KING OF HEARTS [1966]: In Selected Cinemas Now, On Dual Format July 16th

Directed by:
Written by:
Starring: , , ,




RUNNING TIME: 102 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic


It’s the closing days of World War I, and the Allies are liberating France. The German occupiers of the small French town of Marville rig the place with explosives, set to trigger when the town square clock strikes midnight. Due to a miscommunication, it’s not ordnance expert Pimpernickel who’s sent to dismantle the bomb, it’s hapless Scottish/French ornithologist Charles Plumpick. Once at his destination, Charles is chased by some German soldiers and finds himself holed up at the local insane asylum, where the inmates are convinced that he is the “King of Hearts”, then falls over and knocks himself out fleeing more Germans. When he wakes up, the lunatics have the run of the place and are intent on making Charles their king….

This delightfully charming and whimsical anti-war fantasy was a flop on its initial release, even in its native France, until it became a cult movie a decade or so later, its absurdist tone and pacifist message finding favour with the “turn on, tune in and drop out” crowd. In fact one of the many odd things about it is that it doesn’t seem especially of its time compared to, say, Oh What A Lovely War which speaks 1969 in every scene. If I didn’t know it, and ignoring the ages that its two main stars look, I’d have probably placed it much later though even then wouldn’t have been sure. I only first heard of it a few years ago, but having finally got to see it courtesy of our friends at Eureka Entertainment, I can say that writer/director Philippe de Broca pulled off quite something, a film that, despite possessing a certain Fellini-esque feel in places and on a few occasions having touches of some the output from the British absurdist, anarchic comedy movement that was developing in the 1960’s and which eventually led to Monty Python, is really quite unique. Despite being unmistakable as coming from France, I don’t think that it should be at all ‘remote’ or hard to ‘get’ for the average film-goer who just fancies something different from the all-dominating Hollywood blockbusters, de Broca packing his film with everything from slapstick to social commentary to romance to – yes – World War 1 slaughter, all in the name of treating watchers to a really good time while still having something to say – though without feeling preachy.

Military leadership is given a good ribbing right from the beginning when, after a goofy cameo from de Broca himself as Adolph Hitler, Colonel Alexander MacBibenbrook [Adolpho Celi] just won’t listen to our poor hero who’s trying to tell him that there’s been a mistake and that he’s not the man for the job. Poor Celi [most familiar from Thunderball] is dubbed yet again [I know I’ve heard his real voice but I couldn’t tell you in which film], as are indeed seemingly all of the actors playing Scots, though I always like it when people of particular nationalities speak their own languages as is the case with this film. Charles arrives at the town and has to flee from some Germans and hide in the mental asylum where he’s greeted by characters calling themselves the Duke of Clubs and Monseigneur Daisy, then calls himself King of Hearts when the Germans show up and, failing to recognise him, flee these supposedly mad people. We then have a wonderful sequence in which the inmates spill out into the now deserted town’s streets, shops and occupations, putting on various ‘costumes’, all to one of composer Georges Delerue [France’s prime film score writer]’s most infectious waltzes that becomes more heavily orchestrated and grander as it goes along. And then Charles, having accidentally knocked himself out, awakes and doesn’t really have any reason to suspect that the colourful characters who seem to spend more time prancing around the streets than doing anything else are anything other than who they seem – well, until they become insistent on crowning him king. And then there are those animals roaming around.

The film has a somewhat sentimental and ‘safe’ view of its ‘mad’ characters and fails to acknowledge any of the troubling aspects of mental illness. Having Charles walk into the doctor’s surgery and change his clothes while the ‘doctor’ is sitting there doing a drawing of a flower, or the ‘barber’ paying his customers because “business is good” is about as far down this path as the film is willing to go. However, you probably won’t be able to stop yourself falling in love with these happy, uninhibited souls with their childlike imagination, who just appear to want to have a good time and not to be bothered by the outside world – even though the outside world is certainly going to come calling with both the British and the German armies interested in what’s going on. In a scene straight out of Monty Python, MacBibenbrook tells three soldiers to go and see what Charles is up to – but they run off even before they’ve even been told where to go. I’ll admit that French humour, as with humour of many other countries, doesn’t always work for us Brits, but I was laughing along with quite a bit of King Of Hearts. Its comedy is quite varied, from silly slapstick [don’t expect the bomb diffusion scene to be a masterclass in suspense] to social satire as the ‘mad’ people adopt roles in society that they think are necessary but without the mores or hypocrisy which often come with them.

