‘It’s worse than anything… innit.’
Let’s start with the good shall we… first off, King & Country (1964) directed by Joseph Losey, starring Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay is hands down one of the finest, if not the best anti-war films I’ve ever seen. Possibly a tragic accolade to have bestowed upon anything given the horrendous subject, but it’s so successful and potent in its objectives, especially given current climes, that it’s evidently more vital today, than ever.
Secondly, the aforementioned current climes. Context is everything, and as I started watching the movie last night, there was an incessant cacophony of fireworks, a bombardment that had me constantly thinking of the current annihilation of Palestine and millions of innocent people, by an ultra hard core right wing sadistic Israeli government, under the pretence of defence (Hamas being equally sadistic and self serving of course). Hailing from the Republic of Ireland, like my nation has vocally shown, we will never tolerate occupying forces of any kind, as our own history shows. We also know political agendas, oppression and apartheid when we see it, as apolitical universal entities, and millions of global marchers have equally shown in weekly protests around the world.
Added to this distortion of clear tangible truth is the ultra right wing UK Conservative government fully backing (officially, financially and physically) the carnage, along with fellow colonial western nations, a conflict that they are directly responsible for starting, for their own vestige interests (politically, strategically and capitalist ideologies).
All this in the week of Remembrance Sunday, supposedly a time to focus on the dark cruelties that are regularly historically inflicted upon each other (let’s be honest in that it’s governments who start wars, not ordinary people), in the pretence of never allowing it to happen again, all the while poppy wearing tory Home Secretary Suella Braverman wants to outlaw homeless people using tents to shelter themselves during winter, apparently it’s a ‘lifestyle choice’. When in the 1990s, up to 20% of homeless/rough sleeping people were ex military. That has dropped to possibly 6%, but that’s nothing to do with Tory government policy, anything but, as general homelessness has increased 74% since they have been in power, it’s clear abject institutionalised, systematic cruelty and destruction comes from the individuals we let ‘rule’ us.
And so to King & Country, which profoundly continues that thread. At once stunningly efficient timeless storytelling, a horrific commentary on the ruling elite, societies deliberately conditioned deference to imperial powers, artificial class distinctions that solely serve such servitude and sacrifice, ordinary people’s deaths, for the gain and mere folly of our apparent ‘betters’.
It’s 1917, in the midst of World War 1, in the British trenches of Passchendaele, Belgium, known as the Western Front, where hundreds of thousands of ordinary people (on all sides) would die under the command of aristocrats and private schooled politicians. Army Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay) awaits what evidently becomes an incredibly rushed show trial, accused of desertion, which is clearly to modern viewers a result of deep mental trauma.
This mental breakdown is borne from three years of being on the battlefront, non-stop canon fire concussion, being the sole survivor of his company, and constant near death experiences, at one point casually describing an event where he had to request a new uniform, as his previous one was covered in the remnants of one of his colleagues after a shell strike beside him.
Back home, Hamp was a cobbler, and ordinary grafter, who ‘volunteered’ for service after mockery from supposed loved ones. This ‘ordinary’ individual is magnificently portrayed by Courtenay with ingrained subservient mannerisms, speech patterns and colloquialisms, from a sublime script by Evan Jones, adapted from the play Hamp by John Wilson, inspired by the book Return to the Wood by J.L. Hodson. Everything about Hamp screams hapless cannon fodder, a mere pawn for elites to sacrifice at will. Despite physically being an adult, Hamp has effectively been bombed back to being a child in understanding the gravity of his situation, where conviction means death by firing squad.
Captain Hargreaves (Bogarde) has been chosen as Hamp’s defence, in a trial to be held by fellow officers from distinctly privileged backgrounds (a prerequisite for such positions). The situation is clearly seen by the gentry as nothing more than an annoyance, a matter of process, with a forgone conclusion. Even Hargreaves begins like this, until he gets to know Hamp more through various conversations. Again Bogarde equally brilliant in nuance of privilege by birth and institutionalised belief in a higher self worth, irrespective of ability. Again, intensely relevant to current UK ‘governance’.
The stage is set, and set in what is effectively an open sewer, brimming with faeces and carrion. Nearly entirely demolished buildings, obliterated abstract landscape, incessant rain, water rippling down every wall, dead bodies strewn everywhere, to the extent there is horrific casual indifference to it all. It has echoes of the pervading catalyst of insanity of Todd Phillips Joker (2019), through the prism of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). The film is simply stunning looking, especially with this new 4K version, horrendous brooding oppressive dark shadows, claustrophobic framing and sets, its haunting evil/cruelty/madness coldly seeps into your bones.
This suffering is only for the ordinary people though, the privileged still maintain significant comforts, quaffing Haig’s Scotch Whiskey, and wine with their meals. The inconvenience of the trial is ultimately seen as sport to the officers, a debating class at Eton, where you can’t dehumanise someone, if you never really saw them as human in the first place.
There is so much more that can be said of every line, scene, performance, nuance, medical ‘treatment’ and visual/sound devices employed throughout this truly exemplary work, that would read longer than the film itself. The heartlessness, indifference, propaganda and distortion of reality that still permeates the UK to this day, again, only serving the establishment, where the only people sacrificing everything, are everyday folk, its rightly a truly damning indictment of society as a whole.
Again, given the seemingly pervading hate that files our headlines every day (also serving an agenda), this may not initially feel like something to bring to the top of must see list, but that is absolutely not the case, EVERYTHING should be put aside to experience this story first, such is its effectiveness and power. It’s only through seeing the warnings, genuinely learn the lessons, can we really make change.
It’s often said that those who don’t study history, are cursed to repeat it. I don’t agree with that, I think nefarious powers are studying history, but to use it against us. It’s up to us to stop it, you are not a subject, a pawn nor canon fodder, unless you let it happen. These hundreds of thousands gave their lives for true freedom, not continued servitude, nor propping up the elite.
King & Country 4K is available on Blu-ray, digital and DVD on 6th November via Vintage Classics from StudioCanal.