Directed by Philippe de Broca
Written by Daniel Boulangier, from a idea by Maurice Bessy
Starring Alan Bates, Genevieve Bujold, Pierre Brasseur
It was a movie that flopped when it first came out. Years later, movie houses and fans discovered it and it became a major success, with weekly showings in front of enthusiastic audiences. No, not Rocky Horror (which came years later). It’s Le roi de couer – The King of Hearts.
In the late days of World War I, the Germans are retreating from an occupied town, but leave an unpleasant surprise: enough bombs to destroy it all and the bridge nearby. The allies are warned and mistakenly send Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to find the bomb and defuse it.
Word of the bomb has gotten around, and the townspeople have deserted it. Plumpick is spotted by the last German patrol and accidentally releases the inmates, who go into the town and take over the roles of the people.
These are the type of joyously insane people that you see in old movies; everyone is having the time of their lives being what that imagined themselves to be. But Plumpick needs to enlist them in finding the bomb, something they do not care about and don’t feel the need to understand. Plumpick is named “The King of Hearts” and is treated like royalty, falling in love with the beautiful Coquelicot (Genevieve Bujold)
As you might have guessed, this is an antiwar film; the soldiers and the fighting is portrayed as being far more dangerous and insane than the inmates of the asylum. The concept is hardly original, but the inmates are so utterly charming from start to finish, especially compared to the stupidity of the leaders, that it’s hard not to fall in love with the film.
De Broca was an up-and-coming director of the time. “That Man from Rio,” two years earlier, was considered one of the best spy spoofs of the era, but that didn’t transfer. After flopping in France, it eventually made it to the US. Someone figured that the antiwar message was just the thing for the era, and a small theater in Cambridge, MA, started running it regularly. It ran there for five years, and gained cult status. It is still one of the better antiwar films made.