KING RAT—-from 1965, adapted by Bryan Forbes from James Clavell’s 1962 novel of the same name. The first of the six books that would comprise his ‘Asian Saga’, the grim story was based on Clavell’s WW2 survival experience as a prisoner of the Japanese. For four years the future-best selling author eked out an existence at Changi Prison on Singapore. He survived in large part thanks to the byzantine wheeler-dealing of a fellow POW, a crafty Yank (the ‘King’) who managed to stay fit and healthy running barter business under the nose of the indifferent captors and variously dependent & despondent fellow internees.*
Clavell’s succeeding books were massive in scope and best suited to mini-series rather than theatrical adaptation (the exciting “Tai-Pan” made an atrocious movie, while the majestic “Shogun” and “Noble House” fared better on multiple TV segments). This story was dense with characterization and moral complexity but compact enough (480 pages, a breeze by Clavell standards) and localized in setting and incident so that it made for a good (not to say exactly cheery) fit for Forbes screenplay, which he also directed in a solid, un-sensationalized manner.
Aside from George Segal in the lead, and a handful of Americans (Patrick O’Neal, Todd Armstrong and Joe Turkel) the bulk of the cast are British (most of the prisoners were Brits or Australian) and with Forbes at the helm many assumed it was an English picture. It was in fact shot in California, the camp environs recreated effectively enough to avoid the expense and hassle of filming in SE Asia. Burnett Guffey’s excellent black & white cinematography seemed appropriately bleak and garnered an Oscar nomination, as did the Art Direction (Guffey in particular had some strong WW2 era competition in the category that year–In Harm’s Way, Morituri and winner Ship Of Fools).
Rising light Segal drew his first starring role, five years into the business at 31, when the choice lead (a blend of charismatic and unsympathetic) was turned down by Sinatra, Newman, McQueen, Curtis and Brando. The King pin has the stamp of a George Peppard kind of heel–but he was busy opening an opportunists vein for The Blue Max. Segal’s very good. The Brit cast is top line: Tom Courtenay, James Fox, Denholm Elliot, James Donald, John Mills, Gerald Sim, Leonard Rossiter, Alan Webb. Courtenay takes top honors as the bitter and vengeful provost officer out to trip up the conniving King. He was having a rich year, with his superb portrait of ‘Pasha/Strelnikov’ in Doctor Zhivago bringing him an Oscar nom.
Running a bit long at 134 minutes, it’s downbeat from one end to the other, the flip side to The Great Escape (which was co-scripted by Clavell) or the same years other POW film, Von Ryan’s Express, with Frank Sinatra (who didn’t mind playing a heel, but not without some redemption). In this prison, the inmates desperation leads to outfoxing and simply outlasting each other rather than defiantly annoying the enemy.**
Spare, suitably pensive scoring from John Barry, one of seven he composed that year, including The Ipcress File, Mister Moses and capping the lot with Thunderball. With John Standing, John Merivale, Teru Shimada and Richard Dawson.
* Changi, bad as it was, was relatively benign compared to the general Hell of Japan’s POW camps. Many thousands circulated through this location during 1942-45, most transferred to other less forgiving camps. ‘Only’ 850 men died there, a remarkably low number among the overall 27% death rate for those unfortunate enough to be the unwelcome guests of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.
**Among a dozen WW2 movies retracing events in 1965 there was another soldiers-in-jail film that bested both King Rat and Von Ryan’s Express: the bracingly intense The Hill, which had a British military prison guarding not Germans or Japanese but their own foul-ups, including Bond-escaping Sean Connery in one of his finest performances. Plus James Garner was captured by the Nazis (again) in 36 Hours. Aside from the quartet of prisoner flicks, audiences chose to accept or ignore Battle Of The Bulge, In Harm’s Way, The Heroes Of Telemark, Operation Crossbow, None But The Brave, Up From The Beach, Morituri and The Train. Reliving the relative clear-cut issues of the Second World War perhaps offered some valve-release pressure from the amping-up shitstorm of confusion over in far-off Vietnam.