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Madness is the goal in “King of Hearts”

Updated: Jun 15, 2022


Private Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) reads a code book before sending messages with the homing pigeons.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


Blu-ray, DVD; 1966; Not Rated; streaming via Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Interview with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme

PERHAPS, LATELY, you’ve had the sad feeling that the inmates are running the asylum in our country. If so, “King of Hearts” may offer a refreshing counterpoint to that sadness.

The 1966 Phillippe de Broca anti-war classic is a charming comic fantasy set in a small French village during the First World War. The village has been evacuated in advance of a German invasion, during which they plant and hide explosives in the main square. A hapless Scottish army private named Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) is sent to the village to investigate the situation and, when some of the Germans return, ends up taking shelter in a still-inhabited sanitarium. The Germans take off, leaving the doors and gates of the asylum unlocked, and Plumpick unconscious.

Plumpick receives his orders from the Colonel (Adolfo Celi).

Plumpick carries two homing pigeons as he approaches the French village.

When he awakens, the former inmates have seamlessly assumed roles of the missing village residents: From the bordello madame to the bishop, to the barber, to a circus ringmaster, to a duke and duchess and their “children,” Plumpick at first mistakes the crazies for their adopted personae. In turn, the people crown the Scotsman “King of Hearts,” and encourage a love affair between him and a pretty young tightrope walker (Genevieve Bujold). Before long, Plumpick concludes that the truly insane people are those who make war on one another, and the erstwhile loonies have the right ideas.

Cohen Film Collection’s 4K restoration on Blu-ray looks wonderful, complete with a fine grainy texture to recall the original 35 mm film. Plenty of detail is provided in close-ups; colors are naturalistic, and there is adequate depth in both in- and outdoor scenes. The mono soundtrack is also good, with French (and occasional German and English) dialogue clear – English subtitles provided. Georges Delerue’s delicate score ties it all together beautifully.

Extras include a recent interview with Bujold and an informative commentary by L.A. NPR affiliate radio critic Wade Major. The 2017 interview with Lhomme is especially interesting. He and de Broca were friends from childhood, and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme discusses the disparity in their backgrounds.

De Broca came from a noble family, with the expected conservative political viewpoints, whereas Lhomme describes himself as being “on the extreme left wing … we had wonderful fights!” He says he originally didn’t want to be a DP, but rather a camera operator, which he was on de Broca’s first two films. But by the time he was offered the cinematographer job on “King of Hearts,” he says, “I was ready to not refuse.”

When the door is left open, the inmates leave the asylum.

The "duchess" (Françoise Christophe) and two of her "children."

Of the project, Lhomme says he and de Broca “thought we were doing a crazy film” at first. At the beginning of shooting, he recalls Bates broke his ankle and hence suffered a lot during the course of the filming. De Broca, says Lhomme, “created a special atmosphere of foolishness” on the set. Looking at it now, he says, “I think it’s a miracle from another planet!” Lhomme remarks that the film was “misunderstood in France,” but loved in the U.S. and England.

About the digital restoration, Lhomme talks about “recreating a new negative from what was left of the film.” He took charge of “grading” and color-correcting the final version, in order to recreate the visual mood. Working on it, he adds, kept him “happy eight hours a day.” He notes that “modern technicians know nothing about cinema … the equipment is so sophisticated, but you can do a lot of harm … you need a visual education, and then can actually improve on things from before.”

Lhomme considers himself lucky to have been “a part of the joy” of “King of Hearts.”

— Peggy Earle

Plumpick is crowned "King of Hearts."

The colonel is entertained by the "madame" (Micheline Presle) and the "duchess."

Plumpick and the "tightrope walker" Cloquelicot (Geneviève Bujold) fall in love.


German soldiers line up for the battle.

The battle's aftermath -- everybody loses.

The inmates decide it's too crazy in the outside world and lock themselves back up in the asylum.




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