‘When I am buried, all my thoughts and acts
Will be reduced to lists of dates and facts,
And long before this wandering flesh is rotten
The dates which made me will be all forgotten,’
John Masefield’s poem forms part of the downbeat conclusion of Joe Losey’s 1964 anti-war drama, restored and resurrected in 4k for its belated debut on digital, blu-ray and DVD. Losey was a pre-eminent British film-maker in the 50’s and 60’s who lost his way somewhat in the 70’s, but his current unfashionability shouldn’t get in the way of assessing King and Country, a serious-minded drama about a military court-martial during World War One for the ‘sole survivor of an assault on the Somme’. The opening camera crawl around a war monument sets a bleak tone, and although King and Country’s dialogue is crisp and accurate, the pall of war hangs heavily over the characters.
Tom Courtenay gives a career best performance as Private Hamp, a young man who deserts his unit when he finds himself the only one left alive on the battlefield after an abortive push. He’s an ordinary man, suffering from shell-shock and other issues as well as the obvious mental health problems caused by trench life. Standing in the way of Hamp’s prosecution is Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), an upper-class lawyer who is initially frosty towards Hamp, but warms to him as the preparations for the court-martial begin. ‘What were you like as a child ?’ Hargreaves is asked on his arrival at the damp, dank quarters. ‘The same,’ he responds coldly. But while Hargreaves comes to see that Hamp has an ‘understandable reason’ for running away from the front lines, convincing the powers-that-be won’t be an easy task. Their argument has the firm inevitability of a door slamming: ‘They may be many in that mental state who did not absent themselves from their duties,’ is the official line, reflecting Paths of Glory and the officious notion of cruelty ‘pour encourager les autres’
King and Country’s story is taken directly from the John Wilson play Hamp which itself originated from the 1955 novel Return To The Wood by James Lansdale Hodson, and this enterprise in sandwiched between Losey’s far better known collaborations with Bogarde, The Servant and Accident. But even with a more conventional character, Bogarde gets the best out of his stiff upper lip; ‘Are you on good terms with your wife?’ he asks menacingly of Hamp. ‘You’ll have to learn to be careful about your manner of speaking…’ is his warning as their courtroom date approaches. Leo McKern makes an impression as a martinet furious about Hamp’s behaviour, and Barry Foster comes up with a very British endorsement of Hamp; ‘he brewed a first class cup of tea.’ But Losey has muscles to flex as a director, and while King and Country isn’t quite as intense as The Servant, the fetid atmosphere of trench warfare is well caught with some brief but telling images, from the squaddies holding a mock court-martial for a trapped rat, a dead horse having its belly slit open to reveal the vermin squirming inside, and a dead body gradually being washed away by the rain.
‘Women of Islington say go!’ reads some graffiti glimpsed on a wall, but the men in King and Country are flattened by inertia amongst their leaders. Hamp may have allowed ‘fear to become his master’, but none of these men are free. They stand tied to their posts as water leaks into their trenches, with regular breaks for trips to the latrines. ‘Don’t thank me for doing my duty. I had to,’ says Hargreaves before he carries out the final, shockingly bleak act of King and Country, but whether doing that duty is worth it is movingly debated in this painfully corrosive look at British class system in a wartime setting, with a digital release well timed to balance the increasingly jingoistic way that Remembrance Day is currently ‘celebrated’.
· New Tom Courtenay on King & Country
· Archive Interview with Dirk Bogarde (1964)
· Behind the Scenes stills gallery
Available in the UK for the first time ever on
BLU-RAY & DIGITAL and on a new DVD on 6TH NOVEMBER