Saturday, May 2, 2015

King Rat
Format: VHS Tape
There are many mysteries of the universe that I have yet to unravel. One of the most puzzling is the lack of recognition usually given to King Rat. I consider this film among the top twenty of all time. Alas, few people are even aware of its existence. The Director Bryan Forbes should have least received an Academy Award nomination. George Segal is brilliant as the amoral prisoner of war camp manipulator who is indifferent to the suffering of his fellow comrades. He is charmingly personable, highly intelligent, and utterly selfish. A mere corporal in rank, the King Rat often tells officers what to do. We view the day to day lives of these allied military combatants interned by the Japanese during World War II. Avoiding starvation is a daily challenge. Retaining one's moral decency and sanity is near impossible. The captured soldiers perceive little reason to exhibit physical courage, and are seemingly content to wait out the end of the war. They are many miles behind enemy lines, and escape seems pointless.
King Rat is difficult to watch. This is not a message film. Novelist James Clavel's purpose is not to particularly provide any deep existential insights pertaining to life and death. There are instances of compassion and altruistic warmth, but these men at least subconsciously realize that the death of a buddy increases the chances of their own survival. They will then have more food to eat and clothes to put on their backs.
A number of the fine actors who fill out the cast include Patrick O'Neal, James Fox, John Mills, and Tom Courtenay. I consider King Rat to be a better film than the far more famous "Bridge on the River Kwai." Will you also agree with my assessment? Perhaps not, but I do think that it's a safe bet you will find King Rat to be worthy of your time and interest.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel opens in early 1945. Peter Marlowe, a young British RAF Flight Lieutenant, has been a P.O.W. since 1942. Marlowe comes to the attention of the "King", an American corporal who has become the most successful trader and black marketeer in Changi, when the King sees him conversing in Malay. Marlowe's languages, intelligence, honesty and winning personality cause the King to befriend him and attempt to involve him in black market deals, which bring Marlowe to the attention of Robin Grey, a British officer and Provost Marshal of the camp, who has developed a Javert-like obsession with the King and hopes to arrest him for violating camp regulations. Grey is attempting to maintain military discipline among the prisoners and sees the King as the antithesis of his beliefs. As the son of a working-class family, Grey follows the rules for their own sake using his position as Provost Marshal to gain a status otherwise unavailable to him in British society.
Despite being an enlisted man and without distinction in civilian life, the King has become a major power in the closed society of the P.O.W. camp through his charisma and intelligence. Trading with Korean guards, local Malay villagers and other prisoners for food, clothing, information and what few luxuries are available, the King keeps himself and his fellow American prisoners alive. Senior officers come to him for help in selling their valuables to buy food and other officers are secretly on his payroll. Marlowe is initially put off by the King's perspective and behavior, which are at odds with the British upper class ideals he has been taught. He turns down a lucrative business partnership with the King because "Marlowes aren't tradesmen. It just isn't done, old boy." Marlowe soon understands that the King is not the thief and con artist that Grey would have him believe. Rather, the King asks for the best of each man and rewards him accordingly, irrespective of class or position.
Through the experiences of Marlowe, the King and other characters, the novel offers a vivid, often disturbing portrayal of men brought to the edge of survival by a brutal environment. The P.O.Ws are given nothing by the Japanese other than filthy huts to live in and the bare minimum of food. Officers from various parts of Britain's Asian empire, accustomed to having native servants provide them with freshly laundered uniforms daily, are 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 almost no medical care is available. Some are degraded and come close to losing their humanity, while others display courage and compassion beyond anything one would expect. Some literally steal food out the mouths of their comrades, while others give away what they have or take terrible risks to help their friends.
Rats are bred for food, and in the end are abandoned in their cages when the camp is liberated. The final scene shows the rats consuming each other one by one, with the final survivor being "king of the rats."

Characters in "King Rat"[edit]

  • The King: an American corporal; at the end of the novel he is sent back to the United States under an impending investigation for illegal profiteering in a prison camp, and is never seen again by Marlowe
  • Peter Marlowe: the protagonist, a young British fighter pilot who later becomes an author; based on James Clavell
  • Robin Grey: an older British officer.
Two characters from King Rat also appear in Noble House (published 1981), a novel set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, when Marlowe is a writer visiting Hong Kong to do research on the great British trading companies there. Grey, embittered by his failure to obtain a commission in the postwar British Army despite his suffering during the war, has become a radical socialist Member of Parliament and is also in Hong Kong on an official visit. Unknown to Marlowe, Grey has become a secret Communist and a Soviet agent who tries to thwart efforts to improve relations between China and the West.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

film adaptation was released in 1965, the first of several of Clavell's novels to be so adapted. The character of the King was altered to Clavell's dismay, to make him more "understandable" to an American audience.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. Jump up^ Kevin Blackburn (2000). "Commemorating and commodifying the prisoner of war experience in south-east Asia: The creation of Changi Prison Museum"Journal of the Australian War Memorial (33). Retrieved 2007-01-26.

