“Lieutenant, I’d like to point out to you that I don’t have to put up with this crap from you. I’m not in your two-bit army, I’m in our two-bit army. If you’re looking for something to live for, when we get out of this you come looking for me and I’ll hand you your head.”
There’s a famous rodent scene from Bob Aldrich’s, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, that brings a certain level of shock and horror to the story along with the wheelchair-bound victim held by her sister’s “care.” No matter what you may have thought of the recent “Feud”, the cable series purportedly detailing the enmity for two of the most prolific actresses in Hollywood history, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, had while shooting the 1962 film, this particular scene simply spot-on for what it represented.
Rats, as a species and a metaphor, epitomize this, and for the exact reasons Col. Hans Landa described in his opening interrogation scene for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. “Consider the world a rat lives in. It’s a hostile world, indeed.” More to the point, “However, the reason the Führer has brought me off my Alps in Austria and placed me in French cow country today is because it does occur to me. Because I’m aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.”
Keep that in mind.
As the Memorial Day holiday is again upon us in the States, made a habit of watching war films in remembrance of the men and women who died serving this country by reviewing one each year. A genre crossing many boundaries — patriotic, personal, emotional, and on occasion, for sheer entertainment value. From sea and personal battle, In Harm’s Way, below that surface with The Enemy Below and Run Silent Run Deep, and to the specter of Vietnam that continues to haunt this country.
Most of these, not the big memorable productions, either, but they resonate with some veracity when it comes to that most human of endeavors. War. Trying to not repeat myself, looking to touch upon differing aspects of the calamity, sifting through an until now sub-genre of the category not yet mentioned. The Prisoner of War, or POW, film made popular in the ’50s and ’60s. Most famously gauged with such classics like The Colditz Story, The Great Escape, and Bridge of the River Kwai, surely.
Even so, I’ll go with an affecting study of men reduced to their barest, just fighting to hang on through the squalid imprisonment of their Japanese jailers. The too often forgotten 1965 film adaptation of James Clavell’s, King Rat. The barely fictionalized account of survival by the novelist-screenwriter-director who lived it and used his interment as the source for his debut ’62 novel. Replicated somewhat in another Brit captivity tale, J.G. Ballard’s own related in his 1984 novel, Empire of the Sun1.
In mentioning that, thought to bring back my former Duo Post partner Rachel to look at Clavell’s wellspring bestseller with this year’s remembrance. Many readers my age went through a “James Clavell period” (Tai-Pan, Shogun, and others in his “Asian Saga” series of novels), as did various studios in their TV-film rendering of his work. Though our old book-film series closed down, this title seemed fitting to resurrect, at least temporarily, our former teaming. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
King Rat‘s opening scroll provides the best synopsis of the film and could not sum it up any better:
This is not a story of escape. It is a story of survival. It is set in Changi Jail Singapore, in 1945. The Japanese did not have to guard Changi as a normal prisoner of war camp. The inmates of Changi had no friendly Swiss border or any other neutral country within reach. They were held captive not so much by high walls, or barb wire, or machine guns posts, but by the land and sea around them -- and the jungle was not neutral, nor the ocean. They do not live in Changi. They existed. This is a story of that existence.
The spectrum of film that litter the Prisoner of War category range from the adventurous, featuring the dogged ingenuity of soldiers and airmen in captivity, to the willful endurance of those pushed to the brink of human limits. The former in pursuit of daring escape attempts that are compelling dramatically which bring the likes of The Colditz Story and The Great Escape to the forefront of plenty POW movie Top Ten lists. Many filled out by British directors and actors that grant a certain authority.
Still, the more uncomfortable viewing experience are those of the latter. These aren’t as popular, but likely truer to what it was being held by wartime enemies. The reality Allied prisoners were more likely to perish due to cruelty, abuse, and neglect in the Pacific Theater under the Japanese than in Europe2. Almost its own cinematic category if you’ve witnessed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Unbroken, The Railway Man and the aforementioned Bridge on the River Kwai3 and Empire of the Sun.
King Rat doesn’t make as many “best” lists, which is unfortunate, yet its cinematic depiction of what existence was like in Changi4 was as powerful a treatise to what Quentin Tarantino’s WWII villain spoke to decades later. It also flipped, or at the very least caused the reader or viewer to seriously consider, who the real enemy was under such heartless circumstances. Your captors or fellow captives, especially when your survival was at stake every putrid, sweaty, and diseased-filled minute.
