King Rat (1965)
`Gather round and here the words of the King.`
For this black and white POW film set during the final days of WW2 in Singapore we’re treated to George Segal as the King in a role that surely is related to William Holden’s Sefton in Stalag 17.
As the credits roll countless British POW’s are seen in rags, soaked in sweat while walking almost in a death like state. Spliced in we see a well groomed soldier receiving a shave, shoeshine and manicure. Dressed impeccably compared to his fellow inmates and smoking American cigarettes is George Segal.
Segal is a businessman who takes pleasure in seeing how far men will grovel to do his bidding. All for the remainder of a cigarette butt. He frequently barters with the Japanese guards to get ahead while at the same time has a few key personnel on the payroll including some of his commanding officers.
The one officer he cannot buy is Tom Courtenay who always seems to be one step behind Segal while trying to put a stop to his black market scams. Courtenay has a magnificent scene when confronted by superior officer John Mills and the realization that there are those above him in the chain of command who are just as crooked as Segal and not above bribes.
Joining in on Segal`s payroll we have James Fox as a British officer who proves to be the one weakness in Segal`s character. Patrick O`Neal signs on as the gopher who actually outranks Segal but is quick to do his bidding.
While the film is of a serious nature it does lighten up when our smooth operator Segal comes up with an idea of what to do with the rats that infest the camp. After all, people are starving. It`s just another way to exert his power over the senior officers. Power certainly feeds his ego so long as he holds the upper hand.
The always delightful Denholm Elliott turns up here as one of our British officers and it should come as no surprise that James Donald appears as well. The man just never seems to escape from anything having done time in Bridge On The River Kwai as well as The Great Escape.
The film`s biggest asset from director Bryan Forbes is putting us into the uncomfortable climate that the prisoners suffer through. Everyone is soaked in sweat, their shirts clinging to their skeletal frames. If they`re in rags then their thin bodies are glistening and sweaty as they head towards dehydration. The sound effects of mosquitoes are heightened on the soundtrack as the men sleep in their nets at night. All adding up to a realism that comes through to the viewer. With the rats offering us a bit of black comedy here it`s fitting that director Forbes would move on to doing The Wrong Box a year later. A British gem to be sure.
More of a study in how low men in dire straights can go as opposed to the thrilling escapes in other POW films, George Segal turns in a solid performance here at an early stage in his career. Not to be missed.