King and Country (1964)

5th November 2023

Studiocanal Vintage Classics presents King and Country on Blu-ray, Digital and DVD in a stunning new 4K restoration on Nov 6.

From the mud-filled trenches to the slaughter of no man’s land and the brutality of combat, the abject horror of the First World War must never be forgotten. British men aged 18-41 were conscripted, while many boys under the age of 18 signed up for King and Country of their own free will, unaware of the horror that awaited them. As these men and boys arrived in the trenches, the hope of victory and escape quickly became a distant dream as their ears rang with the sound of artillery fire, and their eyes watched the endless slaughter of friends, brothers, opponents and civilians. For many, the mental toll was unbearable as they withdrew into themselves while suffering from physical reactions such as amnesia, blinding headaches, dizziness and tremors. And for many, the only answer was to run. Private Thomas Highgate, aged just 17, was the first British soldier to be executed on the Western Front for desertion, but in the years that followed, 302 British and Commonwealth soldiers would suffer the same fate. They are the forgotten victims of the First World War, killed by the men they walked beside, and their deaths continue to cast a long shadow. 

Adapted from John Wilson’s stage play “Hamp”, based on James Hodson’s novel “Return to the Wood”, Joseph Losey’s 1964 film King and Country gave voice to the men murdered by their own side while reflecting on the brutal political gameplay and cold emotion of a war that used men as pawns. King and Country is a claustrophobic nightmare where men covered in mud play with rats for entertainment, yearn for escape and find brief moments of respite through rotten food and cigarettes. It is a world of futility, cruelty, and class divide where officers make decisions their men neither understand nor support. 

Among the rats, mud and the smell of death, Tom Courtenay’s Private Hamp awaits his trial for desertion, having gone for a walk during the horrors of Passchendaele. Hamp’s nervous eyes explore his damp prison as he waits patiently for Dirk Bogarde’s Captain Charles Hargreaves to enter his makeshift cell. As Hargreaves walks in offering him a cigarette, Hamp is chatty yet emotionally distant as he recounts how he volunteered for service in 1914 due to pressure from his wife and mother and how he just went for a walk, that’s all, just a walk home to England. Hargreaves is charged with mounting Hamp’s defence in the upcoming trial and opts to focus on the young man’s mental health. But Hargreaves knows his choice of defence is a long shot in a war with little to no accommodation for concepts of mental well-being; after all, everyone in this mad war is ill, and everyone is trapped in a nightmare of no escape. 

Losey’s powerful and stark dissection of the madness and rigidity of war focuses on the psychology of each man held in its inescapable grip. While Hamp’s trial takes place, other men talk of how they wouldn’t have gotten caught while salivating over horse meat that is months old. For each man, the trenches are a prison of no escape and a reflection of the class divide that haunted Imperial Britain. In this human-created hell, Oxbridge-educated senior officers sit in their quarters, divided from the men they lead, chatting about the power they wield and the politics of warfare as doctors prescribe laxatives for mental trauma. 

Meanwhile, the men, the cannon fodder, know that whatever happens to Hamp, their fates are also signed and sealed. Maybe it’s better to be shot by your own men than face the horror of going over the top? The performances of Courtney, Bogarde and the exemplary ensemble cast are captivating and haunting as they explore this question. But when you couple these outstanding performances with Losey’s understated direction and Denys N. Coop’s stunning cinematography, King and Country becomes one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made. Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), King and Country is a stark reminder that the horrors of war are internal and external, as humanity, care and compassion become the first victims of a march to victory that must be maintained at any price.

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