World War I: King and Country (1964)

This post is a part of the fantastic World War I in Classic Film blogathon hosted by the always intriguing Movies Silently and Silent-ology – go read the other excellent posts!

 

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One of the great—and somewhat overlooked—films about World War I was originally made for television in Britain, filmed entirely on a claustrophobic set with a small budget and a tight schedule (just under a month). Directed in 1964 by Joseph Losey, an American ex-pat across the pond, King and Country is based on a fictionalized memoir (Return to the Wood), also made into a play (“Hamp”). Never broadcast in Britain, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1964, where it was quite popular.

The film is just under an hour and a half, and like its predecessor Paths of Glory (1957), it doesn’t waste time. The story begins with Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) already locked up in a makeshift cell, with a bedstead for a door, charged with desertion. Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) arrives to defend him at the trial the company will hold just behind the trenches, in the bombed-out buildings of Passchendaele, near Ypres, in Belgium.

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The location of the trial, in those crumbling structures, already suggests the corruption that will guide the proceedings. But the conflict in the film isn’t just between the immoral inertia of army command and, at least during the trial, Hargreaves; it is also a class conflict. When Hargreaves arrives, he has nothing but contempt for the working-class Hamp. Before meeting Hamp, he insists to Hamp’s platoon leader that the trial is “a waste of time,” and that Hamp should be shot because, as a soldier, he is broken.

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Tom Courtenay as Private Arthur Hamp and Dirk Bogarde as Captain Hargreaves.

Hamp certainly is broken, and Courtenay’s lost and exhausted look throughout the film conveys this with pathos. Hamp, a cobbler like his father and grandfather, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and between army indoctrination and traditional class distinctions, he has been trained in deference to his superiors. When Hargreaves inquires, “Do you know why I’m asking you these questions?” Hamp’s reply is almost cheerful: “You know best, sir.” He assures his platoon leader, “I’m sure I’ll get a fair trial.” Hamp trusts the system. Specifically, he trusts the system to recognize that what the army has labeled desertion was nothing more than an uncontrollable bodily urge to get away (not unlike the diarrhea Hamp is plagued with at several upsetting moments in the film).

Quite obviously suffering from shellshock, Hamp simply goes for a walk, ten days after returning from the front. As Hargreaves learns during his interview with the Private, Hamp has been soldiering for three years at one battle or another. As Hargreaves points out during the trial, this is longer than many of the officers under whom Hamp serves. He is the last survivor of his original platoon. Hamp has nearly drowned in a foxhole. Hamp’s friend, Willie Bryson, is blown up next to him, what’s left of Willie’s body landing all over Hamp. And recently, Hamp has received a letter from home informing him that his wife has left him for another man. When he “deserts,” Hamp simply wants to get away from the noise of the guns. Insofar as he’s thinking about what he’s doing at all, he thinks in a vague way that he will walk home to Islington.

Hargreaves loses his crusty upper-class contempt for Hamp during the interview before the trial. Hargreaves is sure Hamp is not his equal intellectually or socially, but he does understand that Hamp has been traumatized. It is painfully obvious that Hamp did not plan to desert—that he didn’t plan anything. Hamp is portrayed as a man who may not be capable of planning anything. He even joined the army on a dare. Courtenay’s Hamp is unable to articulate a defense, perhaps because questions like, “When did you decide to leave?” and “Why did you leave?” simply don’t make any sense to him. As Hargreaves argues during the trial, Hamp “had not the power to decide whether to stay or go.” Hamp does have, Hargreaves notes, “an embarrassing honesty, which made him a bad witness in his own case.”

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Courtenay, Bogarde, and Losey on the set.

The danger of Hamp’s character is that he might come across as a cipher—a blank—for all the poor saps in the trenches. Thankfully, Courtenay makes Hamp a real person, makes his initial trust in the system and his genuine confusion at his own behavior believable. Nor does Bogarde, who brought the script of the play to Losey, dilute Hargreaves’s classism. It may be Hamp’s naïve belief that everything will “come out all right” that first moves Hargreaves.

The screenplay sounds like a play—Hargreaves’s closing remarks are clearly the centerpiece—but the film doesn’t look like one. During the action, that is, the talking, the camera remains static, but between those scenes, the camera is notably mobile. What is most remarkable about the film visually, though, are the occasional cuts to photographs, many from the book of World War I photographs and paintings Covenant of Death. In one especially grim cut, as Hamp starts telling Hargreaves something: “Do you know, it’s funny,” we suddenly see a photo of a dead soldier, just barely distinguishable from the mud in which he lies, face-down.

