More than 50 years later, 'The King of Hearts' remains a sadly apt take on war and madness

More than 50 years later, 'The King of Hearts' remains a sadly apt take on war and madness
Alan Bates and Geneviève Bujold in the 1966 film "King of Hearts." (Cohen Media Group)

A new restoration of Philippe de Broca's 1966 film "The King of Hearts" opens Friday. Below is The Times' original review from Aug. 16, 1967.

The suspicion that war is not only hell but also madness must be only a day or two younger than war itself. The notion has been around for awhile. The suspicion that the looney may be the only sane ones among us has also been around for awhile.


The ingenious and inventive French director Philippe de Broca has entwined these antiquarian suspicions into a surrealistic jewel of a comedy which you realize, when you can catch your breath between laughs, has made the case for the sanity of the lunatics and the madness of the war-waging sane.

There is a moment somewhere along the line in "King of Hearts," when a coronation procession, a handsome carriage drawn by a snow-white camel and attended by a crowd just down from the local Asile d'Aliennes dressed in borrowed finery, roars and rattles through the shell-pocked village square of the beleaguered French town in World War I. The whole tableau is rich with detail, all of it mad and slapstick, yet in the context of the piece there is a lovely, tidy and enchanting logic to it all.

Nothing makes sense, that is, and nothing doesn't. And the quality and quantity of imagination with which this parable of paradox has been embroidered is beautiful to see.

Another moment. Offhandedly, in the background, a chimpanzee pedals by on a bicycle. Perfectly logical, and supremely incongruous.

Another moment. A company of British and a company German soldiers march around the same square, form facing ranks as neatly as corps de ballets and shoot each other dead to the last man. The commanders on horseback then cancel each other out with single bullets.

The premise is that the retreating Germans mined a town to blow it sky high at midnight. The townspeople flee. The British send Alan Bates, who trains carrier pigeons, to defuse the works. He takes brief refuge in the asylum, and is greeted as the long-sought King of Hearts.

The inmates take over the town, becoming aristocrats, a prince of the church, a fancy madam. The coronation and subsidiary romps go on. The war returns. The inmates, having seen enough of madness, return to the asylum and so, stripped of his non-illusions, does Bates.

It is all, of course, a special view of madness as it is of sanity, a view of both from the bridge of an antic imagination which at last perceives perhaps only the relativity of each. And if the perceptions are hardly new. the applications are astonishingly inventive.

"King of Hearts" has the unrelenting visual excitement of a great silent film, but with incisive dialogue that might have arisen on some middle ground between Swift and Lewis Carroll. George Delerue's music is remarkably vivid and appropriate, and in this instance that is no mean feat.

With a bow of the screenplay by Daniel Boulanger, it is a director's film, with a consistency of style and tone which is satisfying to see. Bates is marvelous as the baffled but never disbelieving foot soldier who is the link between the worlds of sanity and madness, whichever is which. And the joy of Micheline Presle and the other inmates is that they know that they are not mad.

It is as funny a film as I have seen in a fair while, but also oddly sad and touching, particularly in the echoing thoughtfulness, when the screen has gone dark and the house lights have come up.

Ah, yes, a circus had been playing in the town. That explains the chimp and an elephant and some cats.


‘King of Hearts’

In French with English subtitles


Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino