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Sunday, February 14, 2016

King Rat

King Rat is kind of Stalag 17 meets Sgt. Bilko, with a dynamic performance by George Segal and an even better one by James Fox. I hadn't heard much about it but included it in my films of 1965 on recommendation and I'm glad I saw it.

Directed by Bryan Forbes and based on the novel by James Clavell, King Rat is set in the Changi prison camp, run by the Japanese in Singapore during World War II. There is not a heavy guard presence, as there is nowhere for the prisoners to escape to--either the ocean or the jungle. They are not put on work detail, but aren't fed much and suffer the typical diseases: dysentery, cholera, etc.

But one prisoner seems out of place. While the others are gaunt and dressed in rags, Corporal King (Segal) looks in the peak of health and well-fed. In truth he is a hustler, a born entrepeneur who somehow has his fingers in all pies. When an egg is a rarity, he has a dozen. He has all sorts of luxury items, and has several men on his payroll.

His nemesis is Grey (Tom Courtenay), the provost marshall who is sort of the policeman watching over the prisoners. He is waiting for the moment when he can bust Segal. It's an interesting thing, as Courtenay and Segal are of course both part of the same side of the war, but in this microcosm of society they are opposed.

When Segal sees Fox speaking Malay to a native he realizes he coud use him. Fox is resistant to him, but they both share a hatred for Courtenay and soon are best buddies. They hit upon a scheme to sell rat meat to the officers, passing it off as a Malay delicacy (mouse deer) and raking in profits. But when Fox is injured and Segal puts it all on the line to save him, Segal realizes something in himself that he doesn't like and the ending of the film is very brutal, emotionally speaking.

As I said, King Rat reminded me of war comedies like Sgt. Bilko and Hogan's Heroes, where shrewd guys like Segal are celebrated as heroes that are putting one past the brass. But King Rat goes beyond that, presenting King as a character of infinite complexity, who probably can't understand himself any better than we can. A key scene in the film, which encapsulates moral relativism, is when a prisoner's dog is killed. Segal serves it up to friends, who salivate over it, but then are told it's not pig but a dog, a pet. He argues what difference does it make, and because of their hunger, they all give in. I have to say I'd have probably dug in, too.

As this is the second Segal film I've seen in the last few months, it's made me think about his career. The following year he would receive an Oscar nomination for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, another drama, but he would end up a comic actor of some standing, and then a star of TV sit-coms (now 82, he has a role as the kindly befuddled grandfather on The Goldbergs). He's always been an undersung talent, and should be more recognized. King Rat may be his finest piece of work.

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