Of course Charles starts to become liberated by the abandoning of the logic that governs the outside world. He begins to feel very close to these people and will have to get them to safety [if of course they understand what he’s trying to tell them] if he can’t sort out this bomb business. The war side of things eventually comes back to the fore with a fair few deaths [though restricted to the soldiers], and there’s a slight sense that de Broca wasn’t quite sure about his final act. However, his final scene is as touching, yet as pointed, as it should be. In fact it’s rather sobering, serious and even realistic, De Broca holding back on suggesting that war will ever go away. Of course the main theme of his film is how ridiculous and absurd war is, the madness of the asylum inmates being harmless by comparison. Marville is surrounded by the horror of the outside word, but inside it’s a haven where life is celebrated, every other scene accompanied by some kind of dancing. And there’s romance too, Charles falling for a happy [and unbelievably innocent] hooker named Coquelicot. She’s played by a very young Genevieve Bujold, before she’d really grown into her looks and become the beauty she was in the 1970’s. She has one of the film’s most delightful moments when her character takes a short cut, using three telegraph wires as a tightrope and wielding an umbrella, to Charles’s window – and makes it seem so incredibly easy.

Obviously made with a very low budget, King Of Hearts is undoubtedly rather rough around the edges and even contains what looked like to me a few gaffs, though I may be wrong here. There certainly seemed to be the odd scene where it seemed like they used the first take even if it didn’t look too good and moved on. However, I’m usually wiling to forgive things like that if it’s evident that money was tight on a film, and on the other side of the coin in King Of Hearts you also get things like its infectious carnival atmosphere, its joie de vivre – things emphasised by Delerue’s score which largely comprises of a few waltzes and a polka – that easily carry it along past any bits which may not quite come off as well as they maybe should. And the performances are generally spot on. Alan Bates initially seems like an odd choice to play a child-like character who’s swept along by events, but he pulls off this deviation from the norm very well and reveals a good comic timing too without resorting to actual mugging which would have probably been the obvious route to go down for many actors. Many familiar faces from French cinema [if you’ve seen some French movies you’ll probably recognise them even if you don’t know their names], from future big names [Michel Serrault] to veteran stars still going strong [Micheline Presle], show up and are all given moments to shine.

It’s not hard to see the ‘lunatics’ in this film as representative of the 1960’s counter culture, peace-loving people who were feared by the establishment with their adopting of a lifestyle different to the conservative norm and in particular a more liberated attitude to recreation and especially sex. And yet as I said earlier King Of Hearts doesn’t come across as especially evocative of the time it was made in – in fact it seems quite modern and just as relevant – which is just one of many reasons that I recommend you give it a go if you live near one of the cinemas that’s showing it, especially as the 4k restoration is fabulous if the screener I viewed is anything to go by. Cynics may possibly find it rather twee – but I’m a pretty cynical guy these days and I was totally seduced by this lovely, warm-hearted – yet also sharp and off-the-beaten-path – yet also entirely approachable and understandable piece of cinema.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★½☆


King Of Hearts is showing in these selected cinemas from today.

Glasgow, Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), 8 June 3 days

Lewes, The Depot, 8 June 7 days

London, Cine Lumiere, 21 June 1 day

Manchester, Home, 22 June Selected screenings across 7 days

Derby, Quad Cinema, 26 June 3 days

London, Cine Lumiere, 28 June 1 day

London, Cine Lumiere, 8 July 1 day


And on July 16th, Eureka are releasing it on an extras-packed Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD set as part of The Masters of Cinema Series.

*Gorgeous 1080p presentation from the Cohen Media Group 4K restoration
*Original LPCM mono audio
*Optional English subtitles
*Feature length audio commentary by film critic Wade Major
*Geneviève Bujold on the making of King of Hearts – an interview with the Academy Award nominated actress from 2017
*Interview with Pierre Lhomme – the cinematographer discusses working with Philippe de Broca, and the techniques used for filming King of Hearts
*Interview with Michelle de Broca – Producer and ex-wife of director Philippe de Broca talks about working on King of Hearts
*Eureka! trailer for the 2018 UK theatrical release of King of Hearts
*A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp
*Limited Edition O-Card slipcase [first print run only]

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About Dr Lenera 1971 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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