by James Palmer and Michael Riley
The origin of King and Country was an actual incident in World War I involving a young enlisted man who was executed for desertion. To this material Losey brings a keen social conscience and continuing commitment to expose hypocrisy and injustice, particularly when they are institutionalized. He also reveals a humane understanding of the personal dilemmas (emotional as well as moral and intellectual) of characters suddenly faced with circumstances in which only the most painful choices are possible. To be sure, as in such “message” films as The Lawless, The Criminal, and Time Without Pity before it, elements of melodrama are evident in King and Country. They are subsumed, however, by Losey’s fusion of moral issues and particularized characterizations; abstractions of honor and duty are pitted against the reality of human aspirations, perceptions, and failures. Losey remarked to Tom Milne, “I set out to make a picture which, while set in World War I in a very specific and classically limited way, was to my thinking not a war picture” (1968, 124). As he told Ciment, “The picture is the personal relationship between that officer and that poor private deserter… So that when that pistol, that coup de grace, has to be fired at the end, in a sense Hargreaves [the officer] is ending his own life as well as the boy’s” (1985, 245). Losey’s conception of King and Country as a personal drama going beyond an argument or protest is especially significant when one considers the appalling background against which the film is set.
In his book Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918, J. M. Bourne notes that the British working class was the least militarized in all of Europe when Lord Kitchener called for volunteers in August of 1914. But men like Hamp, the working-class cobbler and central figure in King and Country, responded, and before Christmas of that year more than a million Englishmen had volunteered. These patriotic but virtually untrained soldiers wished to win the war quickly and just as quickly get out of the army. With an unprofessional army of volunteers, the high command was convinced that the death penalty for some offenses was necessary to keep morale high. Bourne offers the following commentary: “How good was the army’s morale? The final answer must be ‘good enough.’ There is abundant evidence of the problems. There were 25,000 courts-martial for absence without leave, 20,000 for disobedience and insubordination and 4,000 for self-inflicted wounds. Drunkenness was rife. More than 3,000 men were sentenced to death, mostly for cowardice, desertion in the face of the enemy or sleeping on duty…: 346 were actually executed” (1989, 223).1 These figures are the more astounding when one considers that only one American soldier since the Civil War, Private Eddie Slovik in World War II, has been executed for desertion. (His story became the subject of a film, The Execution of Private Slovik , starring Martin Sheen.) Britain, in fact, lost approximately 750,000 men in World War I. In view of such staggering carnage, the fate of a single soldier, whether just or unjust, could easily disappear, which is why Losey tells just such a story.
The man who wrote the story, Losey explained to Michel Ciment, “was not a writer; he was a defence lawyer in the court-martial. It troubled him all his life that he wasn’t able to get the boy off” (1985, 244). This material was brought to Losey in the form of a radio play, whose script he thought “no more than a kind of remembered transcript of the trial”(244). But as he told Ciment, “I liked the material… I went back to the original case. In this script, Dirk [Bogarde] figures as a writer too because he wrote some of the scenes. Since he had been an officer in the British Army, and since his family had been very much involved in the 1914—18 War, he was able to give me background and it was immensely helpful” (242). In addition to his contributions to the screenplay, Bogarde gave under Losey’s direction a superb performance, one of the finest of his career, as the arrogant, self-satisfied British officer whose life is profoundly changed because, in Losey’s words, he is “educated by the boy’s simplicity.” This comment about the character of the British officer is noteworthy because it bears on one of the most important aspects of Losey’s artistic growth – his ability to integrate his impassioned attacks on social injustices with his increasingly sophisticated and subtle studies of complex characters in moral crisis.
In King and Country Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is court-martialed for desertion. The year is 1917. The place is Passchendaele, in the Flanders region of the Western Front. The bare facts of the case — Hamp walked away from the guns when he could stand them no more — are not at issue. The only possible defense is the youth’s mental condition at the time of his act – not so much a defense, in fact, as a patchwork of mitigating circumstances: Hamp is only twenty-three years old; he volunteered for military service rather than being conscripted; he has been under fire for virtually all the three years since the war began; he is the lone survivor of the original troop with which he was sent to France; and he has recently learned in a letter from home that his wife has taken up with someone else. A pathetic list it is, unlikely to move a military court to anything except pity. Despite an eloquent plea by the officer assigned to defend him, Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), Hamp is found guilty and sentenced to death. The field court, legally entitled to confirm its guilty verdict and temper it with mercy, declines to do so, passing the final decision to headquarters. The higher command orders Hamp’s execution in the interest of “morale”: the battalion is about to move into battle again. At dawn the next morning, the firing squad’s volley fails to kill Hamp. Captain Hargreaves takes a pistol, walks over to Hamp, kneels and holds him while he speaks to him briefly, and then shoots him in the head, putting an end to Hamp’s agony.
Without any combat scenes, King and Country tells a terrible story of war’s injustice. More particularly, it exposes the fateful arrogance of a classconscious officer corps all too confident of its prerogatives, and the grotesque notion that an execution for alleged cowardice, even when the allegation is demonstrably unjust, constitutes a fine and bracing tonic for young men about to face the renewed terror of trench warfare. These are strong themes, and Losey intends they should arouse moral outrage — not just in a backward glance at the Great War as history, but in a present confrontation with the film. But do such didactic intentions commandeer the film, leaving its characters stranded as mere emblems, “moral and political metaphors,” as some critics would have it? Are Hargreaves and Hamp and the others denied a full measure of the Active life that film narrative can bestow because Losey remains detached from them? Are the characters, in other words, merely agents of an argument? Certainly Losey’s strong views about war’s moral and political chaos, and his perhaps even stronger condemnation of hypocrisy, are crucial matters in the film. Captain Hargreaves’s summation in the court-martial sequence, for example, as well as the arguments he makes in the later scene with the colonel (Peter Copley) just after Hamp has learned of his death sentence, bristle with an impolitic indignation at justice betrayed in favor of a conception of military law that reduces it to a hollow form or, in more extreme terms, that may be little more than a hypocritical ritual serving the values of a ruling class struggling to preserve its own dubious status. These themes are not unique to the Great War, of course, nor to Losey’s film about it. Neither are they simply abstractions or intellectual propositions, the stuff of argument rather than feeling. For Losey does not offer characters who are mere hostages to ideas and arguments. Exactly the opposite is true: themes, issues, arguments, all compel a viewer’s attention not just because of their intrinsic power, but precisely because the fate of Hamp and Hargreaves is at stake.
