, King and Country is an all-too-believable account of the ‘great’ war in all its mud-drowned hopelessness. It’s a strikingly mounted, haunting film that deserves to be better known.
King and Country is being released on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on 6th November as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics series. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looks fantastic for the most part – clean, crisp and with perfectly balanced contrast. There was a brief section when some spots appeared on the screen towards the end but, otherwise, this is a top-notch transfer. The audio is clear and rich too.
– Tom Courtenay on King & Country
– Archive Interview with Dirk Bogarde (1964)
– Behind the Scenes stills gallery
Courtenay is interviewed about his experiences making the film. He talks about how he was approached by Losey, how he was directed and even discusses a personal experience sharing the material with a WWI veteran. Running at 11 minutes, it’s hardly epic but is substantial enough to be of good value.
In the archive interview with Bogarde, the actor discusses the importance and themes of the film, as well as his thoughts on Losey. It’s a short (4 and a half minutes) but heartfelt piece.
So, not a great deal of extra material, but the two interviews are well worth watching and the film is excellent so it’s still a highly recommended release.