King of Hearts

Jun 25, 1990

Some films have become famous simply because they’ve sold a lot of tickets. Others have major studio publicity machines behind them, the better to hog the spotlight. Still others earn their fame the hard way through genuine critical acclaim.

But there’s yet another route through film history, one that’s taken every now and then by a movie that somehow—without any special pleading or prodding—has been discovered by moviegoers all by themselves. More than merely admired, these films are loved with a passion bordering on the fanatical. Devotees will gladly see them again and again. For these films have been placed well beyond the pale of ordinary entertainment—they are “cult” objects. And among movie “cults,” none is quite so special as the one that has grown up around King of Hearts.

Starring Alan Bates and Geneviève Bujold, and produced by the French filmmaking team of scriptwriter Daniel Boulanger and director Philippe De Broca, King of Hearts was first released in 1967 to passable notices and less than passable business. Not as energetic as this pair’s other comedy hits (That Man from Rio, Cartouche), King of Hearts‘ brand of mild-mannered antiwar satire seemed destined to be overlooked in an era enlivened by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But only three years later, King of Hearts began to find its audience in a way these other films never did.

It was around 1970 that King of Hearts first began to show up on the then-burgeoning revival theater circuit. Bookers for showcases not only in such major moviegoing centers as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles but in such far-flung regions as Austin, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis were deluged with audience requests to see the film. As the decade wore on, King of Hearts became repertory theater “bread and butter”—one of a small handful of surefire items certain to draw a crowd. In fact at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, King of Hearts ran for an unprecedented five years nonstop, with its success there inspiring United Artists to strike a new print of the film to replace the one that had worn out.

Why was a film first thought passé so suddenly, and so dramatically, in vogue? A quick look at its plot supplies the answer.

Shot on location in Senlis in Northern France, King of Hearts is set in 1918 during the last days of the first World War. When a local spy for the French underground learns that the German troops occupying the town have booby-trapped the entire place with a bomb set to go off at midnight—the better to destroy an advancing brigade of Scottish troops—he sends a message to warn this army. The commander of the Scottish brigade (Adolfo Celi) decides to send his communications “specialist,” Private Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates), into the town to deal with the matter—even though Plumpick’s “specialty” consists of training carrier pigeons.

Entering the town, Plumpick evades the last of the German patrols still stationed there by taking refuge in the local lunatic asylum. Leaving the door open on his way out, he inadvertently allows the asylum’s inhabitants to escape. Like a clutch of Rip Van Winkles suddenly aroused from a lengthy rest, the mad men and women enter the now deserted town and slowly start to take it over. Dressing themselves in the clothes they find there, these playfully childlike loonies begin to take on a variety of social roles: a barber (Michel Serrault), a madam (Micheline Presle), a General (Pierre Brasseur), and a Duke (Jean-Claude Brialy) among them.

Plumpick is anxious to discover where the bomb is hidden, defuse it, and get back to his battalion. But the feckless loonies—who have crowned him as their king —soon have him under their sway. Refusing to deal with either the war or the imminent explosion, they’re dedicated to living for the moment. And when Plumpick finds himself falling for the youngest and loveliest of them, a girl named Coquelicot (Geneviève Bujold), he quickly opts to cast his lot with the “madness” of the insane rather than continue to deal with the “sanity” of the war.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the impact of a story like this on a Vietnam war-beleaguered nation—particularly in the college towns where the King of Hearts “cult” first took root. The “anti-psychiatry” of R.D. Laing (mirrored in both the novel and film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was in the cultural air at the time, giving the asylum inmates’ delusions the spirit of a full-fledged social revolt. The Duke’s much-quoted line “Theater is everywhere” (Chapter 9) was a rallying cry to a generation whose notions of acting (and “acting-out”) ranged from the game-playing plays of Jean Genet (whose The Maids and The Balcony can be seen as sources of a sort for the film) to the organized anarchy of the Living Theater. Even those less politically or culturally au courant could take pleasure in the film, its action frequently taking the form of the sort of pageant common to campus “rush week” activities, holiday parties, or “spring break” gatherings.

Still for all its carnival airs, there’s a level of poignancy to King of Hearts that comes through most clearly. The sequence of the mad people’s arrival in the town (Chapter 5) in which a series of carefully choreographed actions is played off against one of Georges Delerue’s loveliest scores, has a gracefulness comparable to the best of René Clair. And there’s a real emotional charge to the scene where Plumpick (Chapter 13) discovers that the bomb is set to go off in three minutes. He’s horrified, but his lady love Coquelicot seems unperturbed. “We still have three minutes!” she says matter-of-factly, indifferent to death, willing to live out each moment of life to the full.

Now through laserdisc, this moment, and all the others in King of Hearts, can be savored to the full by those who’ve enjoyed them before, or who are about to discover them for the very first time.