To discuss King and Country as a kind of tract, an argument whose passions belong only to the intellect, or as an allegory, whose characters exist as surrogates for contending views, is, quite simply, to deny the human drama at its heart. Doubtless the film claims viewers’ attention in different ways and for different reasons, its intellectual and political views prominent among them, but no way or reason is more important, or more moving, than the complex relationship that develops between Hamp and Hargreaves. These two men, apart from elementary military formality, barely have a means of communicating at the outset, but in the end they are bound to each other by something beyond the power of even death to dissolve. They have not suddenly become friends, nor could they. Both men would find the idea ludicrous. By any social measure they have no more in common at the conclusion than when they first spoke. Each man is, from first to last, a citizen of the world he came from, a world the other can hardly grasp despite their having shared the same terrain. Their relationship changes, however, in ways that are implicitly acknowledged in the final awful moment when Hamp cannot die except Hargreaves deliver him. They have a bond, even if neither man, not even Hargreaves with his self-conscious gift for the power of words, could so much as begin to articulate it. Telling the story of that bond, its nature and its implications, is the task of the overall narration and of the various interacting stories told by the characters themselves.
King and Country shares many of its themes, in various inflections, with other films about war — among the best of them, Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front (both versions), Breaker Morant, The Rack, How Many Miles to Babylon? Not surprisingly, such films often have a measure of overt didacticism, and when there is courtroom drama, as there is in several of the films cited here, that mode’s affinity for dramatizing argument makes didacticism even likelier. For all their common ground and shared intentions, however, such films can differ substantially, making comparisons between them problematic. But this is not the case with a comparison of King and Country to Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated and brilliant Paths of Glory. Both Losey and Kubrick have been accused of a certain coldness, of being artists whose intellectual commitments and obsessions with style leave little room for a genuine interest in characters and still less for compassion for them. Moreover, in both story and themes King and Country and Paths of Glory share a number of important elements: common soldiers in World War I are court-martialed unjustly; officers must defend the soldiers before tribunals whose guilty verdicts are a foregone conclusion; the courts’ decisions are tainted by political considerations; the rationale for the verdicts is that the executions will provide a salutary example for the condemned’s fellow soldiers. Despite these similarities, however, there are differences in the two films that are significant and suggestive.
Paths of Glory exposes the moral corruption of the French high command in ordering a criminally foolish attack on an impregnable German position called the Ant Hill. When the attack fails, a terrible order is given: three men are to be chosen arbitrarily and tried for cowardice, the “explanation” for the attack’s failure. The film’s condemnation of military politics, personal vanity, and the callousness of great power is forceful, and the fate of the three men chosen for court-martial and certain execution is shocking. But it seems in some ghastly way only inevitable. Although the rendering of their deaths is extended and powerful, the ritualized barbarism of the execution more than the humanity of the victims is what the narration concentrates on and what horrifies the viewer. The film is most effective in dealing with the two generals, Mireau (George Macready) and Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), and their perverse minuet of elegant manners and deadly ambition. Indeed the predictability of the outcome concentrates attention on the sheer ornamentation of the generals’ moves. The story of the generals’ easy victory over the defense counsel, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), and his humanism is what Kubrick most forcefully tells.
King and Country does not deny the existence of such characters as hold the stage in Kubrick’s film. There are villains in Losey’s film too, and fools and knaves enough to go around. But the victims, two very different victims, are what most concerns King and Country. One of the more significant differences between the two films is that King and Country not only admits the possibility of moral change, but concerns itself centrally with the story of such a change. That is what defines the character and experience of Captain Hargreaves. Certainly Hargreaves is not a better man than Kubrick’s Dax. In fact the arrogance, the cold, almost sanctimonious rectitude (“We’re all on trial for our lives”) that mark him at the beginning of the film make him a good deal less likeable at first than Dax is throughout Paths of Glory. But considered as characters, Hargreaves is more complex than Dax, and that makes a world of difference. Hargreaves can and does change, whereas Dax is confined by the very design of Kubrick’s fiction, which excludes the possibility of change. Thus, at the end of the film Dax returns to his duty. He has spoken for humane values, but he cannot make any difference. There seems no difference anyone can make in Kubrick’s film. Paths of Glory exposes a world in which humane values may still exist but are impotent in the face of the endless resources and power of those who control society’s corrupt institutions. Colonel Dax, then, is an admirable man who is powerless so long as there is a General Broulard in the world, and Broulard and his kind are not only in the world but very much in command of it.
In King and Country Hargreaves, too, proves unable to change the course of the public world he lives in. But there is still a private world of conscience and choice that is not beyond reach, and that is the film’s principal arena. Hamp’s pitiful walk away from the guns is officially judged desertion, and he is thrust in front of a firing squad. His death, however, is not simply an example of corrupt and arrogant power, although that has dictated his fate. The army’s ceremony of death in Losey’s film is no less grim than in Kubrick’s, but the meaning is totally different. In the shocking stillness that follows the executioners’ failure, all of King and Country’s arguments, its sense of absolute outrage at such injustice, its “punitive fierceness,” as Brendan Gill has called it, are subsumed in a moment that is absolutely private. Hamp and Hargreaves exchange their final words, and Hargreaves fires the single bullet that ends Hamp’s life and changes his own forever.
Losey’s film, for all its anger and despair, is finally about a mystery of human experience and about changes that are felt far more than they can be explained. Perhaps Kubrick in Paths of Glory believes in something better than the humankind he sees and tells his story about; that may even be his reason for telling it. But, if so, his terms seem almost philosophical rather than personal or individual, intellectual rather than emotional. Losey, on the other hand, tells a story in which loss and sacrifice are a measure of what is best in men, however dark and ironic the context, and this is what possesses one long after the arguments themselves have been forgotten.
