The 1960s was in every sense of the word a decade of international films. Hollywood, British, French and Italian stars acted in international productions whether it was Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Westerns, Sophia Loren in The Millionairess (1961), the likes of James Fox and Margaret Rutherford starring with Virna Lisi in Arabella (1967), German Curt Jurgens often playing German officers in war films, the international cast of Ship of Fools (1965) or the French cast in Fanny (1961). All these helped sell films both in Europe and the United States. These films were often very expensive, shot on location and released through such studios as United Artists or MGM. King of Hearts (1966) was one such film. A French-Italian co-production directed by Philippe de Broca, filmed in France and starred Alan Bates as a British soldier sent on a mission.
King of Hearts is set in the fictional northern French village of Marville in the last months of the First World War in 1918. The townspeople have learnt that the occupying Germans are planning to blow up the local church tower as they leave. Private Plumpick (Alan Bates) is in the Scottish Highland Signal Corps and has been volunteered as he speaks French to go behind enemy lines into the village and get more information. Pvt. Plumpick is a carer of the regiments carrier messanger pigeons. Many of the townsfolk have abandoned the town but the occupants of the local insane asylum are now going about the town unimpeded. Plumpick hides among them and they in turn think that he is the King of Hearts. After a series of adventures he grows a liking for these people who seem to make more sense to him than the crazy war going on around him. They in turn (including Plumpick) dress in costumes, assume the roles of royals, the clergy, prostitutes and firemen.
Made a few years before Oh, What a Lovely War! (1969), the film is really quite charming as we see a development between Bates’s everyman and the idiot savant of the remaining townsfolk. There is a joie de vivre about the characters and Plumpick’s interaction with them. Meanwhile, the army officers are painted as caricatures: Colonel McBibenbrook (Adolfo Thunderball Celi) and pickelhelm and pointy moustached Lietenant Hamburger (Marc Dudicourt) lead both the British and German sides respectively while the French townsfolk, actually the escaped asylum inmates become French types who fulfill social roles in the absence of the real dignatories and town officials. The comedy is generally fairly broad, so typical of many French comedies with a strong slapstick element. At its best there is something of a Richard Lester element to the comedy, not too dissimilar to the later The Three Musketeer films but lacking some of the panache of Lester’s films.
Nevertheless, filmed in Senlis, a rural town north of Paris and a location for many a film, it is a rather typical French town, almost a parody of one and has often been used as such in many other French films as Papy fait de la Résistance (1983). In one sense the town is unrealistic as a town under occupation as this one at the front would be a great deal more damaged or destroyed than the virtually intact town in the film. On the other hand it is a symbol of Frenchness, stuck between the opposing British stiff-upper lip types and the sausage eating Germans. Whichever, this film celebrates its 50th anniversary release ( it was released outside of France in 1968, 2 years after it was initially released in France).
As can be expected by a Eureka Entertainment release in their Masters of Cinema series, there are a host of interesting extras on the disc and a fine 4K transfer, including a recent interview with French Canadian star Geneviève Bujold who was very young and in the early stages of her career with this film. Other extras include discussions on the film by cinematographer Pierre Lohmme and director de Broca’s wife.