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King Rat (1965, George Segal, Tom Courtenay)

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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.

production details
USA – UK | 134 minutes | 1965

Writer and Director: Bryan Forbes (from novel by James Clavell)

cast
James Fox as Marlowe
Gerald Sim as Jones
Leonard Rossiter as McCoy
Richard Dawson as Weaver
Reg Lye as Tinker Bell
James Donald as Dr. Kennedy
George Segal as Corporal King
John Standing as Daven
John Mills as Smedley-Taylor
William Fawcett as Steinmetz
Tom Courtenay as Grey
Patrick O’Neal as Max
Denholm Elliott as Larkin
Joe Turkel as Dino
Todd Armstrong as Tex
John Ronane as Hawkins
Alan Webb as Brant
Geoffrey Bayldon as Vexley
Wright King as Brough
Hamilton Dyce as Padre
Michael Lees as Stevens
John Merivale as Foster
Arthur Malet as Blakeley
Michael Stroka as Miller
Dale Ishimoto as Yoshima
Teru Shimada as Japanese General
David Frankham as Cox
John Warburton as Commandant
John Orchard as Gurble
Hedley Mattingly as Dr Prudhomme
John Barclay as Spence

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