Dying for King & Country

World War I initiated the 20th century's lunatic reign of blood and steel. The human and economic resources of entire societies were fed into the trenches, and the grim realities of mechanized slaughter supplanted bourgeois optimism. Art inspired by this cataclysm expresses powerlessness rather than mastery, as if, locked into the mechanisms of bureaucratized violence, humans can only create in defiance of their culture's collective death wish. Joseph Losey's "King and Country" (1964) is the most penetrating film about the Great War, a terrible and moving parable about victimization and lost illusions.Losey, an American leftist whose Hollywood career was destroyed during the McCarthy era, reestablished himself in Britain and achieved an international reputation with "The Servant" (1963) a superlative film about the power that the hired help can assert over their masters. Directed with great ingenuity and malice, the movie featured a remarkable screenplay by Harold Pinter and an amazing performance by Dirk Bogarde as a butler with a nose for digging out his employer's dirty little impulses. "King and Country" reunited director and star with Bogarde cast as Hargreaves, a vaguely snooty British army captain delegated to defend shell-shocked Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay), who, after three years in the Flanders killing grounds, is blown into a shell crater, crawls out in a daze and turns around to "walk back home" to London. Hamp will be shot if he's convicted of desertion.Losey has described the film as a "class conversation in which the officer is educated by the boy's simplicity." The movie doesn't sentimentalize this bond between attorney and defendant. Class and rank barriers are finally insurmountable. Initially contemptuous of Hamp ("if a dog has broken his back, shoot him"), Hargreaves has seen enough killing himself to understand what Hamp has been through and comes to recognize the humanity of this simple, even-tempered young man who volunteered for the front to impress his faithless wife and shrewish mother-in-law."This court knows clearly what it is doing. This court has the power to choose," declares Bogarde, sickened that the army would railroad this man in front of a firing squad, in his magnificent defense summation. Choose indeed. The court martial finds Hamp guilty but recommends mercy. However, the battalion is about to be moved back to the front, and division command decides that "the death sentence is needed for morale." Hamp is given a belly-full of cheap brandy and a shot of morphine to face this sadist's vision of justice. "Isn't it finished yet?" whispers Bogarde in the dying Courtenay's ear. "No sir, I'm sorry," murmurs Hamp. Hargreaves finishes Hamp off with his pistol -- a gesture of mercy and an acknowledgment that his own soul has been shattered by this obscene war.Shot in three weeks on a single set awash with mud and reeking from an increasingly ripe horse carcass, "King and Country "demonstrates Losey's masterly command of confined space, his horrible ability to capture the sheer physical degradation, the "stench" of war like no other director. The performances are beyond praise. Hargreaves, his steely intelligence undergoing an agonizing shift from cynicism to despair, is the greatest performance of Dirk Bogarde's distinguished career. And Tom Courtenay, who won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for this film, matches Bogarde scene for scene. Courtenay has always been an actor of flinty integrity, and he doesn't need patronizing sentiment to convince us that Hamp's execution is nothing more or less than a murder.Joseph Losey's radicalism was always refreshingly tough-minded. The harsh clarity of his direction, the gritty visual texture supplied by Denys Coop's superb black and white cinematography and Losey's decision to draw in his outrage and conclude this story with a muffled cry of despair (no histrionics here, for there's so much that's English in this American director's work) make "King and Country" a masterpiece of antiwar cinema, an icy condemnation of a European "civilization" that destroyed millions of lives for no discernible reason. See this film and then consider all of the blood that continues to flood into the gutter as this hideous century draws to a close. Captain Hargreaves shouldn't be the only person who's broken by the disgusting spectacle.


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