There is a tendency in all arts to equate depressing with profound. This error is especially common in discussions of film, perhaps because the medium is usually associated with quick, disposable entertainment. And if a filmmaker is consistently downbeat, there’s a good chance his or her work will be taken more seriously than it deserves. When there really is reason to praise the filmmaker’s work generally, individual works will be considered greater achievements than they are just because they’re downers.
Take Joseph Losey’s relentlessly grim King and Country. The story of a British private (Tom Courtenay) in World War I on trial for desertion, K&C is set in a wet, dark, dirty trench. No fighting is shown, but you don’t need it to inspire despair. The atmosphere alone puts you in a funk. To be sure, that sense of being trapped in the trenches is no mean technical achievement, given that nearly the entire film was shot on a sound stage. Still, you can’t help wondering how all involved kept from slashing their wrists before the film was completed.
That World War I was no picnic is not exactly news. Therefore, to warrant interest, much less praise, the film should provide something beyond what we already know. What, then, is unique about this take on that cataclysm? Is Private Hamp (Courtenay) meant as some kind of Everyman? If so, what conclusions can we make from the farcical ritual of his trial and execution? Or is he meant to be a simple individual caught in the wheels of a system that grinds everyone into dust? If so, he is not a terribly interesting one because we know little about him. Perhaps there’s meant to be a class angle, given this is a British film? No, at least not as any positive alternative, because the bestial behavior of the other grunts puts paid to any hope they’ll provide emotional relief.
Even more baffling is Hamp’s lawyer, Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), who expresses contempt for his client before meeting him, then seems to warm to him, only to give him the coup de grace. Every possibility of decency is squelched and the ending, while undeniably shocking, is only that. It tells us less about World War I or the human condition than about the determinism of tendentious writing.
For all the gloom, there’s nothing particularly insightful about K&C. It seems to exist solely to be gloomy. Losey’s craft almost makes things worse. The tangibly moldering environment practically works against the film’s pacifist premise. We’re more prone to insist that there has to have been something other than this rotting desolation. How about a friendship, for example? By denying the possibility of any behavior more positive than aloof detachment, King and Country makes you want to fight back—against the film, not any dehumanizing “system.” Assuming, of course, that is what the film is about. That you cannot be sure pretty ably contradicts any justification for praise.