“The mackerel likes frying”
When you have a war film that doesn’t actually show battle or that makes light of the whole concept altogether, it generally means the filmmakers have some underlying commentary to report. The best way to push such motives is through comedy/satire, playing on the tropes of morality and mortality with humor. Philippe de Broca’s Le roi de coeur [King of Hearts], written by Daniel Boulanger from an idea of Maurice Bessy, definitely has enough laughs to go around, but I’m not quite certain there is much to say about the plight of war besides how incompetents often fight them. Both the Germans and Scots here are shown as bumbling idiots continuously passing the buck down the line and hoping something sticks—so it is anti-war in the Dr. Strangelove sense. No one listens to anyone else, unqualified people are given important tasks, and leadership is easily distracted. Once an asylum’s doors are opened, it’s soon tough to discern whom the sane are in comparison to the insane. What is insane, then—people enjoying life carefree and off their rocker or cultured men out to kill each other? That’s the commentary, but personally I think its main goal is laughter.
World War I is almost over and the Allies are advancing against their enemies, reclaiming land as they push the oppressors out. Marville is next, but just as the Germans are about to leave, they plant a massive bomb connected to the clock tower’s midnight chime, rigged to explode once their enemy has made themselves comfortable. A member of the resistance overhears the plans and is able to warn the Scottish troops on their way before being killed mid-sentence. Colonel Alexander MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi) wants to make sure he remains uninjured so he assembles his top advisors to come up with a way to rectify the situation. Someone suggests sending Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates)—mistaken for a bomb diffuser, but really an ornithologist in charge of the carrier pigeons—causing the colonel to volunteer him to go in alone, (why risk other lives?), and save the day. Celi won’t let him get a word in as he mispronounces the soldier’s name as Pumpernickel, so off Plumpick goes, without a clue and most likely to his death.
The farce continues as both sides of the war look at Marville from a distance to see what may happen. Celi’s Colonel eventually sends a trio of imbeciles straight out of a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” bit to make sure all is well and the German Lieutenant Hamburger (Marc Dudicourt) returns to the town in order to check that the bomb is still active after intercepting a pigeon’s note—conveniently only the addendum to another note—saying the blockhouse (of munitions) was gone. But these forces aren’t the only ones Plumpick must contend with, there is also the matter of a mental hospital’s patients running wild in the town. You see, Plumpick’s arrival was too early and he was chased by Hamburger’s men to find refuge in an asylum, still packed with patients but devoid of the nuns who run it. He hides, pretends to be the ‘King of Hearts’, and runs out when the coast is clear, leaving the doors unlocked. An unfortunate accident leaves him unconscious and unaware that the patients have left and populated the town.
And here is where King of Hearts gets absurdly funny. Plumpick is still on mission, looking for his contact to discover where the bomb is or to evacuate everyone. He doesn’t recognize the patients as they have all found new wardrobe to put on an elaborate theatrical farce. Everything is off, though—the barber doesn’t shave anyone yet pays his customers; the general sits and plays chess with a chimpanzee; and a bear roams about while a circus lion cage’s door is left open. Only when he runs back to the asylum to fetch his pigeons does he realize what has happened. It’s the first time he laughs, knowing his job to get them all to understand what he is saying will be difficult. They don’t comprehend the dire circumstances laid out; to them, they are participating in a game and Plumpick is their King, so they must coronate and find him a bride to make him happy. But as the day gets later, he reconciles with the fact it’s all over for him and his new friends. Midnight approaches, he has no idea how to get to the bomb—let alone diffuse it—so all that’s left is to give in to insanity and play along.
The jokes are huge and one can see why the film gained cult status in the US after failing in France. It’s so broad, so over-the-top, and so absurd that you can’t help feel a little Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe of randomness to grab hold of and make your own. The actors playing patients are pitch-perfect in their rendition of happy-go-lucky outsiders, innocently oblivious to danger and forever willing to help make those around them happy. But for every Pierre Brasseur (Général Géranium) or Micheline Presle (Madame Hyacinth) hamming it up, there is a Jean-Claude Brialy (The Duke) or Geneviève Bujold (Poppy) retaining their humanity and the sad truth of who they are. Brasseur mentions the lions won’t leave their cage because they’ve it’s become their home, just as the patients can never leave the asylum—it’s all they know. This is a day reprieve with Bates, to work their magic and touch his scared soldier deeply. But the fun must end and while they are a large part of the demise of fighting and the return of Marville citizens, when playtime is over, they return home. We and Plumpick are then left with the question of who really is crazy?