The mud fields of Passchendaele in western Belgium in late 1917, three years into the Great War, and twenty-three-year-old Private Arthur James Hamp, a former bootmaker from Islington who volunteered on a dare by his wife and mother, has been found wandering and disoriented after attempting to get away from the constant sound of the guns by “walking home to England” without his pack or even basic equipment.
Arrested on the charge of desertion, he is appointed Captain Charles Hargreaves as his defence who advises him if he is found guilty he will be brought before a firing squad and executed, but with the bombs still falling as heavily as the rain, a doctor who dismisses the symptoms of shell shock and Hamp’s own confessions counting against him, Hargreaves’ arguments may not be enough to save someone Hargreaves feels “failed as a man and failed as a soldier.”
Adapted by Wake in Fright’s Evan Jones from John Wilson’s play Hamp, itself based on the novel Return to the Wood by former war correspondent James Lansadale Hodson, the young private explains that he joined up in the rush of patriotism in the first days of the war because he felt it was his duty to King and Country, directed by Joseph Losey and originally released in 1964 and now restored from the original camera negative held by the BFI as it joins the Vintage Classics range of StudioCanal.
Opening with images of a statue of triumph next to another of a fallen soldier, war memorials still and silent which cannot ever truly express what they are meant to represent, the explosions and craters and rain, the ruined landscapes and the rats and of course the bodies, King and Country cannot shake its stage roots but Losey ensures the war is always in the mind with jump cuts punctuating the dialogue, images provided by the Imperial War Museum providing context to the drama which is customarily disavowed as being related to any specific case or individual but with the three hundred men executed for desertion in the Great War informing proceedings.
Losey reuniting with the star of The Servant, Dirk Bogarde is Hargreaves, determined to do his best yet unsympathetic towards Hamp, The Night of the Generals’ Tom Courtenay a relative newcomer to the screen at the time, bewildered, afraid and flawed by unshakeable honesty, while The Prisoner’s Leo McKern is Captain O’Sullivan, the overworked camp doctor who is furious at having his judgement questioned and Pyramids of Mars’ Peter Copley is the presiding officer who offers the resigned advice that the report should not mention mental health: “they’re not interested in that sort of thing at headquarters.”
The special features on King and Country fewer than would be expected on a Vintage Classics release, the quality balances the lack of quantity with a recent interview where Courtenay recalls his first meeting with Losey after his 1960 stage debut and the trust the experienced director placed in him for this role and a brief archive interview with the knowledgeable and insightful Bogarde who discusses the intense shoot, eighteen days of being wet and working in deep mud and the tragedy of the Great War.