Revisiting “King of Hearts”

When seeing a movie again after many years, you might be watching a film different from the one you first experienced. The lingo of the film may be out-of-sync with the current culture, the themes might feel dated, commonplace, the players’ mode of performance old hat, hard to relate to. You, yourself, have probably changed and your reaction to the story might be different from that of your younger self. Some of these concerns were with me as I popped Phillippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (Roi de Coeur) (1966) into my player 50 years after I saw it at The Brattle.

I need not have had fear or doubt that the movie is dated; it snaps nicely into place in this era of Trumpian inconsistencies, mountainous deceptions, lies, and lies, and more lies worldwide. This movie is more relevant now than ever before.

Set during World War I, the film tells a tale of a town abandoned by its residents after retreating German occupiers plant a bomb, leaving only the inhabitants of the local asylum behind. The question is drawn as to who is sane: the people running the world or those they have locked away in mental institutions? The answer is left to a Scottish soldier, one Charles Plumpick, who is ordered by his superiors to defuse the bomb. Plumpick’s ultimate quandary: do what duty insists he do? Or side with the residents of the local asylum who, in their innocence, comprehend nothing of destruction and war?

The plot approaches its dilemma with humor (sometimes broad, oftentimes subtle) and, in the beginning, with an infectious energy as soldiers and cowardly townsfolk scramble to vamoose.

After more than five decades, the story remains ripe with relevance, visually arresting images, and a massaging charm. Its message of the 1960s still rings and rings loudly to the world of 2018, a place of global terrorism, environmental decay and incompetent, toxic leaders and resurrects the old axioms “The lunatics are running the asylum” and “Not all the nuts are in the nuthouse.” In the tradition of other anti-war movies, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Richard Lester’s How I Won the War (1967), King of Hearts presents the age old question: are men doomed to destroy each other in mindless, Sisyphean conflicts? Are innocence and purity and love the only ways to stop all senseless killings? Or is mankind simply hopeless? King of Hearts tries to answer some of these enigmatic questions and does so with panache, style, and, dare I say, a wisdom we can now see is timeless.

A still from “King of Hearts”

Yet, the movie opened to lukewarm reviews when it was first released in the U.S. in 1967. Critics and moviegoers alike were not all-embracing. It was viewed as being simpleminded, offering a too-easy solution to “the big issues” (the horrors of war, the destruction of the innocent) too pat, too cutesy to be taken seriously. Originally rejected by an America not yet disillusioned by government corruption, lying politicians, and the senseless, needless killing of thousands of young men on foreign battlefields, the film and it’s anti-war message underwent a sudden, amazing reconsideration starting in the early 1970s. By that time media footage of the Vietnam war and it atrocities had been delivered right into our living rooms. Moviegoers were ready to take a second look at King of Hearts, and the film took on a cult status that lasted for years and it still ranks high on the list of the greatest cult films in cinema history.

Some movies evoke for us a time and a place we yearn to return to. King of Hearts is for me one such film. I was a French major in college, a devout Francophile and King of Hearts was the first foreign film I had ever seen. There, in the dark shadows of The Brattle, I felt very international and cultured. I felt “hip.” This was Art and helped me, setting off on my Siddhartha-like journey, to shake off my provincialism and discover the world. The Brattle offered me my first exposure to Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Cassavetes, Claude Chabrol, Deneuve, De Sica, and anything by Pasolini. It gave a young man and his young eyes an education only movies can give at that age when movies (and books) are mostly all you know of the world.

I still can conjure with Proustian clarity the thrill of standing in The Brattle’s long lines among its exciting and excited audiences sporting berets, smoking Gauloises, waiting to see the latest Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Anna Magnani. The Brattle’s stories are the stories of our lives. When I am there now for a movie or just happen to be passing by, warm waves of memory wash over me and I am 19 years old again…22…25…and it is Play It Again, Sam (1972), La Nouvelle Vague, Neo-Realism and Casablanca (1942). Most of all, it is The Brattle Theater. God, those were glorious times!

Leo Racicot Ever since my father took me to the drive-in theater when I was five, I have loved the movies. I am a total movie nut and will watch anything, from the five-and-a-half hour, uncut version of Bertolucci’s 1900 to SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (both are do-able if you pop a NO-DOZ before you hit PLAY). My sister, Diane, who keeps track of these things, says I have watched close to 3,000 movies in the last 6-7 years. In the 1970s, I worked as film programmer for The Paris here in Boston and for Dollar Cinemas in Las Vegas, in the early 90s. I have written movie reviews and commentary for Z Magazine (produced by Jerry Harvey for his wonderful “Z” Channel), Cineaste, Film Comment, Cahiers du Cinema, Empire, and for—ta-dah!—The Brattle! I am currently working on a long retrospective of the work of one of my all-time favorites, Jeff Bridges!
Leo Racicot Written by: