King Rat (1965)

King Rat (1965), directed by Bryan Forbes.

Incredible presentation of the ultimate dirty, sweaty, disease ridden and starving WW2 Malaysian prison camp. From James Clavell's novel, based on his experiences as a POW. Strong Anglo-American cast.

On one hand the camp is well-ordered: they have a functioning chain of command, a doctor and hospital, and even a Provost (policeman) complete with bamboo cells. There are classes and plays and the food is weighed and rationed. No one escapes because there is nowhere to go. We don't see a Japanese soldier for the first 35 minutes.

But extreme conditions bring out darker influences. The ragged prisoners snitch on each other. Hungry people will steal food and when the officers themselves are corrupt, it can be very sad. This is one of the rare times you will see John Mills as anything other than absolutely heroic.

One man in camp is having a good war: American Corporal King (George Segal) an accomplished hustler and operator. He's well fed and clothed and has a retinue of lackeys to serve him. His nemesis is the Provost (Tom Courtenay, very fierce), just looking for an excuse to lock him up.

I kept trying to fit this into a known plot narrative but the movie doesn't behave that way. I was trying to see it as a western (the sheriff vs the gambler) or an urban noir (the detective exposing the corrupt world under the official facade), but there is no dramatic climax or even a single plot thread that dominates the others. We have:

What they wore: many of the men have dysentery and wear wrap-around skirts rather than trousers.

What they ate: rats (they had a rat farm), buckets of cockroaches boiled down to broth for the sick (they had a cockroach farm), and one prisoner's dog.

Here's James Fox and Denholm Eliott harvesting cockroaches:


DE: You really ate them in Java?

JF: Not only in Java. Here in Changi. So did you.

DE: What? Now, we agreed we wouldn't cook anything revolting unless we discussed it. We agreed.

JF: I know we agreed! You were dying. And why do we collect them? It's pure protein. For the hospital, for the seriously sick. You were sick, remember? You were dying.

DE: I really ate them, did I?

JF: You asked for second helpings.

DE: Well, next time I want to know. And that's a bloody order.

John Barry score.