King Rat (1965): Bryan Forbes’ Oscar-Nominated Prison Drama, Starring John Mills, James Fox, Tom Courtenay

Adapted from the James Clavell novel of the same novel, King Rat, vibrantly directed by Bryan Forbes, is one of the best prison films, offering a detailed chronicle of how group dynamics, power games, social class, and nationality affect the daily lives of a group of prisoners before and just after WWII.

King Rat also offers an anatomy of bonding and friendship between two men, splendidly played by George Segal as the American Corporal King and James Fox as the British Marlowe, two World War II prisoners of war in a squalid camp near Singapore.

It partly based on Clavell’s experiences as a POW at Changi Prison during World War II.

Despite the high-quality caliber of acting by the entire ensemble, the film was a box-office disappointments.

Author Clavell later observed, “my feeling is that the film failed, because Forbes took away the story thread and made it a composite of character studies.”

Detailed Plot

Corporal King, one of few Americans amongst the British and Australian inmates, thrives through conniving and black market enterprises, while others struggle to survive the sickness and starvation

King recruits upper class British RAF officer, Flight Lieutenant Peter Marlowe (James Fox) as a translator. Marlowe begins to like King, and King respects Marlowe but his attitude is ambiguous. When Marlowe is injured, King obtains medicines to save his arm from amputation but it is unclear whether he does so out of friendship or because Marlowe is the only one who knows where the proceeds from King’s most profitable venture are hidden.

King has a different relationship with the lower class like the British Provost Lieutenant Grey (Tom Courtenay). Grey has contempt for the American and wishes to bring him down. When Grey discovers that an officer has been stealing food, he rejects a bribe and reports the incident to Colonel George Smedley-Taylor (John Mills). Smedley-Taylor tells him that the corrupt officer and his assistant have been relieved of their duties, but orders him to forget all about it. Grey accuses him of being in on the scheme and Smedley-Taylor offers to promote grey to captain.

The camp commandant informs the senior British officers that the Japanese have surrendered and the war is over. A British paratrooper (Richard Dawson) walks up to the prison gates and disarms the guards. The men celebrate, but King realizes he is no longer the ruler of the camp. He squelches an attempt by resentful underling Sergeant Max (Patrick O’Neal) to reassert his rank and authority. When Marlowe approaches him before leaving, King devastates theyoungster by cynically looking him in the eye and ignoring his gesture of friendship.

Oscar Nominations:

Cinematography: Burnett Guffey

Art Direction: Robert Emmet Smith and Frank Tuttle

Oscar Awards: None


George Segal as U.S. Corporal King

Tom Courtenay as Grey, British First Lieutenant

Patrick O’Neal as Max, U.S. First Sergeant

Denholm Elliott as Larkin, British Lieutenant Colonel

John Mills as Smedley-Taylor, British Colonel

James Donald as Dr. Kennedy

Todd Armstrong as Tex, US Soldier

Gerlad Sim as Jones, British Lieutenant Colonel