Recently, my claim that Black Hawk Down is the best war movie ever was challenged by a regular visitor to the site who asked if anyone would remember BHD after a number of years had passed, while pointing to The Bridge Over the River Kwai and The Great Escape as examples of “better” war movies, ones that have stood the test of time. Obviously, we can not know how long people will remember BHD, but we can look at a movie that is head and shoulders above both The Great Escape and The Bridge Over the River Kwai and yet is not as well remembered: It is King Rat.
King Rat (1965) stars a young George Segal who plays “Corporal King” AKA the King Rat. King Rat is based on a 1962 novel by J.B. Clavell. Set during World War II, Clavell’s novel describes the struggle for the survival of British, Australian, and American prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore—a description well-informed by Clavell’s own three-year experience as a POW in the notorious Changi Prison camp. Peter Marlowe, a significant character, is based upon Clavell’s younger self. Even some of the actors in King Rat were POWs in the World War II. Denholm Elliott, (who played Lt. G.D. Larkin) while serving in the RAF, was shot down and taken prisoner by the Nazis.
These P.O.W.’s were given nothing by the Japanese other than filthy huts to live in and the bare minimum of food needed to prevent starvation. Officers who had been accustomed to native servants providing them with freshly- laundered uniforms daily were reduced to wearing rags and homemade shoes. For most, the chief concern is obtaining enough food to stay alive from day to day and avoiding disease or injury, since nearly no medical care is available. But, not so for King, who is well fed and struts around in a uniform that looks like it came straight from the dry cleaners.
Corporal King, not a very likable character, becomes “King” of the black market/underground economy, trading with the enemy for food, cigarettes, currency, etc. As the “richest” man in the camp, Segal becomes the most powerful prisoner, controlling even the highest ranking officers through his economic muscle and having virtually everyone on his payroll, except one, seemingly incorruptible British Provost, Lieutenant Grey (Tom Courtenay). Grey has only contempt for the American and does his best to bring him down, but with no success.
Eventually, the camp commandant informs the prisoners that the Japanese have surrendered and that the war is over. After overcoming their shock and disbelief, the prisoners celebrate – all except King, who realizes that he is no longer the unquestioned (if unofficial) ruler of the camp.
Unfortunately, King Rat does not appear on any popular “top” lists of movies must-sees. In fact, the reason I watched it was because I was forced to. In my high school economics class, Dr. Kardsky made us watch the movie as an example of how scarcity affects economic markets that are virtually unregulated. Now, having seen the movie several more times over the years, I have only grown to appreciate it further. So. if you are interested in a not-so-glamorous account of soldiers in the war of the century, do take a very worthwhile look at King Rat.
By the way, the Rat in the movie’s title “King Rat” is revealed at the end of the film when King feeds his fellow prisoners rat meat, for which they are grateful.