Set in a Japanese POW camp towards the end of the Second World War, writer/director Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of James Clavell’s notorious, experience-based best-seller King Rat spares us the genre’s usual commandant/inmate ructions, stiff upper lip heroics and escapology stunts to study the “soul-rotting inertia of confinement” (Observer) . It is, as Time noted, a “brutal, unforgettable essay on the morality of survival.”
Changi Jail is located on Singapore Island. Surrounded by ocean and impenetrable jungle, there is no chance of escape for the 10,000 allied prisoners, and so the guards, by and large, leave their captives alone. But with its exhaustive heat, threat of disease and dire lack of nutrition, survival at Changi is a full time occupation.
US corporal King (George Segal in his first starring part) has the job down pat. Cunning, quick-witted and unscrupulous, he understands that in a hell-hole like this, moral fibre can become a noose. Gleefully exploiting human weakness, he has built a racketeering empire by stealing or buying low from his fellow prisoners and selling high to the guards and villagers. Everyone is in his pocket – from the top brass who turn a blind eye to King’s illegal activities for the price of a tasty rat, to the lowlifes who happily help him stab their colleagues in the back for a percentage of the profit. Even upper-crust RAF pilot, Marlowe (James Fox) comes round to his way of thinking as he realises that education and social standing count for nothing in this rat-race, and the two men forge a strong bond.
Only one man, Lieutenant Grey (Tom Courtenay), stands up to King’s activities, and his attempts to bring down King’s empire provide the film’s central drama. But even his character’s motivations are dubious. A working class northerner driven by class-hatred and envy, Grey has made his way up the camp’s internal police system through an officious resistance to corruption. He reads the Bible for discipline rather than comfort, gets his kicks from exercising his power over the toffee-nosed British officers, and now guns for his arch-enemy, King.
He is the villain of the piece, a perversity that alarmed some critics. There was also a negative response from real-life survivors of the horrific Changi experience who were dismayed by the film’s portrayal of the camp as a cesspit of broken humanity almost devoid of virtue, dignity and compassion. But Forbes’ intention was precisely “to make some comment on the total obscenity of war,” and in that he succeeds memorably.
UK / 1965
Director: Bryan Forbes
Writer: Bryan Forbes (from novel by James Clavell)
Cast: George Segal, Tom Courtenay, James Fox, Patrick O’Neal, Denholm Elliott, James Donald, Todd Armstrong, John Mills, Gerald Sim, Leonard Rossiter, John Standing, Alan Webb