Losey once said that “when I made King and Country, I thought that for once I’d made an absolutely simple classical picture, according to all the classical rules, and nobody is going to be able to say it’s baroque. But they did, you know” (Gow 1971, 41). Whether he was referring to the norms of classical film narration or to the classical unities of time, place, and action is unclear. Probably both. So far as narration is concerned, the classical style with its privileging of continuity editing to emphasize spatiotemporal verisimilitude is the dominant mode. The classical unities are also generally adhered to, nowhere more obviously than in the single setting that makes for an austere, even claustrophobic film. Despite the classical simplicity that dominates (especially in the long scenes between Hamp and Hargreaves and during the court-martial), narration in King and Country is also highly stylized at times. The considerable complexities of the prologue and the flash cuts that appear several times during the discourse make this evident. (Also, the original release prints were entirely sepia tinted “to recall,” as Losey said, “old photographs from that period” [Ciment 1985, 248]. Many of the prints now in circulation, however, are black and white.)
The crucial fact is that the film’s style is the expression of a narrational, even authorial, perspective, not merely an embellishment or an end in itself, and the potential relationships of author, narrator, and character are sometimes ambiguous. Before one flash cut, for instance, Hamp tells Hargreaves that he has a son, and there follows a brief image of a child with the costumes and artificial backgrounds typical of formal photographs of the day. Similarly, when Hamp admits that his wife has taken up with someone else, two brief images follow, the first of a man lying in bed holding a cup of coffee or tea, the second a closer shot of the same thing. Are these images of Hamp’s son and of his wife’s new lover? Or are they figurative, not the actual people in Hamp.’s life but suggestive of them? Are the three images meant to be understood as originating in Hamp’s consciousness, his memories or fantasies, or do they belong exclusively to the overall narration? These questions cannot be answered conclusively. The same is true of a number of other flash images — including one of the German kaiser and the king of England riding together and others presumably of the streets of Islington, Hamp’s home – that appear in the same fashion. Most of the flash cuts are stills, photographs whose associations with Hamp, with history, with the overall narration of the film remain ambiguous. To whom should these images be attributed? Perhaps they are Hamp’s; they could be.1 But another possibility seems equally likely: the perspectives of the author and narrator, closely aligned in the film and present from the first frame, continue to be discernible. In other words, the omniscient narration is not neutral, nor does it pretend to be. The perspective first established in the prologue continues to make itself felt throughout the film’s narration.
The style, tone, atmosphere, prevailing iconography, and even the likely resolution of King and Country are all evident in the richly anticipatory prologue, some of whose images are repeated later. In the juxtaposition of both its wide range of cinematic techniques and the substance of its images, this extended opening segment signals the irony that suffuses the discourse overall. Significantly, Losey’s understanding of the darkness of his story and the fervor of his moral sensibility are the more powerful for his choosing irony rather than the blunter instruments of melodramatic denunciation. The mood, in fact, is reminiscent of the poignance and passion of the war poems of such youthful writers of the time as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who evoked with great power the awful gulf between the heroic aspirations of young men going off to war, and the reality of desolation and death that overtook them in muddy trenches beneath the endless screaming barrages of artillery fire. The Western Front was a world in dissolution where men and animals alike decomposed and disappeared in the muddy landscape, and this is shockingly conveyed in the prologue’s images of enormous explosions momentarily frozen only to dissolve in an instant into ravaged landscapes and then again into dead horses and the skeletons of soldiers half-buried in mud.
The prologue consists of two sections, and in this nearly five-minute opening, Losey uses dissolves, still photographs, freeze frames, jump cuts, rack focus, tracking camera, and a complex sound track that mixes music, background sound, silence, and voice-over. The opening shot is a low-angle long shot of a large sculpture that stands framed against the sky atop the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. Known as a quadriga, the sculpture features a bronze figure of Peace descending into a war chariot whose driver pulls up his rearing horses. By a reverse zoom, this image of peace is then juxtaposed within the same shot to the Royal Artillery Monument and a close-up view of the bronze boots of another sculpted figure, a dead World War I soldier. (The close-up of the foot soldier will later contribute to the closure of the film whose final shots include the muddy boots of the executed Hamp.) The tracking of the initial close shot reveals the engraved commemorative words royal fellowship beneath the dead figure. The tracking camera then reveals the end phrase: of death. The delayed disclosure of the second phrase converts the honorific into the ironic. The harmonica solo that has accompanied these images now stops. In silence the camera continues its close-up scanning of the monument’s frieze depicting living and dead soldiers sprawled across a battlefield. Although the fluidity of the tracking shot conveys a continuity, the close-up takes in only small units at a time. The effect is a somewhat disorienting presentation of a large monument whose frieze, never seen in its entirety, appears chaotic and fragmentary. Over the sculpted war scenes is now heard the rising sound of the indifferent London traffic around Hyde Park. The long tracking shot comes to rest in a low-angle shot of the monument’s sculpted howitzer, one of the few images depicting more than a partial view of any object. Suddenly, a jump cut to an artillery explosion fills the screen, sound and image shattering the momentary stasis. The tensions between sound and silence, between camera movement and static, inanimate images, between abstract compositions and recognizable forms, all resonate with the explicit war imagery embedded in the last part of the long opening shot.
A jump cut from the explosion to a medium tracking shot (almost a continuation of the opening camera movement) of the ever-present rain and mud of the trenches marks an abrupt transition to the second part of the prologue. Boots, helmets, shovels, and barbed wire are embedded in mud beside the duckboards or wooden walkway. The sound of rain and the return of the solo harmonica accompany the image that dissolves into still more mud, rain, and barbed wire until the shot rests on a broken wheel, an iconic image (which reappears as one of the last of the film) readily suggesting the cyclical, fateful, and fragmented world of the soldiers. A second artillery explosion is then freeze-framed, sudden violence becoming with equal suddenness both static and silent. This dissolves to an image of muddy shell holes that is in fact part of a larger photograph from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. The camera draws back to disclose in this same photograph a dead horse still in harness, which will return as the film’s last image. The final series of dissolves of archival stills showing desolate and ravaged landscapes scarred by blasted trees ends with a close- up of the skeleton and skull of a dead soldier (a renowned photograph taken in the aftermath of the battle of the Somme). In voice-over, Tom Courtenay recites A. E. Housman’s lines:
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, after all, is nothing much to lose;
Though young men think it is, and we were young.3
A final dissolve of this skull over a close-up of Hamp, lying on a cot and playing a harmonica, concludes the prologue.
