Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

King Rat (1965)

king-rat

“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.

Survival.

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 by James Clavell

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 marketer. 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.


  1. A title she and I reviewed a few years back
  2. The exception being Russian POWs held by the Germans, which may have been greater. 
  3. The veterans of Burma-Siam Railroad, aka the ‘Death Railway’, who survived internment and have quite a different view toward David Lean’s film. 
  4. As bad as this looks, and as described in Clavell’s novel, there were decidedly worse detention facilities to die in than Changi. 
  5. “There are no women in the film.” ~ IMDB 
  6. 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 
  7. 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. 
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16 Responses to “King Rat (1965)”

  1. 70srichard

    I’m definitely one of those who went through a Clavell period in the 80s. I knew this film well before that however. Segal and Courtney were terrific, and the rest of the cast was great as well. My father used the theme March as music background when presenting the Thurston version of sawing a woman in half. A great John Barry theme

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      So glad you mentioned the score to King Rat, Richard. It’s a fine one by John Barry that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And oh that’s an excellent one to use for the endeavor your father put it to. Bravo.

      Thanks, my friend. 🙂

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      Reply
  2. Paul S

    Color me confused. This sounds like a very good POW movie with a raft of great actors. It’s based on a novel by James Clavell. And yet very I’ve never heard of it, let alone seen it. I don’t understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      It’s a fine adaptation, and probably an even better read. Clavell was a marvelous storyteller and writer, and this easily was his best and most personal work. Thank you kindly, Cindy. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  3. Rachel

    Really interesting and comprehensive review, Michael! Really enjoyed it.

    I completely agree that the POW films are more uncomfortable viewing. I find them more complex and layered. As you say, possibly more true to the experience than battle films. They don’t easily allow for the standard war heroics tropes which forces that complexity to be more integral to the characters. In some ways, the violence is more intimate and brutal than, again, your standard battle fare. I think it’s that formation of recognizable social constructs which are so familiar and banal in the midst of the horrors of POW camps.

    Thanks a lot for suggesting this. I enjoyed the reprisal and the nudge to read a book I didn’t know much about.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      It was great to have you and me together once more on a book turned into a movie and this one surely called for the dual effort. Glad I could suggest a title you’ve not heard of and did enjoy reviewing. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, but we can agree it tends to be “…more complex and layered” than some war films Hollywood has become involved with. And I’m sure they’re some out there we two can again become associated with. Many thanks for joining me this Memorial Day, Rachel. 🙂

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    • le0pard13

      I’d heard there was a miniseries of Changi. Don’t know if it was ever released here in the States, but I’d certainly want to watch. I do recommend in the ’65 movie, though. Thanks, Lloyd. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  4. JackDeth72

    Excellent choice and dissertation, Michael!

    One of the best “Men Behind The Wire” films of the 1960s. Original work by james Clavell and much more in line with “Survival” than “The Great Escape” and “The Bridge On The River Kawi”.

    George Segal absolutely rocks his role as a sleazy, “Easy Way Out” NCO who easily manages to intimidate Top Kick, Patrick O’Neal and everyone else. The film is also cool for revealing the hypocrisy of the British Class System and its perceived “Perks”(Rations) applied to Officers. As opposed to “Ordinary” Enlisted Men.

    Nicely done, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Good to hear we’re on the same wavelength regarding this under-appreciated POW film, Kevin. I’d forgotten Patrick O’Neal was in this till I re-watched it, recently. We both remember his smack down with “In Harm’s Way”, which occurred the same year as this. Recalled it once we got to the Changi’s liberation, too. Thank so much, my friend. 🙂

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      Reply
  5. jackdeth72

    Excellent choice and dissertation, Michael!

    One of the best “Men Inside The Wire” films of the 1960s.

    With George Segal knocking it out of the park as a slezy, conniving NCO. Who easily intimidates Top Kick Patrick O’Neal and everyone else within reach/

    The fil also excels in revealing the hypocrisy of the British Class System. Even in the Military/ And its perceived “Perks” (Extra Rations) as opposed to “Ordinary” Enlisted Men/

    Well done, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Really, George Segal was extraordinary in this. The push-pull the lead character brings off in book and film form was remarkable. Yeah, the British Class System takes a pretty good critique in the most extraordinary literary and cinematic way, especially when the Provost gets it thrown back at him. Thought it was very interesting how author James Clavell brought back both Marlowe and Grey characters in his later Tai-pan sequel, the Hong Kong novel, “Noble House.” Got a kick out of that one. Thanks very much, Kevin. 🙂

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