King and Country (1964) is a major transitional work for director Joseph Losey and star Dirk Bogarde. Both had been compelled to work in genres that didn't particularly suit them: though Losey had made some strong thrillers (The Prowler in America and then, once blacklisted, The Criminal in the U.K.), Bogarde had been typed in light comedies from the Rank Organisation or else rather anemic period movies. This WWI drama offered stronger meat.
The story reached the screen circuitously: J.L. Hodson wrote a war memoir from which playwright John Wilson extracted and expanded one narrative, then adapted as a screenplay by regular Losey collaborator Evan Jones. An ordinary soldier, Private Hamp, (Tom Courtenay) is tried for desertion. It's obvious to his defending officer, Bogarde, that Hamp has suffered a breakdown and shouldn't be held responsible for his actions. It's obvious to us, sitting on our 21st century couch a hundred years later, that this is a case of PTSD: Hamp simply walked away from the guns with no plan as to where he was going. He has uncontrollable trembling, headaches and diarrhea. But the priority for the court is to set an example to the other men prior for a big push forward, and anyway, nobody here is qualified to distinguish between cowardice and mental illness.
The obvious comparison is with Kubrick's Paths of Glory: Losey's film is equally impressive. Where Kubrick drives relentlessly forwards in a tracking-shot death march, Losey weaves a sinuous waltz with actors and camera, and breaks the flow with little nouvelle vague inserts: when Courtenay mentions receiving a letter alleging his wife is cheating on him, we cut to a little snapshot of the likely author, smirking in his pajamas.
Losey also ties his low-budget war to the real extravaganza via photos from the Imperial War Museum. A dicey trick, this: showing real death amid the theatrical kind, violating the contract of illusion. But it feels worth it. The first moment, a dissolve from a grinning corpse to a reclining corpse-in-waiting, Courtenay playing his harmonica, is almost too neat. The second, in which a muddy, sprawled body seems to actually melt away into rain-battered mud, is stunning and surreal and weirdly emotional. It feels like death got dissolved into the celluloid we're watching.
Courtenay is heartbreaking as a simple man who struggles to explain what has happened to him: his honesty will doom him. His presence ties this film in to the British New Wave, or Free Cinema, of Woodfall Films and its run of National Theatre adaptations. Bogarde, crisp and unmannered, is finally involved with something he can respect, and his later career as an arthouse star opens up before him. The role suits him perfectly: a sonofabitch on the outside, tormented by inner decency. He's just suggested, in a stunningly callous way, that ideally the prisoner should be executed without a trial. "What were you like as a child?" asks his friend, Barry Foster. "The same," says Dirk, flatly. A heart so hard can only be broken.
"Despair, enacted on cheap sets," is Errol Morris's memorable description of the B-movie noir, but it would apply equally here. Ace designer Richard MacDonald creates a hellish environment of rain, mud and shattered buildings in which claustrophobia rules: there isn't the money for vistas, so we get cramped, drizzling ruins in which Courtenay's jail cell isn't particularly more confining than anywhere else. Limitations are turned to positive effect and the result is as oppressive a film as you'll see, and as powerful.
The ending is inevitable, and not cheering. Nobody's getting away with anything in this film, least of all us.