Like an envoi closing this poetic, evocative prologue, Housman’s words cast a fatalistic tone over the entire film. Courtenay’s recitation (he speaks as a kind of “everyman” here, rather than in the character of Hamp) and the dissolve of the skull into Hamp’s features clearly presage this soldier’s fate. Even before the story begins and the characters are introduced, then, the emotive power of the film is at work, and irony has taken its place as an informing trait of the narration.
The first scene following the prologue is highly ritualized in its narration of dialogue and action as the discourse continues to delay introducing the main story events. In a kind of choric interlude, a group of soldiers who will later play a part in the story is cleaning out a large muddy shell hole or cesspit with long-handled shovels. Working in unison, the soldiers speak in fragments, completing each other’s phrases. They obviously look on this task as a ritual of sorts, and their vernacular language is spoken in chantlike rhythms. The mood and attitude of men too long in the trenches are succinctly conveyed, but this scene reveals a good deal more about the film’s conflicting views of human nature. (The ellipses in the following quotation indicate a change of speaker as the conversation passes from soldier to soldier.)
Ha Ha Ha… What’s this remind you of? [soldier lifts a shovelful of muck]… remind you of anything? You know, when this war is over, I think I’ll get me a job in the sewer… and so you should, too… well, it’s the same smell, the same company… the perfect soldier… aye, the perfect soldier… loved his country… killed rats… killed lice … went without food… without drink… without sleep… without [a soldier holds his shovel erect between his legs]… went over the top … killed the kaiser, won the war… home again… honorable discharge … fat pension… from his grateful country… women waiting for him… children fond of him… liquor is free for him… he sleeps in the sun… Remind you of anything? [soldier again lifts up the muck].
In the soldiers’ words and self-mocking tone, the scatological and the heroic are combined, offering a dualistic view of man as animal (wedded to the needs and demands of his body) and man as a self-conscious entity capable of having ideals and acting heroically. His capacity to kill is, interestingly, a feature of both his creatureliness and his idealism — a theme, in various forms, in much of Losey’s work.
The themes of death and dissolution already announced by the prologue are extended in this dialogue. The soldiers’ talk while shoveling muck also invokes in its oblique mixture of the mundane and the profound a psychological and mythicoreligious conception of human nature of the sort that is brilliantly examined in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker writes that “the anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death” (1973, 31). Becker’s insight is, of course, implicit in the scene rather than explicit in the dialogue, but the inescapable irony he has grasped is persistent in the film’s conception of humankind as struggling to reconcile its limits with its hopes for something nobler. Becker emphasizes man’s “abject finitude, his physicalness, the unlikely unreality of his hopes and dreams” (33), but hopes and dreams are no less a necessary part of human experience than the demands of the body. If Losey’s characters almost never escape their limits, neither are they entirely defined by them. Certainly Hamp and Hargreaves do not escape, but the young soldier in his simple integrity and the officer in his awkward and unanticipated moral growth define human possibilities that exceed, however ironically, the forces both physical and social that bind them.
The scene of the soldiers shoveling muck also implies the larger embedded story of “the perfect soldier,” against which Hamp’s career as an enlisted man and alleged deserter is unconsciously judged by those who would insist on the necessity of military (and social) forms regardless of human limits, perhaps even because of them. The perfect soldier follows the mythological path of the hero (separation, initiation, and return) by leaving home, by undergoing deprivation and suffering and doing heroic deeds, and finally by coming home with his special experience and knowledge to a hero’s welcome. Joseph Campbell suggests that the hero’s adventure can even begin with a mistake: “A blunder — apparently the merest chance — reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood” (1968, 51). Hamp’s impulsive response to the call of king and country (“Well, when I volunteered, we didn’t know any better, did we?”) and to the urge to take the dare and surprise his wife and her mother by enlisting come close to a blundering into the unknown, into the human carnage that he can only describe to Hargreaves as “worse than anything.”
In the ancient tradition, the separation, initiation, and return of the hero signify that he enters the world of the dead, suffers, undergoes a symbolic death and rebirth, and comes home alive and ready to share the gift of his knowledge with the living. In King and Country, however, the ritual pattern is invoked only to be subverted and aborted. The bewildered Hamp, separated from Islington and his bootmaker’s shop, the workplace of his father and grandfather before him, found himself fighting next to a boy from up his street, a boy who was then blown to bits. “Willy’s nowhere, except over me,” Hamp says in his plain language to Hargreaves. “I had to get me a new uniform.” Significantly, Hamp has also seen a man drown in a shell hole, and two days later Hamp himself was blown into another shell hole and nearly drowned. As he tells Hargreaves: “After that I couldn’t stand it anymore… It was like being dead, sir.” Shortly after this symbolic death Hamp started walking away from the guns. When Hargreaves asks if he knew where he was walking, Hamp replies: “No. No. After I got a few miles away from the guns, I got it into my head that I was making for home … Islington, you know. It didn’t make any sense, but that’s what I got into me head.” Almost by accident or instinct, then, Hamp follows the hero’s pattern of initiation, which proves a profoundly ironic pattern in Losey’s film. Hamp’s return home was an aborted one, of course, for he was arrested for desertion. As to his special knowledge, he knows only that “I reckon I’ll get a fair trial… It’ll come out all right,” and as he tells Hargreaves more than once, “There’s nobody left in A Company that’s been out here as long as me, so you see they can’t shoot me.”