King Rat (Clavell novel)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from King Rat (1962 novel))
This article is about the 1962 James Clavell novel. For the 1998 China Miéville novel, see King Rat (Miéville novel).
King Rat

1st Edition hardback
AuthorJames Clavell
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesAsian Saga
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company(USA) and Martin Joseph (UK)
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback and Paperback)
Preceded byGai-Jin
Followed byNoble House
King Rat is a 1962 novel by James Clavell. Set during World War II, Clavell's literary debut describes the struggle for survival of British, Australian, Dutch, New Zealand and American prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore—a description informed by Clavell's own three-year experience as a prisoner in the notorious Changi Prison camp. One of the major characters, Peter Marlowe, is based upon Clavell's younger self.
Despite its fearsome reputation, Changi was among the better-run Japanese camps, with only 850 deaths among the 87,000 prisoners who passed through.[1]
King Rat was the first book published of Clavell's sweeping series, the Asian Saga, and the fourth chronologically. Two characters from King Rat also appear in Noble House.
For educators, it is useful to understand Shogun if only because
so many people have read it. Based on our own experience, anywhere
from one-fifth to one-half of all students who currently enroll
in college-level courses about Japan have already read Sh􀇀gun, and
not a few of these have become interested in Japan because of it.
With over six million copies of Sh􀇀gun in print (and more sure to
follow after the television series), it would appear that the American
consciousness of Japan has grown by a quantum leap because
of this one book. In sheer quantity, Sh􀇀gun has probably conveyed
more information about Japan to more people than all the combined
writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the
Pacific War. At the very least, an understanding of Sh􀇀gun may
help those of us involved in education about Japan to better understand
our audience
In the subtitle “Japanese History and Western Fantasy,” we are
drawing attention to two different aspects of “learning from
Sh􀇀gun.” Our approach to fantasy in Sh􀇀gun is essentially anthropological,
viewing the novel as a contemporary American phenomenon;
in Chapters 2 and 3, David Plath and Elgin Heinz explore
some of the theoretical issues involved. We emphasize that we intend
nothing derogatory in our use of the word “fantasy.” After all, a
fertile imagination is an indispensable component of the historical
mind, whether that of a novelist like James Clavell or that of academic
scholars like ourselves: how else can we gain real understanding
of people in different times, or of different cultures? The real
task is to recognize, analyze, and reflect upon our imaginative projections
into the past.
With Chapter 4, the emphasis shifts from the anthropological to
the historical, and to the specific problem of learning about Japan
(and, for comparison, England) in the year 1600. This places us
squarely in an era of Japanese history unsurpassed for sheer human
drama. The period of Sh􀇀gun is rich in all the staples of history in
the old-fashioned, popular sense: constant warfare, delicate diplomacy,
colorful characters, political intrigue, and religious fervor. Of
particular importance for comparative purposes is the extensively
documented contact between Japan and the West in those years. In
detailing the correlation between the fictional world of Sh􀇀gun and
the historical reality of the time (to the limited extent that we understand
it), we have not intended to criticize James Clavell but rather
to lead interested readers into an historical “reality” which can be
every bit as fascinating as “fiction.”

Finally, we should mention that we have not attempted any
explicit approach to Sh􀇀gun as literature, since we were interested
primarily in what the novel had to suggest about cross-cultural learning
and historical change. We certainly recognize, however, that
Sh􀇀gun is a work of fiction, and those tempted to be disparaging
might refresh themselves with a reading of Prince Genji’s famous
defense of the art of fiction in The Tale of Genji (c. A.D. 1000):

If it weren’t for old romances like this, how on earth would you get through
these long tedious days when time moves so slowly? And besides, 1 realize
that many of these works, full of fabrications though they are, do succeed in
evoking the emotion of things in a most realistic way. One event follows
plausibly on another, and in the end we cannot help being moved by the
story, even though we know what foolishness it all really is. Thus, when we
read about the ordeals of some delightful princess in a romance, we may find
ourselves actually entering into the poor girl’s feelings. (Ivan Morris, The
World of the Shining Prince, p. 315)

We have also tried to bear in mind Genji’s further observation that
the author of fiction “certainly does not write about specific people,
recording all the actual circumstances of their lives. Rather it is
a matter of his being so moved by things, good or bad, which he
has heard and seen happening to men and women that he cannot
keep it to himself but wants to commit it to writing and make it
known to other people.”
Finally, we promised James Clavell that he could have the last
word: when our conversation with him in May 1980 turned to the
question of how he could so vividly portray what happened in
Japan in the year 1600, he said, “You can say whatever you like,
but in the end you should say: he must have been there!”

