King Rat Novel Review Essay

ANOTHER grim and lacerating picture of men in a prison camp—this time a group of Allied soldiers in a Japanese camp in the jungles of Malaya toward the end of World War II—is offered in Bryan Forbes's rendering of James Clavell's novel, "King Rat." And anyone who can sit through it without wincing is a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

I say any "man" advisedly, because it is hard to imagine that this film, which came yesterday to the Victoria, the Beekman and the Murray Hill, is likely to attract many women, except for those who want to see how evil, sadistic and animalistic men fighting for survival can be.

It's that kind of film. It is a ledger of all the gross, grotesque and horrifying ways men confined in a barren area without sufficient clothing, medical supplies or food—and, least of all, entertainment—may improvise, cheat and connive to keep bodies and souls together, while a few try to maintain discipline. And it is also, since something is needed in the way of a story-line, a bit of a drama of a strangely growing friendship between a virtuous British flying officer and a vicious American corporal who is the champion conniver in the camp.

Actually, the drama is minor and very much incidental to the mere episodic exposition of shabby ingenuities and putrid horrors. There's a long sequence gleefully describing how the corporal has his sycophants catch rats and breed them in a secret cellar so he can sell the meat of the offspring to the starving prisoners as "squirrel deer."

There's another, equally gleeful, in which the corporal patiently persuades his buddies to partake of a savory stew he has made from the meat of a pet dog. This is after he has first allowed them to assume the meat is from a pig. And there is yet another sequence in which the corporal and some heavily bribed recruits perform an impromptu operation on the British fellow's gangrenous arm.

Oh, I tell you, this is just the sort of picture to see after a nice, wholesome meal.

Amid such gruesome demonstrations—and there are others too nauseous to relate—Mr. Forbes's weak attempt to draw something of an ironic, sardonic moral about the shuffling of social and ethical values in a desperate survival situation is pretty well lost. And what's left of it in the last reel is buried beneath a sudden flux of mush.

However, the sheer displays of horrors are vigorously and ruthlessly achieved, and the actors who do the performing do it unflinchingly. George Sepal makes a bold and sassy King Rat, James Fox makes a charming British toff and Tom Courtenay is excellent as an officer with a moral sense and disciplinary zeal. James Donald, John Mills, Denholm Elliott and Patrick O'Neal are strong in smaller roles.

"King Rat" is a powerful adjuration not to let oneself become a prisoner of war.

KING RAT, screenplay by Bryan Forbes, based on a novel by James Clavell; directed by Mr. Forbes; produced by James Woolf. Presented by Columbia Pictures. At the Beekman Theater, 66th Street and Second Avenue, the Murray Hill Theater, 34th Street west of Third Avenue, and the Victoria Theater, 46th Street and Broadway. Running time: 134 minutes.
King . . . . . George Segal
Lieut. Grey . . . . . Tom Courtenay
Peter Marlowe . . . . . James Fox
Max . . . . . Patrick O'Neal
Lieut. Col. Larkin . . . . . Denholm Elliott
Dr. Kennedy . . . . . James Donald
Tex . . . . . Todd Armstrong
Col. Smedley-Taylor . . . . . John Mills
Col. Jones . . . . . Gerald Sim
Maj. McCoy . . . . . Leonard Rossiter
Capt. Daven . . . . . John Standing
Col. Brant . . . . . Alan Webb

It should be noted that this was James Clavell’s first book. It was also the first book (though not chronologically) in a series he wrote which became known as the “Asian Saga”. Knowing this, it is a truly remarkable piece of writing which I found extremely engaging, both because of the level of description but also in the way he has constructed the plot.

Set in a 1940s POW camp which reflects James Clavell’s own experience as a Prisoner of War to the Japanese, it seems that there are two central concepts which the book deals with. The first is more obvious that the second and looks at how one survives when faced with an obstacle. In this case, the protagonists and everyone in the POW camp are faced with a series of obstacles and challenges each day and they have to meet these challenges and overcome them. It is really a question of how.

In the words of ‘the King’ (one of the 2 main characters), how do you look after “Number one?” So this book is all about survival – what are the steps, what are the levels we are willing to go to in order to protect number one? The variety of characters Clavell puts into the book present various types of ways of responding to the obstacle. In way the King could be viewed as a proactive man who is willing to risk a lot for his survival whereas others are more comfortable with knowing what little they have is safe, even if it is so little. It seems Clavell asks what kind of person would you be? Everyone, over the course of their years in the POW camp developed into their roles, some more mentally fragile others more assertive, but all based on their fundamental need to survive and how they each choose to achieve survival.

This is prominent throughout the novel, and becomes more complex as morality is thrown into the mix and Clavell begins to ask if the sacrifice of morality is really worth it in order to survive.

Characters like “Grey”, one of the officers in the army and as such a high-ranking administrative person in the camp, challenge the King and Peter Marlowe, King’s new friend and ‘protégé’ and question their activities. Acts like trading are forbidden by camp law, but what if its done to improve one’s situation? Is it then alright? Grey – who comes off as an evil character – has the single role of providing the opposite voice and of overseeing that the law is carried out – a policeman or judge in a sense.

As Clavell begins to develop questions about survival and the morality of our decisions associated with it, he creates this world in the POW camp which is seemingly far different from traditional views of a torturous, barbaric environment that POW camps are normally associated with. It’s not that its suddenly sunny, and everyone’s happy, but the POW camp begins to look like a kind of society – its own little town with its own way of functioning – the situation seems suddenly far more bearable. There is the occasional card game and the occasional theatre production and a far better mood in the camp than what I had originally envisioned. This made the book very interesting but had a double purpose as it also begins to provide alternate perspective on our society and the role we each play in it.

In the same way he asks how we would survive, what are the options we would choose, Clavell also asks as to the kind of person we are. Essentially, what role would we play. He presents images of law and order through Gray, and a higher authority through the Camp Commandant and the Japanese, and everything down to the commoners – the privates and infantry. This concept begins to amalgamate with the questions about survival and morality to contrast the real world – how do we respond to our obstacles and environment, and what kind of people do we become through that.

But I think Clavell finishes the book with a very interesting thought. As the rats beneath the camp break free and fight for supremacy, one always comes out on top – an all rounder of strength and cunning but most importantly the one most adaptive to his environment. What is the fall of the King in this book is that his position of power is usurped as the war finishes and people no longer need him, and he can no longer use them to his advantage. He could not adapt his skills or his ideas to the new environment. It is difficult to presume how his life turns out later, but he himself is resigned to a state of loss – he can no longer be the King.

Through an alternate, and very genuine view of POW camps stemming from Clavell’s own experience at a Singaporean one, this was, to me,  an enjoyable, well-written and extremely captivating book presenting ideas regarding the human ability to, and nature of the way its survives and also the kind of person we would be – leader or commoner – in these different environments in which we survive.

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