While the trial can be seen as a riff on the one in Paths of Glory for a similar crime, another reference comes to mind: Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, originally published in 1938. I haven’t the faintest idea if Losey ever encountered it, but it is a long anti-war essay, which touches on classism (and, of course, sexism). Woolf inserts a series of

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's *Paths of Glory*.

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s *Paths of Glory*.

photographs in the essay—there are no butchered soldiers, as I recall, but there are images of military pomp and circumstance. One of the first still images we see in King and Country is, according to TCM’s essay on the film, of “King George V riding with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II” before the war. If you’ve read Three Guineas, that still in the film immediately calls it to mind. One can imagine Woolf appreciating the film’s tic having characters employ euphemisms (“uh…what you’re accused of”) rather than saying “desertion.”

The film isn’t subtle, but Hargreaves’s disgust at the trial—however futile—is gratifying. The officers simply want to get it over with, and they seem happy to take the Medical Officer’s harangue about Hamp’s “cold feet” at face value. Hamp went to Leo McKern’s doc, who prescribed what he always does for what he believes is cowardice: an invigorating pep talk and a diahrreatic the intestinally-challenged Hamp really doesn’t need. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that, although the officers have convicted Hamp as a deserter, they have recommended leniency and imprisonment, rather than execution. Less surprising, but no less infuriating, especially as we believe Hamp has narrowly escaped a death sentence, is the cable from HQ overriding the officers’ decision. The platoon is moving back up the line to the front the next day, and an example must be made—I kid you not—for morale. How shooting a comrade, someone you fought next to, is supposed to improve your mood is a mystery.

But it gets worse. Because Hamp’s platoon members don’t want to shoot him, they manage to bungle the execution. Hamp is riddled with bullets but not dead. Using his own pistol, Hargreaves finally shoots him in the mouth. And that is where the film ends. It is left up to the audience to decide whether Hargreaves acted as he did in order to help Hamp, to put him out of his misery—and in disgust at the system which has butchered him—or whether Hargreaves is simply disgusted with the platoon’s incompetence and feels he has to step in as an officer and fix what the privates have botched. It is, in a way, the most interesting part of the film.

TCM has a video of the film’s grim and graceful opening, which for some reason, refuses to embed here.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/413826/King-Country-Movie-Clip-Royal-Fellowship-Of-Death.html

 

Literary postscript:

When Hargreaves and Hamp’s CO (Peter Copley) commiserate about the news from HQ (which, to be fair, wouldn’t have happened if the CO had just taken responsibility and not cabled them), they speak in poetry. In what is the more affecting quotation, to me, Hargreaves looks in the mirror and says, “There is a porpoise close behind me and it’s treading on my tail.” It’s from the Mock Turtle’s Song in Alice in Wonderland, with it’s refrain, “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?” The fish in the song later insists, “You can really have no notion how delightful it will be/When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters out to sea!”

Hargreaves finishes the thought with some lines from John Masefield’s poem “Biography,” to which Hamp’s CO responds with lines from the same poem: “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.”

 

1984: Wheels on Meals (Kuai can che)

This post is part of Forgotten Films’ 1984 Blogathon. So much 1984. So little time.

The year 1984 was not awesome in a lot of ways. But it was a great year for films – check out the other 1984 Blogathon entries – and it was a big deal specifically for Hong Kong: The Sino-British Joint Declaration (the agreement to hand HK back to China in 1997) was signed. Combine 1984, movies, and Hong Kong, and you get films like Wheels on Meals, directed by Sammo Hung, produced by Raymond Chow, and starring Jackie Chan, Sammo, and Yuen Biao, a year after their collaboration in Project A. Not too shabby.

While Wheels on Meals (more on that especially silly name below) didn’t win any Hong Kong Film Awards that year, it has hung around pretty well as a result of some fine martial artistry brought to you by Jackie, Sammo, and the less well known, but demonstrably wonderful Yuen Biao.

The story is predictably and blissfully ludicrous. Thomas (Jackie Chan) and David (Yuen Biao) are cousins running a food truck in Barcelona. Perhaps this is because David’s father (Paul Chang) is in a Barcelona loony bin. Perhaps not. Don’t ask questions—according to Wheels on Meals, there was a large HK ex-pat community in Barcelona in the 80s. There is also a fair amount of discussion about characters’ nationalities, specifically as an explanation for their various proclivities and behaviors. Hiding in their apartment after a tryst, Thomas and David’s randy neighbor insists, “Italians can’t live without love,” while his wife waits outside the door with a shotgun. The Italian also points out that “All you Chinese know is work.” When Thomas and David exit by the window to avoid the continuing fracas (and get to work), the Spaniard downstairs opening his shop exclaims, “Don’t you Chinese use stairs?!” (Well, no, you don’t take the stairs, not if you started training in the Peking Opera School at the age of six, as Jackie, Sammo, and Biao did, together.) They excuse their acrobatics by explaining that “the Italians are fighting on there.” Best of all, not five minutes later, Sammo is describing himself, out loud, to another person, as “an inscrutable Chinese.”