Although this book was written in anticipation of the television
adaptation of Sh􀇀gun scheduled for September 1980, we have
addressed ourselves to the novel alone. Even though we were able
to see a filmscript of the TV series through the courtesy of Paramount
Studios, we were not able to preview the film series itself. In
any event, it has been our feeling that only the novel is appropriate
for learning purposes, since it is (to use one of James Clavell’s
favorite words) “finite”: it is cheap, portable, and easily available.
Most of what we say about the novel will apply to the film; we have
made note of obvious exceptions.
The image of Japan as topsy-turvydom in fact was first widely
purveyed by the European visitors in the era of Sh􀇀gun. A prime
example is a tract by Jesuit chronicler Luis Frois, Contradictions
and Differences of Custom Between the People of Europe and This
Province of Japan (1585), an entertaining (and often perceptive)
catalog of all the particulars in which Japan is a civilization in
reverse, ranging from religious forms (“Our churches are high and
narrow; the Japanese temples are broad and low”) to matters of
intimate hygiene (“We pick our noses with our thumb or index fingers;
the Japanese use their little finger”). The theme of reversal
was promptly revived in the mid-nineteenth century when contact
with Japan was resumed. The leading British diplomat of the time,
for example, explains that “Japan is essentially a country of paradoxes
and anomalies, where all, even familiar things, put on new
faces, and are curiously reversed. Except that they do not walk on
their heads instead of their feet, there are few things in which they
do not seem, by some occult law, to have been impelled in a perfectly
opposite direction and a reversed order.(Sir Rutherford
Alcock, The Capital of the Tycoon [1863], I, 357).
We shouldn’t swallow such statements whole,of course. In
dozens of little particulars, life in Japan does not look at all lefthanded.
But in the case of Clavell, it is not a matter of some “occult
law”: he is exaggerating for a purpose. Like an anthropologist—or
a Utopian novelist—he accents what is different about the society
he is describing in order to define and even question our own
myths. Clavell may claim to be “just” a storyteller, but Sh􀇀gun is a
story wrapped around a sermon.
Blackthorne is, indeed, the great WASP explorer, tough, clever,
full of get-up-and-go. The personification of aggressive European
expansion, he has come to The Japans for trade and material treasure,
a knight of early capitalism. But we soon find out that he is a
true knight after all, a man tender-hearted as well as tough. He has
a streak of poetry in him, a romantic side, a spiritual hunger. And
that spiritual hunger has not been adequately nourished in Europe.
Certainly not by what the Christian church has to offer. Blackthorne
despises the clergy two times over: once for getting to the
Far East before he did and a second time on general principle. He
himself is a skeptic, the cool-thinking master of modern technology
and science. He is capable of being skeptical even about the myths
that are the base of his own way of life.
Blackthorne arrives in Jawpen with a kind of “reading
readiness.” Shown the book of life from his cultural opposite, he
soon is studying its pages on his own, eager to decipher them. For
he realizes that this upside-down world is not just a fun house. Yes,
at times he does act like a kid at an amusement park: sampling new
foods, hot baths, and massages, playing house with Mariko. But in
Jawpen Blackthorne is no longer certain that he knows which
values of life are “backward” after all. He has to accept the fact
that in this country he is the BEM: a backward European male.

If he is going to overcome his developmental disadvantages and
be mainstreamed into local society, then he must take its myths
deep into the core of his being. To accomplish that, he must be deprogrammed
by ordeal, for only then can he be born again as a
samurai and finally reach the goal that author Clavell sent him to
find: an understanding of the error in Western ways. As Blackthorne
explains to his hostesses, “We’re taught to be ashamed of
our bodies and pillowing and nakedness and . . . and all sorts of
stupidities. It’s only being here that’s made me realize it. Now that
I’m a little civilized I know better” (p. 696).
Blackthorne doesn’t have much trouble when it comes to making
sense of the larger operations of Jawpenese society. True, the
natives have to coach him with regard to peculiarities in the political
system and its daimyo rivalries. But the daimyo are men on the
make who behave about the same as calculating princes and bishops
and power brokers that Blackthorne has known in other parts
of the world. What he can’t so readily grasp is the moral geometry,
the myths that motivate people in their ordinary everyday relations
with one another. Here, too, Rodrigues summarizes the situation
for him: “All Jappos are different from us—they don’t feel pain or
cold like us—but samurai are even worse. They fear nothing, least of all death.” And in addition, “Jesu Madonna, the women are 25
something else, though, a different species, Ingeles, nothing on
earth like them” (p. 140)
But learning to live by an opposite moral geometry is not something
you can do in the classroom, or by quiet study. The natives of
Jawpen seem amazingly eager to serve as Blackthorne’s tutors, and
are forever giving him lessons. But like any child he has to learn
some of the hardest lessons by experience. The hardest lessons,
expectably enough, have to do with myths about love, death, and
loyalty—central issues for any philosophy.

