The year is 1918 and in this small French town, the locals are waiting for the Great War to end and for them to be liberated as the Germans leave. But the occupiers have one last task to perform, knowing they are losing the General sets explosives around the clock tower, primed to go off when the bell is struck at midnight, killing any British soldiers in the vicinity, and the townsfolk too. However, one of them, a spy for the resistance, manages to get word on his secret radio to the nearest British regiment before he is gunned down, and the General there (Adolfo Celi) despatches one of his men, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates), to investigate and send one of his beloved carrier pigeons back...
King of Hearts, or Le roi de coeur has it was known in French, was not one of the biggest hits of its director Philippe de Broca, but it did gather a faithful following away from his more popular action and adventure pictures thanks to arriving precisely at the moment the global anti-war movement was really becoming a phenomenon. Many of the film's most ardent admirers were those students who caught this in the late sixties and found it chimed with their way of thinking, and perhaps more importantly their view of themselves, for there was a group of characters here who were very close to the concept of the peace-loving innocents the hippies liked to regard as an ideal.
The thing was, those characters were patients in the local asylum who find themselves free now that the rest of the community has been evacuated, and it appears to liberate their more whimsical air and now they have nobody to hold them back, their madness is untrammelled. Now, it should come as no surprise with a movie where whimsy was very much the order of the day that this did not mean the patients start self-harming and becoming a danger to themselves, as the script's view of the mentally ill was more that if they were left to their own devices they would be happy as Larry without someone to order them about, a concept that may or may not be accurate to the real world.
It was easy to criticise King of Hearts and it romanticising of madness, but then, it's not as if it made any moves towards realism, therefore you could forgive de Broca and his team for crafting a modern fable more than a searing reportage of realism, and it was best approached as a gentle fairy tale that found some good in some very bad events. At its core it was an anti-establishment piece, another reason the young of the hippy era liked it so much, where the message was if society, those who claim to be in control, are willing to lead us into war, then we might as well ask what the disenfranchised think about all this, since they might have a more peaceful view of how to go about preventing any such atrocities occurring in the first place. If not a better idea, then at least it could not be any worse.
In effect, the inmates of the asylum were closer to the hippies than anyone else in the story, with their faith in innocence and habit of going off on reveries instead of making war. Plumpick initially does his job to warn the officers who have sent him to the town, but gradually he is won over by the crazy folks who have taken over the place, if only temporarily. He makes it his fresh mission to prevent the bombs going off so he can save his new friends, including Geneviève Bujold who falls in love with him, believing as the others do he is the King of Hearts, whatever that may mean (he thought it up on the spot when challenged by the Germans) though it impresses the patients. Really, there was not a lot of middle ground here, as if you were charmed by the misfits you would likely be charmed by the whole movie, and if you thought the whole enterprise was absurdly naïve and ill-judged, this would be torture. In its favour, it wasn't smug, and did feature a chimpanzee riding a bicycle - you don't see that every day. Music by Georges Delerue.
[Eureka's Blu-ray looks very glossy, and there are loads of extras:
Limited Edition O-Card slipcase ( first print run only)
1080p presentation from the Cohen Media Group 4K restoration (with a progressive encode on the DVD)
Original LPCM mono audio
Optional English subtitles
Feature length audio commentary by film critic Wade Major
Geneviève Bujold on the making of King of Hearts - An interview with the Academy Award nominated actress from 2017
Interview with Pierre Lhomme: the cinematographer discusses working with Philippe de Broca, and the techniques used for filming King of Hearts
Interview with Michelle de Broca: Producer and ex-wife of director Philippe de Broca talks about working on King of Hearts
Eureka! trailer for the 2018 UK theatrical release of King of Hearts
A collector's booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp.]