Short Takes: Two Anti-War Classics

dirk_bogarde_king__countryKing and Country is a dark, brutal, effective attack on war by the exiled American director, Joseph Losey. A shell shocked soldier, one Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay), is put on trial for desertion after he walks away from the brutality and loss of humanity of war. The young soldier has already served three years at the front, witnessing the violent, senseless, inhuman pointlessness of trench warfare. Living in rat-infested conditions, witnessing one atrocity after another, Hamp, after one particular brutal day of warfare, leaves. He wants to go home.
His lawyer is Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), a straight-laced military career man who at first can find little, if any, sympathy for the young war-weary seasoned soldier. Hargreaves will defend him only because it’s his job. As the film progresses, the lawyer discovers the layers of human frailty in a boy scarred by the violence and brutality of constant battle. Hargreaves also comes to realize and understand the strong unforgiving arm of military injustice.  One of the most powerful scenes occurs during an interrogation by Hargreaves of an arrogant doctor portrayed by Leo McKern defending his wrong-headed medical position for the young soldier’s behavior.

King and Country is not a film for the faint of heart. There are some very unpleasant scenes of animal cruelty requiring a strong stomach. However, they are not gratuitous, they are used to reflect the numbing effect the brutality of war has on men. Trench warfare was claustrophobic, grim and medieval. It was like living in a hellish inferno. There are masterful performances from both Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde and is earnestly directed by Losey.

King and Country had its American premiere at the second New York Film Festival in 1964 before beginning a regular run at an Eastside theater in Manhattan.

pathsBased on Humphrey Cobb’s novel, Paths of Glory made it to the screen thanks to its star Kirk Douglas who had the guts to bring the controversial book to movie theaters. The film deals with the execution of three innocent French soldiers charged with being cowards after a general orders an unachievable attack upon a German fortress. After the men retreat the general, to protect his vanity and ambitions of a promotion, orders three men arbitrarily picked to be put on trial for cowardice and executed. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film is a harrowing look at how the soldiers are treated as nothing more than numbers instead of as human beings.

Though this film was made more than 50 years ago the battle scenes are brutally realistic. One of the most emotional scenes in the film is the execution of the three men. Its gut wrenching and you will be drained after watching it.

Along with Kubrick, the screenplay was written by pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet) and Calder Willingham. Thompson had previously worked with Kubrick on The Killing.

The film opened on Christmas day in 1957.

14 comments on “Short Takes: Two Anti-War Classics

  1. KimWilson says:

    I’ve never seen King and Country, but I love Paths of Glory. I get so mad every time that I watch it!


  2. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. As you say two very powerful films. Hard to watch in some ways but that reflects how anodyne so many ‘war’ films are. Always v impressed by Tom Courtney. Regards Thom.


    • John Greco says:


      Sorry for the late response. I agree Courtney is a wonderful actor especailly here and in Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. THanks!!!


  3. Judy says:

    I haven’t seen either of these but you make them sound powerful in their anti-war message – I’ll hope to catch up with them. I really like both Tom Courtenay and Kirk Douglas and would like to see these roles.


  4. The Lady Eve says:

    I haven’t seen King and Country, but have seen Paths of Glory a few times. Great as it is, the subject matter infuriates and upsets me every time I watch it. Which means, I think, that Kubrick did a brilliant job on every level.


    • John Greco says:

      Eve, If Paths of Glory infuriates you, King and Country will do the same. Kubrick’s camera work here is superb. My only complaint with him is that he took too long between making films.


  5. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a terrific post on these two great films, both masterpieces and two of the best–possibly THE two best–films about WWI. Most have seen Kubrick’s film but few have seen Losey’s, which I watched when doing a profile on Tom Courtenay a few years back. The home video version available on Netflix gets terrible comments for its poor video and audio quality, and I was fortunate enough to see it on TCM. I love the opening montage. My main complaint is that Courtenay is hardly in the second act (the movie was based on a play), while the focus shifts to Bogarde’s plight in defending him. Otherwise, it’s a wonderful companion piece too “Paths” and I’m glad you reviewed them together. Maybe the more familiar film will pique your readers’ interest in the less familiar but equally worthy one.


    • John Greco says:

      R.D. KING AND COUNTRY is a terrific film! I caught it on TCM also. I remember the film being out in theaters way back when at one of the art houses in NYC. Courtenay make some great films back in those days. It probably is a bit stagey due to its source but I don’t think it distracts form the powerful comment it has to say/


  6. Sam Juliano says:

    Both are great films indeed John! PATHS OF GLORY of course speaks for itself, and there is little I could add here, but KING is unseen by quite a few. Extraordinary reviews here!!


  7. ashley wales says:

    Hi John, Paths of Glory one of the best anti war films made and one of Stanley Kubricks best films too. It includes all his cinemagraphic trademarks from the camera shots travelling down an invisible tunnel, here Kirk Douglas running along the trench system before the attack on the ant hill, remember the B52 closing in on it’s target in Dr Strangelove and the Dave in his space craft travelling over the landscape before arriving on Jupiter. The Human Figure overwhelmed by ornate baroque surroundings, and the intense close ups on his characters faces, portraits of people under extreme cicumstances unable to hide thier emotions from the camera. The use of black and white in Kubricks early films is so effective and the dialogue between Dax and his superiors is superb along with the supporting characters who are wonderful to watch and give master classes in character acting in the cinema. You probably know this already,Kubricks wife plays the part of the young German girl coerced into singing for the soldiers at the end and the look on all thier faces speaks volumes. plus Kirk Douglas looks great.


    • John Greco says:

      Hi Ashley, Whole heartedly agree! Certainly one of Douglas’ best and most powerful performances. Visually, the film is stunning both in Kubrick’s use of his camera and in lighting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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