Joseph Losey (director)
06 November 2023 (released)
05 November 2023
This gritty and very poignant British anti-war classic from 1964 – based on the play ‘Hamp’ by John Wilson and a 1955 novel by James L. Hodson – serves as a stark reminder that the follies of war and the stupidity of mankind are here to stay. When an army private is accused of desertion, an army Captain, assigned to defend him, explores the possibility that the apparent deserter may simply be suffering from shell shock.
The film’s topic is as bleak as the never-ending rain and the mud which the soldiers and their superiors have to endure in the British trenches at Passchendaele during the First World War. We know the film will be bleak and harrowing even before the actual story begins due to the opening sequence, which depicts photos of half-decomposed corpses strewn across battlefields and a close-up of the Royal Artillery Memorial in London’s Hyde Park.
Back at Passchendaele, Arthur Hamp, a 21-year old army private, is accused of desertion. When Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), the man assigned to defend him, begins to ask him questions it soon becomes apparent that Hamp, a seemingly simple-minded individual, has grown battle-weary after three years of a relentless and bloody war. Disorientated and frustrated over the fact that he hasn’t seen his wife and child since he volunteered to serve King and Country, he attempted to walk home all the way from Belgium back to London before the military police picked him up. During the conversation with Hargreaves, Hamp hints that his wife had left him for another man – a remark which doesn’t necessarily help his cause.
With his whole demeanour pointing at a humble working class background and a simple upbringing in Yorkshire, Hamp lacks the foresight and linguistic refinement required to convince Hargreaves, who is initially impatient and short-tempered with him, of his innocence. At one point, Hargreaves even reprimands Hamp that if he had not been so stupid to desert, he (Hargreaves) wouldn’t have to stand here trying to defend him and waste his precious time in the process. Nevertheless, Hamp is almost certain that Hargreaves will succeed in getting him out of the mud and convince other high ranking colleagues like Lt. Webb (Barry Foster), Captain Midgley (James Villiers), Lt. Prescott (Barry Justice) and above all, the Colonel (Peter Copley) that he did not desert on purpose. In fact, one could call Hamp’s belief that things will end well for him practically naïve.
Unfortunately, Hargreaves, who eventually begins to sympathise with Hamp and his plight, fails to persuade almost the entire court (with the exception of Webb) that the accused army private really suffered a breakdown of sorts. Things aren’t helped when Captain O’Sullivan (Leo McKern), a doctor who – unlike Hargreaves – displays neither sympathy nor understanding for the patient’s mental health – gives testimony which seems to seal Hamp’s unjust fate even further. Despite the court’s recommendation for mercy, both the Captain Court Martial (Derek Partridge) and Lt. Court Martial (Brian Tipping) overrule the recommendation for mercy – worse still, they wish to make an example of Hamp as a warning to the other soldiers not to desert. Sentenced to death by firing squad (mercifully he is only semi-conscious due the consumption of alcohol the night before and an injection of what appears to be a tranquiliser – administered to him by the understanding Lt. Webb), Hamp, bound on a chair which is placed in the mud, is not killed outright… leading to the film’s gut-wrenching denouement…
This really hits the mark and makes for thought-provoking viewing, with stellar performances especially from Courtenay and Bogarde (for whom the film marked his third collaboration with director Losey). Denys Coop’s cinematography and harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler’s solemn score add the finishing touches.
KING AND COUNTRY is now available in the UK for the first time ever on 4K Blu-ray, DVD and Digital – just in time for Remembrance Day. Bonus Material includes a new interview with Tom Courtenay, archive interview with Dirk Bogarde and ‘Behind the Scenes’ stills gallery.