Mental Illness and ‘King of Hearts’: A Rumination

King of Hearts Philippe de BroccaIt finally may be time for me to put away childish things.

The estimable editor of CURNBLOG, James Curnow, recently offered up on Twitter an intriguing hashtag, #7childhoodfilms, that generated a large number of responses from folks all over the Internet—including me. The aim was to cite films one liked in childhood and still revere today. I supplied some nostalgic selections, but one that I neglected to mention has become a quite an object of scrutiny for me in my old age.

That picture is King of Hearts (1966).

Ah yes, you may remember it well. A big hit on the art-house circuit in its day, a light, anti-war comedy directed by the underrated Philippe de Broca that featured a curious premise: During World War I, a town in France is evacuated by its residents escaping potential destruction, and the inmates of a nearby asylum take it over … and are discovered by the handsome, righteous Charles Plumpick (charmingly portrayed by the great actor Alan Bates), who finds, after spending a good deal of confused time with them, that they’re a lot more sane than the soldiers fighting against each other on both sides. The flick showcases a lilting score by Georges Delerue, a funny script and lovely cinematography, with the result being a delight that pleased me to no end as a kid, when I was largely unaware of the politics inherent in the movie’s structure.

Too bad I grew up … and realized the legacy of KoH is a lot more problematic than I remembered.

The foundation propping up my issues with the film has to do with its treatment of people with mental illness, which is extremely simplistic and perpetuates a condescending idea that they exhibit a naïve truth—that in reality, they’re much more aware than we are of the vices of society … and that somehow, they choose to remain in a different world. Even in a fantasy such as KoH, this is a disturbing generalization, and for a person who has struggled with mental illness (in my case, obsessive-compulsive disorder), such a perspective amounts to pure sophistry. Yes, this is a satire, a bit of celluloid froth, not meant to be taken seriously. Yet if the latter is true, why apply a non-bellicose message to the top? Why not craft the whole thing as, well, a joke?

Unfortunately, this sensibility isn’t relegated just to Le Roi de Coeur. Pictures ranging from The Snake Pit (1948) and Shock Corridor (1963) to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Dream Team (1989) have purported to paint credible pictures of these conditions—via realism or allegory—while falling well short of doing so … instead, they often present the afflicted individuals as changeable, able to bounce back and forth between sanity and instability, showing clear-headedness and natural desires in one instant and being completely closed off in another. But de Broca’s movie is most insidious, in that it paints these denizens as cute, cheerful, wacky and eccentric. They convey their insanity by imitating the town’s previous residents. You don’t see anyone defecating on themselves or fighting inner demons. They let all the animals out of their cages, sit with them, dress up in fine clothes and perform ceremonies. They’re really just like us.

If only such fallacies were avoided altogether.

Look, I’m not suggesting every flick documenting the lives of folks with mental illness has to emulate Marat/Sade (1967). That may be the other end of the spectrum and features issues in itself—specifically the stereotypical desire of many performers to play deranged characters by overacting. I’m just wondering if we could have a little more sensitivity when it comes to portrayals of mentally ill individuals on the silver screen. I would certainly welcome it. Wouldn’t you?

The question then becomes: What constitutes an “accurate” portrayal of a mentally ill person in the movies? Someone who is comatose? Someone who reacts violently to every word? Someone who engages in repetitive behaviors? There are many permutations of this ailment; they’re not all cookie-cutter. Should we adhere to some kind of template when creating films of this nature? Or would that be too restrictive?

My feeling is that better research is needed to supply believable characters that don’t succumb to stereotypes on one end or the other. It’s not enough for a performer to visit an institution and see how the other half lives. He or she needs to consult with professionals in the arena, examine scholarly articles and books on the subject, understand the maladies themselves, and then develop the requisite interpretations. A good thespian will turn out a performance that isn’t mannered or affected while communicating the right sensibility. This can be done. God knows we need more of it.

Does that mean I won’t have any misgivings when putting away childish things, such as KoH, into the back alleys of my memory? No, I think I’ll feel a little sad. Yet I know I can always draw on them for reference, as examples of an outlook from the past, no longer adhered to or regarded as anything but an obsolete ideology. Because no matter what, the depiction of individuals with mental illness onscreen has got to change, and I must change with it. Only then will I be able to put away those things with pride, as well as without regret.

As an avid lover of the cinema and one who suffers from OCD, it’s the very least I can do.


Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse ( that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

5 thoughts on “Mental Illness and ‘King of Hearts’: A Rumination

  1. Thank you for this post. I loved KING OF HEARTS also. But I have been hospitalized because of bipolar disorder as well as in outpatient programs. KING OF HEARTS perpetuates the kind of mythologies that keep ALL of society mentally compromised because most of us don’t know that EVERYONE has mental health.

  2. I went to a lecture given by a psychiatrist (among the most passionate of all film fans in my experience) who offered the flip side of this analysis. He chronicled the simplistic and usually inaccurate manner in which mental health professional are often portrayed in movies. They are either well-meaning dolts, territorial pett traits, or at worst, actually malevolent characters using their position to foster evil. I don’t begrudge any dramatist the occasional exaggeration – that’s what drama often does best. But you would think there is enough drama inherent in the realistic battles of those with mental illness and those who treat them to generate some pretty good drama without resorting to inaccurate and exaggerated stereotypes. Have you found movies that deal with this issue more to your liking?

  3. I absolutely agree. The “Elwood P Dowd” model of mental illness as something fun and exciting give a completely inaccurate picture. Mental illness does not expand my world, it contracts it. I am able to function exactly to the extent that I am able to overcome my mental illness. After years of therapy I can do most things that other people can do, but I still have constraints. Being crazy–the serious kind of crazy where you have to be locked up to keep from hurting people–is both painful and boring.

  4. I haven’t seen KOH as yet. However, I am with you on the portrayla of mental illness in films. Having experienced frequent contact with mentally ill people during all my years as an EMT in London, I can think of few films that really capture that unease. I have some time for ‘Repulsion’, but I suspect that is mainly associated with Deneuve. For an unusual example of what ‘everyday’ depression can do to someone, I would suggest that ‘Woman in a dressing gown’ (1957) comes very close.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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