The film’s depiction of what was left for the Allied prisoners, mostly British and a smattering of Americans and Aussies, in Singapore, after it surrendered in 1942, in Changi prison was both terrible and fascinating. A POW detention center like no other, with few walls or barbed wire for the simple reason escapees had no place to go. By late in the war, the wheeling-dealing American Cpl. King has risen to the top level in the camp by utter savvy care of illegal trading. And everything’s for sale.
The rest diseased, near starved, wearing tatters for uniforms while “the King” ate well and wore crisp clean clothes every day — all hail the American way.
An alluring display of shrewdness and practicality, to be sure, and among George Segal’s best roles. Commendable on one hand, the other the bleakest of cynicism toward your fellow man. Come to think of it, you can imagine The Great Escape‘s Hendley ‘the Scrounger’ or Sgt. J.J. Sefton (Stalag 17), let alone Lt. JG Holden from Operation Petticoat, heck, even TV’s Sergeant Bilko, doing the same, if dumped into such a hell hole. You or me, for that matter, if so unlucky and left to survive.
His nemesis not so much the guards than Lt. Robin Grey (Tom Courtenay at his most class-ridden and inflexible), the camp Provost charged to keep order and discipline among the men5. Knowing “the King” routinely breaks camp rules by bartering with the Japanese but powerless to stop him. Into this tug-of-war, Lt. Peter Marlowe (James Fox as the author’s proxy), an idealized upper-class British officer, forms an unlikely friendship with the black marketeer. Drawn to the man’s business élan.
King Rat among the best of wartime film because it delved into human beings and our own society, and not so narrowly as Col. Landa did. Although it cast a light to the hypocrisy of the British class system, it had something to say about our corruptibility. Dignity, like truth, among the first casualties when war breaks out. The rat analogy, through King’s wickedly diverting plan to use the varmints as a tasty “officer” delicacy, an unambiguous representation when the thin veil of civil society torn away.
The list of those who turned down roles in the film included Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Dirk Bogarde.
Though writer-director Bryan Forbes focused his screenplay primarily on the men in Changi, ignoring the broader aspects of Clavell’s novel that connected to the relations outside of the prisoner habitat almost as brutal emotionally, it remains a splendid, if an under-appreciated, grimly perspiration-filled distillation of the work. Often assumed to be a British movie, with its 15 British Equity cast members6, it was an American production and filmed entirely in California7, to surprisingly potent effect.
Peter Marlowe: [speaking about King] “It wouldn’t have occurred to you would it, Grey, that you’re only alive because of what he gave you?”
Lt. Robin Grey: “What are you talking about? I never took anything from him. He never gave me anything.
Peter Marlowe: “Only hate, Grey. Only hate.”
If Empire of the Sun‘s Basie character, brilliantly portrayed by John Malkovich, was the comparable here, then his quote, “It’s at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it’s like a country club.”, Cpl. King would find most meaning in. Like his analog, “the King’s” position in Changi’s “society” always opportunistic. Life just ain’t fair, even if we can relate to both angel and devil in the story. But if anyone could persist, it’d be the title character who thrived in a pitiless POW camp.
Survival may be our bitterest of companions we cling to in the end, and Joan and Bette would agree, I’d say.
- A title she and I reviewed a few years back. ↩
- The exception being Russian POWs held by the Germans, which may have been greater. ↩
- The veterans of Burma-Siam Railroad, aka the ‘Death Railway’, who survived internment and have quite a different view toward David Lean’s film. ↩
- As bad as this looks, and as described in Clavell’s novel, there were decidedly worse detention facilities to die in than Changi. ↩
- “There are no women in the film.” ~ IMDB ↩
- Bryan Forbes had to fight the Screen Actors Guild to have them for the film. Some even had been POWs in the Second World War. “Denholm Elliott, while serving in the RAF, had been shot down and taken prisoner by the Nazis.” ~ IMDB ↩
- Using locations only a few miles up the freeway from me, in rural Thousand Oaks and Westlake locations that have since been occupied and developed. ↩