Monday, September 01, 2008

KING RAT (1965)

I usually avoid prisoner-of-war movies (despite my having been, or maybe because I was, a fan of "Hogan's Heroes" in my youth), but this was recommended by an e-mail friend and I enjoyed it. What sets this one apart from the breed is that it's not an action movie about escaping, but a character study about men doing their best to survive their ordeal. The story is set at an actual Japanese POW camp called Changi in Singapore, situated between the sea and a particularly inhospitable jungle, and because escape attempts aren't really much of a problem, security is a little lighter than normal for such a camp. Most of the prisoners are from England or Australia, but George Segal, the title character, is an American soldier named King (no one actually calls him King Rat, but he is involved in a rat-breeding scheme). He has managed to make himself quite comfortable as the head honcho of a vast black market operation, and most everyone of any rank winds up kowtowing to Segal for favors. The man who most resents Segal's position is a British lieutenant, Tom Courtenay, who never stops trying to bring Segal down. When Segal discovers that Brit officer James Fox can speak Malay, he gets Fox on board to be a go-between with the guards, which irritates Courtenay all the more. Fox, the character we get to know the best, becomes the moral center of the film, and over time, he comes to almost admire the unscrupulous Segal, especially late in the film when Fox gets gangrene and the doctors threaten amputation; Segal, who supposedly is only looking out for himself, goes out of his way to strike a deal to get enough black-market drugs to cure Fox's infection. We also see that Segal is hardly the only prisoner to engage in morally questionable behavior; even the upright colonel (John Mills) isn't above looking the other way when Courtenay exposes a scheme to skim food off prisoner's rations. The film is set in 1945 and there is some suspense generated when the prisoners are led to believe that, even though the Allied victory is certain, the Japanese will engage in wholesale slaughter rather than give up the camp. However, things come to a very different conclusion, less tragic but one that presents an interesting insight into Segal's character and brings a sad end to the relationship between Segal and Fox.

I've never particularly liked George Segal, but he gives a knockout performance here which is all the more impressive for being one that by necessity does not flesh his character out completely—we know almost nothing about his life before the camp. Fox is excellent, as usual, as is Mills and, in smaller roles, Denholm Elliott and Patrick O'Neal. Courtenay seems to have been good at playing irritating jackasses you love to hate; his character is a lot like the one he played the same year in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Richard Dawson has a small role at the very end as the British soldier who arrives in advance of the liberation troops. The person who was in charge of applying the sweat stains to the prisoners' shirts was clearly overworked; obviously they were going for realism, but the stains look a little too "planned" and were almost distracting at times. [DVD]

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