“The King of Hearts is about ... everything.”
In a way, the tagline above gives an accurate assessment. This film's satire of mainstream society covers more than any single topic. However, the main attack of its sardonic rapier targets much of humanity's inclination to war against their fellows. Although all of human society gets satirical treatment in King Of Hearts, the mainstream's seeming eagerness to commit violence against or kill people in an organized fashion catches the most attention from the barbed wit of director Philippe de Broca.
World War One, or as it was known for years: The Great War, provides the background for all the events in King Of Hearts. As the film begins the mechanism of a large clock tower moves a knight to strike a bell announcing the hour. German soldiers occupying the French town prepare to abandon it in their retreat near the end of the war. The Germans wire the knight of the clock tower so that its action will set off munitions sealed inside a blockhouse in the town square. They hope the explosion will occur after allied troops occupy the town.
The town barber overhears Col. Helmut von Krack (Daniel Boulanger) tell Lt. Hamburger (Marc Dudicourt) of his plans for the knight in the clock tower. The barber – a member of the resistance - tells some of the townspeople of the coming explosion. The word spreads. As he calls the allies with the details, German soldiers shoot him, but not before he gets a partial message through mentioning: “The knight strikes at midnight.” As the German soldiers leave, so also do the town's residents. They don't know the details, but do know that a massive bomb has been rigged to go off destroying the town.
The allies halt their plans to occupy the town. The allied commander Col. Alexander MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi) outlines the situation to his subordinates. His adjutant recommends that someone go into the town, figure out the bomb's placement and disarm it. He figures that operative should speak French fluently. When the Colonel asks who could do this, his adjutant notes that Pvt. Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) speaks French. The Colonel tells his adjutant to suggest to Plumpick that he volunteer for the mission. The adjutant tells Plumpick to “report to the Colonel.” Plumpick doesn't understand why he was chosen for bomb disarmament since he specializes in ornithology – specifically carrier pigeons – not ordnance. However, this does not deter the Colonel from his plans.
When Plumpick enters the town he finds it deserted except for the last remaining German troops. When they catch a glimpse of Plumpick and give pursuit, he enters the grounds of a “lunatic asylum” whose gate stands ajar. He closes and locks the gate on entering, but the pursuing Germans shoot out the locks. Entering a building and climbing stairs Plumpick comes upon its inmates, some playing cards. One of them identifies himself as the Duke of Clubs (Jean-Claude Brialy), another as Monseigneur Daisy (Julien Guiomar). When asked his name, Plumpick replies: “The King of Hearts.” Seeing all this seeming insanity, the Germans leave hastily. However, the Duke exclaims “Ladies and Gentlemen, the King is back at last.”
When Plumpick leaves the asylum, he accidentally strikes his head and loses consciousness. The now broken gates of the asylum also allow its inmates to leave. They do and take up residence in the abandoned town. The Duke and his Duchess (Françoise Christophe) dominate the social scene promenading about the town square. Monseigneur Daisy becomes Bishop Daisy. General Geranium (Pierre Brasseur) - in addition to his military background - comes upon an abandoned circus and frees many of the animals. Madame Eglantine (Micheline Presle) opens a brothel. One of her young women: Coquelicot (Geneviève Bujold) later becomes involved with Pvt. Plumpick. When Plumpick awakes he sees the town's transformation. His task to disarm the bomb now has new urgency.
With World War One the 20th century's loss of blood from war became an international torrent. However, King of Hearts manages to keep a comedic light heart amidst its parody of human society and its wars. With all the nationalities speaking their native tongues, subtitles greatly help to understand the dialog in this movie. Like the other films pictured surrounding the review on this page, King of Hearts also shows the stupidity, futility and utter waste of war. Unlike most of the other films pictured, the conclusion of this film seems somewhat less tragic. Like Pvt. Plumpick, you may come to question which group of people have lost their ability to lead happy lives. This film allows some laughter while still skewering the madness unleashed by war. I heartily recommend King of Hearts to those looking for plentiful insight along with their comedy.