This weird obsessiveness with nationalities becomes relevant (insofar as anything here is) when we learn that David’s father has fallen in love with a fellow loony, the Spanish Gloria. This is how the Thomas and David meet Gloria’s daughter, the lovely Sylvia (Lola Forner), or “Princess” as the boys call her.

son-of-man-1964(1)Meanwhile, in what a viewer might be forgiven for thinking is another film altogether, Moby (Sammo), a fledgling private eye, is asked by Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (Miguel Palenzuela) to find the daughter of a woman named Gloria. Before we can go any further, you must know that something awful has happened to Sammo’s hair. Perhaps as the result of some freak Spanish weather event, he appears to have been subjected to a bad perm. Sammo’s characters are usually pretty goofy, and let me tell you, the perm does nothing for Moby’s professionalism.

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It turns out that Thomas and David’s Sylvia is the woman Moby’s client has been looking for, and, thankfully, hijinks ensue. Moby’s client is dressed like Magritte’s Son of Man at least partly because he is (or used to be) the butler for the family Gloria used to work for. At this point, the narrative is revealed to be a crazy riff on an 18th-century novel: Gloria, once a maid in the house of a rich family, was raped by the head of the household. She fell pregnant (as one did under such circumstances, narratively speaking) and was kicked out—ending up in the loony bin. The male heir of the family now wants to hunt down Gloria and Sylvia and eliminate them so they cannot make any claims on the family fortune. This turns out to be pretty stupid, since neither of them has any idea there is a fortune which they might claim…until someone kidnaps them.

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There is a lot of enjoyable silliness between Thomas and David visiting the loony bin and Moby trying to act like a professional private detective, given that he appears to believe private eyes dress like a flashier Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (1955).

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There are a few teaser fights here and there—a training session between Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, the boys defending Sylvia from Mondale’s henchmen—but the real fighting starts when everyone ends up at the villain’s castle.

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The centerpiece is Jackie’s fight with Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, but this isn’t to slight Yuen Biao’s fight with Keith Vitali–an altogether more goofily choreographed and acrobatic encounter. Meanwhile, Sammo is left to face the villain alone. Once the villain dons his fencing mask, however, what you’re really watching is Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung fighting. You can see why, of the three, all of them charismatic and gifted fighters, Jackie Chan is the one pitted against Urquidez, the main event. Jackie is a ham–but not such a ham that we’re allowed to think he’s a clown like Sammo. Yuen Biao gets a lot of the sort of stunts here that Jackie made a career of–moving through furniture and riding walls to physically outwit his opponents.

Stay tuned below for some clips of the fighting. I know that’s why you’re here.

 

So, just how 80s is all this silliness?

1) Legwarmers and sweater vests

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2) Headbands

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…and a matching jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2) This:

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3) Did I mention Sammo’s Jeri-curl?

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4) Traditional Spanish music as played on a synthesizer

6) The Knight-Rider-esque screen in the cousins’ food truck

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7) Skateboards

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8) Assholes on dirt bikes ruining everybody’s good, clean fun

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Apparently, this what Hell’s Angels ride in Barcelona.

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9) A random shot of people who may or may not be the main characters riding horses on a beach at sunset

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I mean, that’s what you’d guess this guy’s name is, right? Mondale?

10) The villain’s name is Mondale, played by a guy named José Sancho. Honestly, I’m not making this up.

 

So what’s with that crazy title?

According to a post on IMDb: The film is titled “Wheels on Meals” instead of “Meals on Wheels” because of superstition. Golden Harvest had produced two flops beginning with “M,” Megaforce (1982) and a film titled Menage a Trois. The company’s executives changed the title hoping this film would avoid the same problems.

 

 

I couldn’t find a good clip of Yuen Biao from Wheels on Meals, so instead, here’s an amazing sequence from the slightly more old-school Magnificent Butcher (1979). Yuen Biao is the guy in the white shirt fighting a dude with a knife (or two) inside (rather than outside). It’s all pretty amazing, but you can appreciate YB’s acrobatics here. Magnificent Butcher stars Sammo, who co-directed with fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.