When the court-martial convenes and the colonel begins the proceedings by reading the charge to Hamp, the language of the accusation is formal, but the meaning blunt. The penalty if Hamp is convicted is extreme, a “shooting job,” Hamp remembers one of his captors saying. Hearing the charge now in the court’s impersonal language, Hamp seems almost to falter, but he enters his plea of not guilty. The formalities conclude when Captain Hargreaves addresses the court, saying, “I’ve spoken to Captain Midgley, and we’ve agreed that I won’t dispute the facts of the case.” Hargreaves’s demurrer to the facts, however, proves to be the basis for disputing virtually everything that is proffered as fact, not just within the confines of the court- martial, but within the narrative overall. In other words, although Captain Hargreaves “will not dispute the facts,” the facts prove anything but agreed upon. Even their very nature, what constitutes a fact, is implicitly disputed. And not all the facts, it turns out, are created equal. Moreover, Hargreaves’s position also points to one of the most significant traits of the film’s narration. Story and discourse will include and depend on numerous other stories, other discourses. In an important sense, truth and justice, and historical memory, are, like Hamp’s fate and Hargreaves’s too, indivisible from stories. In their different roles and circumstances, many of the characters are cast as narrators. They tell stories; they raise issues, whether acknowledged by the text or not, of authority, subjectivity, reliability, interpretation, levels of narration, and their relationships.4
Because of Hargreaves’s stipulation of the facts, the defense turns entirely on interpretation: not whether Hamp walked, but whether his walk constitutes desertion. Hamp himself never exactly opposes the official charge. Instead, his statements are mainly limited to answering the questions Hargreaves puts to him. As a result, Hamp’s answers, first in his interview with Hargreaves and later in his testimony, add up not to his own best defense before a court-martial, but simply to his best effort to tell what he knows. Hamp’s innate integrity makes it impossible for him to make up excuses, manufacture emotions he doesn’t have, or even follow a line of questioning that might help to exonerate him. He has numerous opportunities to assert that he didn’t know what he was doing, or to insist, as he once mentions, that the devil was dragging him down to his death in a watery shell hole, or that he intended to return to the battalion after his “walk.” When Hamp is questioned by the colonel, Hargreaves, and Captain Midgley (James Villiers) during the court-martial, his self-incriminating testimony simultaneously affirms his good character. Only when he tries to speak as Hargreaves would have him do, does Hamp momentarily veer from the truth. Consider the following exchange at the court-martial:
COLONEL: Private Hamp, you say you wanted to be left alone for a bit. Does that mean you intended to return to batallion?
HAMP: I don’t know, sir.
HARGREAVES: That’s because you don’t remember anything very clearly, isn’t it?
HAMP: That’s right, sir… yeah.
HARGREAVES: You had no clear plan or reason in your mind, did you?
HAMP: Well, I just started going, sir. I couldn’t help me-self. Well, like you told me to say, sir, I was acting under extraordinary strain… I can’t… I can’t think of anything else, sir.
Hamp not only reveals being coached, but he also reacts (screwing up his face) to his own false, unnatural way of speaking in Hargreaves’s elevated diction (“extraordinary strain”). Hamp is simply incapable of dissembling, and out of desperation he says to Hargreaves in the presence of the court: “I’d sooner you told them, sir. You know more about it than me.”
The conceptual and intentional gulf between the court’s charge and prosecution, on the one hand, and Hamp’s knowledge or understanding, on the other, is not only wide but crucial. Within that gulf Hamp’s story is at issue in each instance of testimony and in every conversation about the case — between Lieutenant Webb (Barry Foster) and Hargreaves at the beginning, between Hargreaves and Midgley and the legal officer immediately after the case goes to the court for a judgment, and between Hargreaves and the colonel when the death sentence is confirmed. But first and most of all in the initial interview between Hamp and Hargreaves.
Having been assigned to defend Hamp, Hargreaves initially pronounces the court-martial a futile enterprise. He tells Webb that the accused (even before he has met him) is “a failure as a man and a soldier.” Comparing Hamp to a dog with a broken back, Hargreaves says that one doesn’t sit around talking; one shoots the dog. (Hearing Hargreaves express these views, Webb good-naturedly but pointedly asks him, “What were you like as a child?” To this Hargreaves answers flatly, “The same.”) A whole world is revealed in Hargreaves’s remarks and a particular view of that world. Hamp’s responses to the charge and to this officer’s questions limn another, radically different world and view. “We didn’t know what it was going to be like, did we?” Hamp says to Hargreaves. “I didn’t think about it too much, but I suppose you reckon to yourself, in my kind of life, well, it can’t be much worse than this, you know. Not you, sir, but my sort, and most of the lads.” Hamp never suggests that he sees himself a victim of the class differences between Hargreaves’s world and his own, or that there is a fundamental inequity between the two.
Contemptuous of the accused at the outset, Hargreaves changes his mind during his interview with Hamp, whose manner of storytelling, or narration, is perhaps even more persuasive than his narrative. At one level, the acts he relates do not sound like desertion: he made no effort to hide, walked on the open road, traveled on a train, tried to talk to a priest. Somewhere along the way he got it into his mind that he was “making for home,” but he recognizes that was a fantasy, not really an objective. Another aspect of Hamp’s narration is even more persuasive, and that is defined by his very nature. At the trial he is called stupid; the corporal guarding him tells Hargreaves that Hamp is a “strange one.” (Some reviewers have considered him a simpleton, merely a dolt.) The suggestion is that Hamp is mentally deficient, but that is to misunderstand his character. Hamp is an innocent. “For goodness and inarticulateness,” Brendan Gill wrote in his review, he “is a second Billy Budd.” Gill’s is a fine insight, for Hamp is Billy’s true descendant. But there are differences too. Hamp’s is not pure goodness, an absolute force in its own right that can survive the onslaught of evil even as it is evil’s victim. Rather, his is an innocence helpless to defend itself and changed inevitably by the evil of war, mortally fearful of the outcome, but an innocence that remains profoundly human and intact even at the moment of his death. Hamp has seen war; he has heard the guns; he has seen men blown to bits and other men drown in mud. He has come close to dying that way himself. He is no longer simply the young bootmaker who, on a dare, volunteered for king and country. Still, Hamp has not become cynical or crafty. He remains, like Billy Budd before him, trusting, open, even loving in this least likely of places for such qualities to endure.
