The war in the East is nearing its conclusion but to the prisoners-of-war in Changi Gaol, Singapore, the end seems as far away as ever.
10,000 men, prisoners of the Japanese, are subsisting on four ounces of rice a day and trying to stay alive long enough until the allied forces storming through Burma can liberate them. They are all in pitiful physical condition – affected by humidity, overcrowding, disease and brutal treatment from the guards – all, that is, except one . . .
George Segal gives a razor-sharp portrayal of Corporal King – one of only a handful of Americans among mostly British and Australian POWs and the biggest scrounger in the camp – who eats fried eggs for breakfast while the others starve. He runs lucrative black market schemes, one of which is to breed rats and sell them as food to his fellow prisoners, hence his nickname, “King Rat.”
But the best performance in the film comes from James Fox as pretty-boy RAF officer Flight Lt. Peter Marlowe, who becomes King’s confidante and his fellow dealer-with-the-devil (Marlowe knows Malay and can barter with the corrupt camp guards).
When Marlowe injures his arm, his new officer secures antibiotics in order to keep Marlowe’s sickly limb from amputation. In contrast to Marlowe the British Provost Marshal, Lt. Robin Grey (Tom Courtenay) – a holier-than-thou young officer full of disciplinary zeal – considers King a loathsome American renegade, immoral and conniving, and relentlessly tries to engineer King’s downfall.
But Grey has his own issues to resolve: one of his officers is stealing from the food rations. The officer attempts to bribe Grey, but he brings the issue to his superior, Col. George Smedley-Taylor (John Mills).
Smedley-Taylor informs Grey that the officer in question has been discharged and tells him to drop the allegations. An angry Grey accuses Smedley-Taylor of collusion, but he can no longer find the altered scale weight that originally tipped him off to the corruption. Grey suspects a cover-up but now has no proof. In an attempt to placate Grey, Smedley-Taylor offers him a promotion.
The British officers are then informed that the Japanese have surrendered and that the war is over. The stunned prisoners are jubilant, save for King, who has suddenly lost his celebrity in the camp and now must face a return to “normal” life as a civilian.
King Rat reached #1 at the box office in the second weekend of its release, but the movie did not enjoy sustained commercial momentum. Weaned on more upbeat, patriotic POW movies such as Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, the moviegoing public wasn’t ready for a film offering so much moral ambiguity.
A realistic replica of the Changi POW camp and environs was constructed on a seven-acre site near Westlake Village in the San Fernando Valley, about 37 miles west of Los Angeles. The elaborate set cost $375,000.
Provost Marshal, Lieutenant Robin Grey
Flight Lieutenant Peter Marlowe
Colonel George Smedley-Taylor
Lt. Col. G.D. Larkin