Writer-director Bryan Forbes’s 1965 movie “King Rat” was an adaptation by Bryan Forbes (1926-2013) of the 1962 novel of the same name by James Clavell (1924-94), based on his experience as a prisoner of war of the Japanese at the Changi Prison on Singapore. The title character is based on an American corporal whose ingenuity (aka amorality) saved Clavell and, reputedly, the whole British battalion of which Clavell was a member. Clavell was grateful, and probably as bemused by King’s maneuvers as was Clavell’s surrogate figure , Peter Marlowe (James Fox, whose previous movie was Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” and whose performance I most like was as Sir Anthony Blunt in “A Question of Attribution”).
The brash American who seems akin to William Holden’s character in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17” and Jon Voight’s Milo Mindbender in Mike Nichols’s “Catch 22,” was played by George Segal, who specialized in sassy but perplexed youthful roles during the mid-1960s (most notably in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”, also in “The Quiller Memorandum” and “Bye Bye, Braverman”). Most other prisoners struggled to survive, while the American corporal thrived and had even a British colonel (Sir John Mills) working for him.
The chief assistant of King (I think that is his role, not his patronym) before King drew Marlowe into his cabal was a surly but servile American sergeant named Max (Patrick O’Neal), who resents the increasing reliance on Marlowe, whose ability to speak Malay King wanted to annex-and did annex.
A working-class British lieutenant, Robin Gray (played by Tom Courtenay who had already starred in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” in which Fox had a smaller part and was memorable as a Bolshevik zealot in “Dr. Zhivago,” which was also released in 1965) resents his tony but weak “superior” officers. (Marlowe is also a lieutenant, from the RAF rather than from the artillery as Cavell was. Whatever their relative military rank, Marlowe is definitely upper-class, as Fray decidedly is not.)
Some see the movie as anti-American, feeding on British contempt for American pragmatism and lack of an honor code. I see King’s “gang” as something like a meritocracy, something Gray might have appreciated were he not so irritated by King’s disrespect to him (as to rank in general). Though “looking out for number one,” King is loyal to his assistants and exerts himself considerably to save Marlowe (more specifically, the gangrenous arm following an accident when Marlowe was not doing work for King). In contrast, most of the British officers are greedy if less proficient than King (or out and out bonkers!).
Gray dislikes the amorality/pragmatism of Lt. Col. Smedley-Taylor (whom Gray does not know is on King’s payroll) but does not have the animosity to Brits violating “good form” as he does for the American (who IMO is less corrupt than Lieutenant Colonel Jones played by Gerald Sim).
The ending is somewhat ambiguous. With the Japanese surrender, King is back to being an ordinary corporal, while Marlowe considers him a friend, not merely a former employer in some legally dubious activities.
For me, the most interesting movies about Japanese POW camps is Oshima Nagasi’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (with David Bowie playing an insolent prisoner who is even more enigmatic than King). Steven Spielberg’s (IMO underrated) “Emperor of the Sun” is about a Japanese camp for civilians (most notably a young Christian Bale, with John Malkovich playing the wheeler-dealer). William Holden (who had won an Oscar as a German WWII prisoner) had something of the cynicism/pragmatism of King in the overrated David Lean “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (in which Alec Guinness won an Oscar for playing a rigid British officer). Having also just rewatched the overrated “Shawshank Redemption”, I’d say “King Rat” is a better film than “Shawshank,” though I think both are longer than they needed to be. (And both contain reflections on hope and on male intimacy of nonsexual kinds.)
“King Rat” is grittier than “Kwai,” with Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography of Burnett Guffey (who won Oscars for “From Here to Eternity” and for “Bonnie and Clyde”). John Barry supplied the musical score that is not especially memorable, but better than serviceable.
(BTW, in Clavell’s book, Gray goes on to be a postwar Soviet spy, dovetailing with Courtenay’s role in “Dr. Zhivago” … and Fox’s in “A Question of Attribution.” Marlowe and Gray reappear in Clavell’s Noble House, the fourth novel in his “Asian saga” following the mega-best-selling Tai-Pan and Shogun.)
The only DVD special features are trailers for other Columbia/Sony DVD releases, although Segal, Fox, and Courtenay could have been asked about their experiences making the movie. Forbes died 8 May. Although I think “King Rat” (the last of the five films he directed to be nominated for BAFTA best picture) stands up pretty well nearly half a century on, I was disappointed by watching “The Wrong Box” (1966) again wonder how well “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964) and “The Whisperers” (1967) stand up even with their memorable (and Oscar-nominated) performances by, respectively, Kim Stanley and Edith Evans. Having seen them more recently, I am confident that “The L-Shaped Room” (1962) of Leslie Caron’s unmarried pregnant young woman and “Whistle Down the Wind” (1961) with Hayley Mills do/will.