In the first scene between Hamp and Hargreaves, which is quite long, Losey relies principally on long takes in which the subtly shifting relationship between the accused and his defender is revealed by the mise-en-scene even more than the dialogue and action. Hargreaves dominates the beginning of the scene by virtue of his rank and the circumstances. Without being overtly challenged by Hamp, he nonetheless loses the initiative to the youth’s straightforwardness. Hamp is never less than respectful, even humble, but his humility is of a piece with his honesty. For Hargreaves, unlike the officers of the court-martial who will formally judge Hamp, the youth’s defense proves not to lie in the confines and definitions of military law, but in his shockingly exposed humanity. Losey reveals the greater depth of this encounter as Hargreaves’s superior place in the images yields to Hamp’s. Moreover, from the beginning of the scene when Hargreaves’s authority seems unchallenged, the images undercut this perception, for they are crowded with the visible evidence of this war-torn moment, the tentative, dark quiet of a temporary command post and its pathetic cell in which Hamp and Hargreaves are equally vulnerable to the forces of death that have brought them face to face. As Hamp tells his story, the mise-en-scene increasingly centers on him until finally, in a single image that favors them equally, the two men, so unequal in their status, sit on the same bench talking to each other. Losey’s point is not simply the subversion of Hargreaves’s military authority, but a prefiguring of the conclusion in which both men will be victims.
Later, during the trial, Hargreaves addresses the members of the court: “Private Hamp is not a liar. He is not glib. He has no ready answers. He has an embarrassing honesty that made him a bad witness in his own case.” So far as the court and its verdict are concerned, Hargreaves is right, although one wonders finally if anything Hamp might have said would have made him a better witness and altered the outcome. Hargreaves’s characterization of Hamp, however, speaks to the qualities that do make him the most credible of witnesses. Furthermore, the process whereby Hamp’s credibility is tested proves the model for testing all the narrations. That is, questions of authority, reliability, and interpretation that are raised by any narration are here made overt and tested within the discourse itself. Captain Midgley, the prosecutor, and Captain O’Sullivan (Leo McKern), the medical officer, for example, have their own individual and eccentric attitudes toward Hamp and his story, attitudes that focus attention on the officers’ personal and professional authority and reliability as interpreters. Midgley effectively cross-examines all witnesses and misses no opportunity to portray Hamp in unfavorable ways as an undistinguished soldier, as a malingering coward, and even as a shrewdly calculating deserter masquerading as a simpleton. Midgley skillfully makes his case against Hamp, but without personal animus; in fact, his personal feelings contrast with his courtroom tactics. Midgley can later tell his adversary with sincerity: “You did very well, Hargreaves. I hope you got him off.” As if to counter this sentiment, the legalistic Midgley adds: “But, you know, a proper court is concerned with law. It’s a bit amateur to plead for justice.” Still later, before the verdict is in, Midgley encourages Hargreaves to violate protocol and visit the anxious Hamp because “it would be kind.” Unlike Midgley, the pompous and insensitive Captain O’Sullivan views Hamp’s guilt as confirmation of his professional competence as a doctor. Where Hamp is uncertain about his state of mind when he walked away from the guns, O’Sullivan is all certainty in judging him a coward. O’Sullivan’s version of things covers his own indifference, if not incompetence. According to O’Sullivan, Hamp did nothing less than “turn and run.”
Although the colonel in King and Country is not portrayed with the ruthlessness and self-aggrandizing egomania associated with Kubrick’s generals in Paths of Glory, he is nonetheless coldly protective of power and privilege. Such class considerations inevitably raise questions about hypocrisy. Losey himself characterized King and Country as “a story about hypocrisy, a story about people who are brought up to a certain way of life … and who finally have to face the fact that they have to be rebels in society, that they have to be outlaws and outcasts and outsiders in society for the rest of their lives, with all the penalties this entails, or else they have to accept hypocrisy” (Milne 1968, 125). Hargreaves, however, is the only character for whom this seems unmistakably true.
The crisis of conscience that Losey speaks of is evident at the court-martial and its aftermath, where the colonel in effect seeks to wash his hands of the whole affair. Hargreaves frames his closing argument to the court by contrasting Hamp’s confused state of mind at the time of his desertion with the court’s responsibility for its actions. “This court,” he argues, “has the power to choose… I beg to remind the court that if justice is not done to one man, then other men are dying for nothing.” This constitutes the film’s most overt statement of a social and moral theme in the fashion of Losey’s earlier work, but for all its importance this is not the climax or the thematic center of King and Country. Silence and a slow pan of the faces in the room convey the impact and persuasiveness of Hargreaves’s plea until the colonel dismissively replies, “Matter of opinion.” The colonel remains unswayed by either the logic or emotion of Hargreaves’s speech, but his position is defined more by his equivocations than by his convictions. Informed shortly after the trial that he may confirm Hamp’s sentence himself or send it to a higher authority, the colonel orders others to prepare a finding and have it sent off for confirmation.
The highly structured events in King and Country (a court-martial, a priest’s visit to a condemned man, a firing squad) reflect Losey’s view of the centrality of ritual in social and moral life, and they suggest his sense that men may envelop themselves in such rituals rather than accept the burden of individual judgment and choice. In the scenes between the colonel and Hargreaves, even the smaller rituals of military etiquette can be significant. When the death sentence is confirmed by headquarters, the distraught Hargreaves goes to the colonel. Saying nothing, but nearly gagging on the scotch the colonel offers him, Hargreaves is reprimanded for his breach of decorum in sullenly gulping down the drink. To the colonel’s comment, “Rather short on ceremony, aren’t we?” Hargreaves responds, “Yes, I had too much of that today.” Relatively insignificant in itself, this exchange reveals the officers’ ceremonious world of rank and class. The exchange also suggests Hargreaves’s ongoing struggle with his role in these rites, a struggle brought to a crisis through his unanticipated relationship with Hamp. Hargreaves is again cautioned for “overstepping” when he tells the colonel that Hamp’s execution means they have all lost and they are all murderers. Hargreaves questions the rationale of killing Hamp to maintain morale; in response the colonel first affirms the rightness of the verdict but then admits to sharing something of Hargreaves’s doubts. The colonel’s admission calls everything into question, as Hargreaves’s moment of recognition and stunned silence suggests. Through formalities, however, the colonel rescues the situation, dismissing Hargreaves by asking him “on your way out” to deliver a “next of kin” letter to Webb, the officer in charge of Hamp’s execution. The colonel is no amateur gamesman in protecting his position. Not only has he turned Hargreaves into errand boy in the service of the execution, but he has set in motion the procedure to punish Webb (a fear that Webb has previously confided to Hargreaves). A knowing smile at the mention of Webb’s name indicates Hargreaves’s recognition of the predictable but skillful manipulations of his superior officer, who says of Webb’s relationship to Hamp, “his man, his platoon, his mistake… teach him a lesson.”
