"Why do you think it is, corporal, that you have so much and the rest of us so little?"
Prisoner-of-war camp depictions on film have run the gamut from the ridiculous (Victory, 1981) to the sublime (Grand Illusion, 1937). Some have provided high excitement (The Great Escape, 1963), others an epic tale (Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957). Then there are those that focus on the day-to-day struggle to survive where the possibility of escape does not exist. Such a place was Changi, a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp located not far from Singapore. After the fall of Singapore early in World War II, it became home to thousands of British and Australian soldiers plus a handful of Americans for the rest of the war. Escape was not an option because unlike in German camps, there was nowhere to escape to with any realistic prospect of getting home. A recent Australian television miniseries (Changi) presented one view of life in the camp, but a much more evocative one is that conveyed in the 1965 film King Rat (adapted from a novel of the same title by James Clavell) and now available on DVD from Columbia.
Facts of the Case
Corporal King is a street-wise soldier who is one of a handful of American prisoners of war in Changi, a camp dominated by British and Australians. King manages to rise to a position of power over everyone regardless of their rank or social standing, by virtue of his ability to manipulate people and control the prison's black market. He lives as a virtual king in the American camp hut, with Sergeant Max as his personal servant.
King forms an alliance with a young British officer, Peter Marlowe, whom he sees as a potential accomplice because of Marlowe's ability to speak Malay. The two forge a close bond and together pose a constant irritation to Lieutenant Robin Grey, the camp's provost martial. Grey is continually trying to catch King in the act of some illegal transaction, to the point of obsession.
As the war draws to a close, King begins to realize that a return to the real world will also mean a return to insignificance, that is, if he manages to survive at all.
The picture that King Rat presents is a grim and cynical one indeed. Accommodation is marginal, the weather is stifling in its humidity, food is barely adequate, and the prisoners' clothing is little more than rags. Survival is all that drives the prisoners and virtually every one of them is willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure their own welfare. Some senior British officers steal food from the rest of the soldiers by manipulating the weights that portion out the food supplies, while others effectively condone the practice. Others take bribes from King as a payment for protecting him or for assisting in his scams. Lt. Grey survives through bitterness. He sees his position as an opportunity to punish those who deeply offend him or who have privilege merely by right of social position, rather than just a way to enforce at least a modest level of discipline and respect as a means to maintain camp morale. Beyond Grey's official police powers, the camp itself also has an unofficial disciplinary solution. Anyone found to be guilty of stealing food is liable to be killed by being drowned in the waste accumulations under each outside latrine.
The bleakness of the story is tempered only by the amusement aroused by one of King's schemes—the idea of trapping and breeding rats, which will then be butchered and sold to camp officers as a local delicacy known as mouse deer. Just another way for King to add to his coffers, and the enlisted men in on the scam to enjoy themselves at their officers' expense.
The way that one views King changes in a very interesting fashion during the course of the film. When we are first introduced to him, we see a soldier who has everything while all the others have virtually nothing. In an environment such as Changi, the immediate conclusion is that he is prospering at the expense of the others and our first reaction is one of disdain. Yet it soon becomes clear that King is flourishing partly because of the greed of other prisoners. They try to pull the wool over his eyes about the real value of items they want sold to the guards and King responds by claiming to sell the items for less than he actually does. Everybody's happy and King seems less of a vulture than at first. King even manages to convey a sense of compassion by arranging for help when Marlowe needs medication to prevent the loss of his arm to gangrene. In so doing, he becomes at least worthy of modest respect if not affection. By the film's end, he is almost a figure for sympathy, because we clearly see his recognition that the freeing of the camp means the end of his influence at the very least and perhaps worse at the hands of any prisoners who perceive he has taken advantage of them.
George Segal got his first starring opportunity as King, following his Academy Award nomination for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. His skill in playing smart-aleck roles was never better shown than in this film. He also portrays his ambivalent feelings about the war's impending and actual end beautifully, leaving some real ambiguity about how his future may play out. Most of the rest of the cast is British and all are excellent, particularly James Fox as Marlowe and Tom Courtenay as Grey. James Donald, John Mills, and Denholm Elliot all excel in smaller supporting roles. The look and sense of the bleakness of the camp is well captured by cinematographer Burnett Guffey (who received an Academy Award nomination) and soundtrack composer John Barry. Direction was by Bryan Forbes (Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The L-Shaped Room).
Columbia gives us a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that does a pretty good job with the black and white material. The image does look somewhat soft from time to time, but shadow detail is very good. Blacks look fairly deep, but grain sometimes intrudes in darker sequences. Edge effects are negligible.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound track is adequate although there is some evidence of minor hiss. English and Japanese subtitles are provided.
The supplement package consists of trailers for three Columbia war films, but there's nothing for King Rat itself.
King Rat, though virtually unrelentingly cynical, is a powerful tale of the survival of the fittest. Viewers willing to invest the time will be rewarded with a continuingly interesting story, brilliantly performed characters, and fine photographic work throughout. Columbia's DVD is reasonably respectful of the film in terms of look, but better efforts could have put into the sound and extras. Still, a film as good as this deserves a recommendation, bare-bones DVD or not.
Much as we might like him to suffer, King Rat is fully exonerated. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Trailers for Three Columbia Films
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