“You’re nothing but a pack of cards,” as Alice once pointedly said, growing tired of Wonderland and her infuriating confrontation with the Queen of Hearts and her antagonistic court, a situation with which Charles Plumpick can sympathise, sent on a mission into a small town in northern France recently occupied by enemy forces where he unexpectedly finds himself crowned the King of Hearts.
Released in France in December 1966 and now restored in 4K for a limited theatrical engagement prior to its Blu-ray debut next month, King of Hearts (Le Roi de cœur) was produced mid-way between the present day and the time in which it is set, the final days of the Great War as the German forces retreated from the territory they had occupied across France.
Determined to slow the advance of the British forces, they lay booby traps in their wake, and it is into one such strategically important town that Plumpick has been sent following an interrupted transmission warning that explosives have been laid and primed to detonate at midnight.
Aware of the deadline, the townsfolk have abandoned the town, and the ill-prepared Plumpick finds only a handful of remaining German soldiers from whom he takes shelter behind the walls of the lunatic asylum where he is welcomed with open arms and quickly accepted not only as one of them, but as their returning regent, long gone and much missed.
Directed by Philippe de Broca from a script by Daniel Boulanger and Maurice Bessy, King of Hearts was filmed entirely in the medieval town of Senlis in the Oise department in northern France, a frequent film location where four years previously de Broca had shot Cartouche with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claudia Cardinale and which has subsequently been used by Patrice Chéreau for La Reine Margot.
Here the cast is equally international, Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi (Italian) as Colonel Alexander MacBibenbrook, dubbed with a broad Scots accent, Les yeux sans visage‘s Pierre Brasseur (French) as “Général Géranium,” La morte negli occhi del gatto‘s Françoise Christophe (French) as “La Duchesse,” Anne of the Thousand Days‘ Geneviève Bujold (Canadian) as Coquelicot (“Poppy”) and the very English Alan Bates as Plumpick.
A surreal comedy/drama, King of Hearts lacks the biting satire and gallows humour of the more grounded Oh, What a Lovely War! and focuses instead on the absurdity of the situation, a soldier volunteered for a specialist solo mission in which he has no skill, a superior officer who does not listen, the behaviour of the military beyond the town limits as mad as those who have escaped the asylum.
Their behaviour ridiculous and divorced from all evidence, acting purely on their impulses rather than what is happening around them, it’s a hyperactive farce played against a bleak backdrop of bombed-out buildings and bare stone walls crumbling into disrepair, unfortunate people in terrible circumstances living solely and fully for the moment.
Plumpick calling himself “the King of Fools” rather than the King of Hearts, in stolen clothes the new occupants of the town dress in their finest and in stolen clothes he himself blends right in, playing dress-up in the dusty ruins and finding that he belongs with the madmen and women with their kindness and generosity more than his regiment.
It’s not an easy or rewarding part for Bates, perpetual straight man to the dissonance of his surroundings and the inhabitants in their gay costumes and buoyant charades, the vibrant colour always confined within the grey streets of the ruined town, a constant reminder that the whole is built on a lie which cannot be sustained.
Offering a romanticised presentation of war and mental illness, a parade of harmless, happy eccentrics, the enclosed environment of costumed historical stereotypes acting to an agenda only they comprehend as they try to make a stranger in their midst with a contrary goal one of their own was echoed in many ways in The Prisoner the following year, though entirely coincidentally; production on that show was already underway four months before the release of King of Hearts.
A tragedy played as a comedy, it is a very European whimsy, the film meandering and unfocused yet casting an enchantment which makes it easy to become enraptured in the lives of the townspeople, at peace with themselves and living contentedly in their enclave of innocent ignorance which is infinitely preferable to the horror of the wider world.