Also at issue in this scene are both men’s versions of the “facts,” an issue at the center of much of Losey’s work because ambiguity is so often falsely clothed as certainty. Facts for Hargreaves include Hamp’s “technical desertion,” which was really no more than “a bloody little walk”; for the colonel, the facts are his received orders to execute Hamp in order to boost the morale of the battalion moving into combat the next day. Because of his empathy for Hamp, Hargreaves has come to a more imaginative understanding of facts, an understanding that accepts the uncertainty of human motives and the complexity of human character.5
In the film, the playing out of rituals, whether social (class), military, or religious, establishes a kind of mad order in the midst of chaos. Even the enlisted men, those most subject to the cruelties of this hierarchical world, get Hamp drunk and, to allay their own fears, enact an execution of the condemned man. Unlike their earlier mock trial of a rat, which Losey himself called “slightly cardboard” (Milne 1968, 12.6) and “the least successful thing in the film” (Ciment 1985, 246), this dark revel before the execution conveys the confused and contradictory feelings of the men — their drunkenness, their fear, their homoeroticism, their need to comfort and be comforted, and their concern for and cruelty to Hamp. Whatever the opiate, whether drink, religion, or drugs, the men use it to blot out their anxieties and anguish over the condemned man now victimized by the war and by the indifference or cruelty of men (the officers, the doctor, the padre, and the enlisted comrades themselves) pledged to help him.
The drunken antics of Hamp’s comrades are interrupted by Lieutenant Webb and the padre (Vivian Matalon). In the harrowing scene that follows, the blindfolded Hamp shouts after his runaway companions and blindly grasps hold of the padre, who has come to absolve Hamp of his sins. Like the doctor, Captain O’Sullivan, the padre proves to be so removed from Hamp’s needs and feelings that his ministrations are cruelly, if unintentionally, misguided. Stressing a chastening and scourging God whose great mercy forgives all sins, the padre condemns as he tries to comfort; his abasement of the already victimized and abandoned Hamp is a ghastly ritual that serves to comfort only the dutiful and self-absorbed priest. His devotion to ritual is paired with his indifference to Hamp. When Hamp then vomits the communion wafer and wine, Lieutenant Webb intervenes to pump a syringe full of a soporific drug into the pitiful soldier. Although the padre insists that Hamp’s soul is present in the room, Webb is more honest and aware of the consequences of his action. Over the drunk and drugged Hamp, Webb declares, “All that’s here is a few hours of bloody nothing.”
The horror that surrounds the firing squad scene at the end of King and Country comes from the realization that, on the most pragmatic level and on the ritual level as well, Hamp’s death seems meaningless. Hargreaves and even the colonel have expressed their doubts about how efficacious Hamp’s execution will be in raising morale or instilling courage in the troops. Nor is Hamp a successful scapegoat; his death is obviously unlikely to lessen the chances of the other soldiers’ dying in battle — quite the reverse seems to be the case. As Private Sparrow says while cradling and comforting the drunken Hamp just hours before his execution: “Here today, gone tomorrow. It doesn’t matter who kills you, does it? Well, you’ve lived a long life, Hamp, and you’re due. You rot in the mud and that’s that. Doesn’t matter what anyone bloody well thinks about it, does it? Hey, we’re all moving up soon. We’ll be in the same boat as you are. We’ll all be rat food before long.” In context, this grim, cliche-ridden, desperate consolation of Private Sparrow’s also has the terror of truth about it. Even that which might be taken as ironic in Sparrow’s speech (“you’ve lived a long life, Hamp, and you’re due”) rings true when we remember Hamp’s three years in the trenches that have left him the sole survivor of his unit.
In their last full scene together, Hamp tells Hargreaves, “You’ve taught me a lot of things, sir, and I’m grateful.” Hargreaves answers, “Have I? Rather too late, I fear.” Although learning things too late is a familiar pattern in tragedy, Hamp is not a tragic figure. What Hamp has learned through his articulate defender and spokesman is not altogether clear. If Hargreaves speaks the truth for the confused Hamp, the young private learns little more than that he unthinkingly walked away from the guns, that he should have done his duty, and that he must now submit to military law. Whatever Hamp’s capacity for anguish or self-knowledge, it has neither the depth nor scale of classical tragedy, or even of a Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front. Furthermore, in the final hours Hamp’s suffering is obviated through Webb’s hypodermic and the enlisted men’s rum. What dignity he has in the end finds expression in his brief exchange with Hargreaves after the botched execution.
Blindfolded and tied to a chair, Hamp is carried almost senseless to the execution site. Shown from a perspective behind the firing squad, it appears that some of the men intentionally fire off target. In any case, the execution fails, and O’Sullivan, removing Hamp’s blindfold, announces as much. When Webb slowly draws his pistol and then hesitates, Hargreaves takes the gun from him and walks over to Hamp. Cradling Hamp’s head on his arm, Hargreaves asks, “Isn’t it finished yet?” Hamp replies, “No sir, I’m sorry.” In this bitterly ironic exchange both military and class distinctions between them are implicitly acknowledged, but so is their mutual concern and respect.
In addition, subtle and ironic religious connotations are invoked here. A passage from Bourne’s Britain and the Great War provides an illuminating context within which to view this scene:
If England’s cause was just, if the war was a struggle between good and evil, then it followed that England’s cause was also God’s. The concepts of suffering, redemption and renewal lay at the heart of Christian faith. Their imagery came naturally to people brought up on the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Protestant Hymnal and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Church, too, for its part, had long made use of the imagery of war. The idea of the ‘Christian Soldier’ assumed a new meaning and significance. Christ’s example was the war’s inspiration and justification. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Christ’s sufferings offered many parallels with that of the soldier. The war’s poetry is full of them. ‘He stood before me there,’ Sassoon wrote of an ordinary Tommy. ‘I say that He was Christ.’ (1989, 230—1)
Christian faith and the influence of the church were undeniably powerful forces throughout the war. King and Country, however, has already called into question the ministrations of a priest blind to the needs of the condemned Hamp, and the execution scene raises the issue of Hamp’s death as a spiritually redemptive sacrifice. However much one may want to see such significance in the film, Losey’s deeply ironic view allows for no transcendent resolution. Bourne may rightly claim that “Christ’s suffering offered many parallels with that of the soldier,” but Hamp’s stupefied anguish, as well as his innocence, ordinary goodness, and truthfulness, only accentuate the unfairness, the despair, the pathos of his death.
Hargreaves’s question — “Isn’t it finished yet?” — may recall Christ’s last words on the cross — “It is finished” (John 19:30) — but Hamp, however Christ-like, can neither save nor be saved. Defined against rather than by military and religious rituals, Hamp and Hargreaves play out their fate. In any traditional sense, Hamp’s death accrues little meaning as a sacrifice. His dying hardly gives life to the community, or if it does, it maintains an unjust and hypocrital society. The ritual surrounding Hamp’s death does not express the sacred or point to a hoped-for spiritual transcendence. Still, something other than despair resonates with the pistol shot that ends Hamp’s life. Horrific as that moment is, it defines Hargreaves’s sacrificial act, an act confined to the human plane of existence and fraught with sorrow, guilt, and love. The anguish here is as much Hargreaves’s as Hamp’s. Thus, the question becomes what Hargreaves has learned from Hamp. Not duty but a sense of humanity, a personal commitment to Hamp, necessitates his action. Hargreaves is changed forever through this relationship; what he learns about his own contradictory nature and about his capacity for compassion can best be measured against the smug and arrogant Hargreaves who at the beginning prejudged Hamp a failure as a man and soldier while he glibly pronounced, “We’re all on trial for our lives.” In retrospect, Private Sparrow’s questions to Hamp — “It doesn’t matter who kills you, does it?” and “Doesn’t matter what anyone bloody well thinks about it, does it?” — are not merely rhetorical. It matters to Hargreaves. In choosing to fire the pistol himself, Hargreaves transforms a bungled public ritual into a personal sacrifice, an act of love, mercy, and expiation.
That war is a horror that undermines even the loftiest of civilizations hardly needs saying. But of course, it does need saying, over and over again. The task is ancient and more than honorable, however futile it may seem, and King and Country takes its place in that tradition. But Losey’s film is more than an eloquent jeremiad. Folly and evil are all too apparent in its tale, but Losey is drawn to the human reality of the social and moral themes that compel his attention. He is no longer the polemicist, however skillful, if he was ever merely that. Neither is he merely a stylist. And, one must remember, the temptation to find a more suitable label is clearly one that he would have rejected. The film is better served by simply recognizing its own powerful terms: a callous determination to enforce military order (and its social forms) fatefully intersects with the life of a single, powerless young man and then unexpectedly with the life of another man whose status would have seemed proof against such a calamity. The first man dies, and the second is irrevocably changed, although his social position, his place in the army and the world he comes from, seems not in the least changed. King and Country indicts in the most forceful terms the false values that betrayed both men, but even more it reveals, as Losey said he hoped it did, “what beauty is there, what anguish” (Milne 1968, 31). Losey’s words here, almost wistful as they are, express his deepest intentions as an artist, summing up his attitude not just toward King and Country, but toward all the films to be discussed in the following chapters. Needless to say, the films are not identical in themes or tone; no single note is relentlessly struck. Victims, however, are his persistent concern, whether victimization is imposed on characters by forces outside themselves or born of their own human failings.
1. In The Great War and Modern Memory Paul Fussell observes: “No one was to know too much. Until 1916, the parents of soldiers executed for ‘acts prejudicial to military discipline’ were given the news straight, but after agitation by Sylvia Pankhurst, they were informed by telegram that their soldier had ‘died of wounds’ ” (1977, 176). Fussell’s brilliant cultural history of the war contains many passages that provide illuminating commentary on issues raised in Losey’s film. The book includes chapters on war as ironic action, on life in the trenches, on mythic and ritual patterns, and on the sexual (homoerotic) nature of front-line experience.
2. Reflecting on his use of these images, Losey told Ciment, “Those early flashes of stills at the beginning of King and Country [are] partly the stirrings of Accident, of The Go-Between, of Proust” (1985, 244).
3. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of dialogue from the films are taken directly from their sound tracks. In an unexplained departure from Housman’s text, the lines from poem “XXXVI” in More Poems (1936) are changed. Housman wrote: Here dead lie we because we did not choose To live and shame the land from which we sprung. Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; But young men think it is, and we were young.
4. These issues are also raised by a different kind of story contained within the omniscient narration but not, strictly speaking, produced by a character-narrator: first, the formal charge read at the court-martial and then, at the end of the film, the telegram from the War Office to Hamp’s survivors. (The telegram is read in voice-over by Dirk Bogarde, who is not speaking in the character of Captain Hargreaves.) Each of these is a kind of mini discourse from which a story of Hamp’s actions is intended to be inferred by those to whom it is addressed. These two “official stories,” of course, flatly contradict each other. In the charge Hamp is a deserter, and for this he will be shot. In the telegram he is a soldier who was “killed in action,” and the “deep regret” expressed is presumably on behalf of his king and country.
5. This scene ends with Hargreaves quoting a line from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (“There’s a porpoise close behind me, and he’s treading on my tail”), which he then punctuates with the single word “Facts.” The colonel has the last word, however, answering Hargreaves with the rueful lines from John Masefield’s long poem “Biography”: When I am buried, and 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. In its way, this odd exchange points to what Paul Fussell calls “the unparalleled literariness” of the war and to the great disparities that existed between the officers and men, which was emphasized, he wrote, “not merely by separate quarters and messes and different uniforms and weapons but by different accents and diction and syntaxes and allusions” (1977, 82)
James Palmer and Michael Riley, The Films of Joseph Losey, Cambridge Film Classics, 1993