God help me, I’m so mixed up. Part Eastern now, mostly Western.
I’ve got to act like them and think like them to stay alive. And much
of what they believe is so much better than our way that it’s tempting
to want to become one of them totally, and yet. . . home is
there, across the sea, where my ancestors were birthed, where my
family lives, Felicity and Tudor and Elizabeth. Neh?
Sh􀇀gun, pp. 718-9
The common recognition that societies, like individuals, both
teach and learn from each other is a recent one. Indeed, it has been
suggested that perhaps the most important fact about the twentieth
century is that, for the first time in history, people of the world
have had to take seriously one another’s actions and beliefs. Such
recent phenomena as gas lines and flotillas of refugees have dramatically
brought this lesson home to Americans, a people who
have traditionally taken pride in being self-sufficient shapers of
world events, not passive respondents to circumstances beyond our
control. In contrast, Japan has long since realized the reality of
interdependence and the value of lessons learned from others.
level when two cultural traditions have been thrust together by the
forces of history. It does so in a spell-binding, personal way by
making issues of cross-cultural contact and conflict come alive as
no textbook could do.
The lesson of knowing the self and one’s cultural “baggage”
only when confronted with a different way of perceiving the world
is also compellingly brought home by Sh􀇀gun. This further underlines
the value of having students read the novel and watch the TV
dramatization. Despite historical anachronisms and inaccuracies,
Blackthorne’s world is a fascinating telescope through which students
may see themselves as well as the Age of Discovery, when the
global world first came into clear focus.
Consider two instances. In Blackthorne’s philosophy, God and
mankind are fundamentally different orders of being. Every person
owes his or her first loyalty to God; all persons, under God, are
equal in that they all deserve God’s mercy and mankind’s charity.
Toranaga laughs at this Christian conscience that wants to treat all
souls as equal, that refuses to discriminate among persons. And
Mariko adds that until Blackthorne can shuck off this conscience
he will be “defenseless as a doll” (p. 576) in Jawpen. For in this
country there is no gulf between God and mankind, and all people
are not to be treated the same. You owe loyalty to your lord and
your family; other people can fend for themselves. Only those few
who are personally tied to you can be trusted. The rest of mankind
needs to be approached like a pit of vipers, and trust here is childish.
To John Blackthorne the idea that a man should offer a godlike
loyalty to another man is blasphemy. He can accept it only
after he first has desecrated his Christian values by attempting to
take his own life—symbolically, that is, burying his Christian
Consider two instances. In Blackthorne’s philosophy, God and
mankind are fundamentally different orders of being. Every person
owes his or her first loyalty to God; all persons, under God, are
equal in that they all deserve God’s mercy and mankind’s charity.
Toranaga laughs at this Christian conscience that wants to treat all
souls as equal, that refuses to discriminate among persons. And
Mariko adds that until Blackthorne can shuck off this conscience
he will be “defenseless as a doll” (p. 576) in Jawpen. For in this
country there is no gulf between God and mankind, and all people
are not to be treated the same. You owe loyalty to your lord and
your family; other people can fend for themselves. Only those few
who are personally tied to you can be trusted. The rest of mankind
needs to be approached like a pit of vipers, and trust here is childish.
To John Blackthorne the idea that a man should offer a godlike
loyalty to another man is blasphemy. He can accept it only
after he first has desecrated his Christian values by attempting to
take his own life—symbolically, that is, burying his Christian
On the other hand, Blackthorne takes much more easily to the
idea that sex can be guilt-free. In his philosophy there was a chasm
between body and soul, the soul belonging to God and the flesh
being a burden that one endures but does not try to enjoy. But in
Jawpen no wall separates soul from body, and there is no virtue to
be gained from abstaining from physical pleasures. Indeed, people
who are close to one another should help their partners into joy.
This is almost an obligation between pillow partners. Blackthorne
has to mull over this idea for a while, but soon he is taking it up
with gusto: one would think that he had just invented the wheel.
As I add up the cultural lessons that John Blackthorne learns in
Jawpen, he begins to look less and less like an Elizabethan who
went to the other side of the world in 1600, and more and more like
an American who fell into a time-reverse warp about the year 1970.
He is solidly within the great parade of rugged WASP adventure
heroes, from the knights of Camelot to Captain Kirk of Star Trek.
But he probably is the only man in that whole parade who shuffles
along being uncertain about his cultural roots, and who is ready to
trade them in for a new issue.
Blackthorne pilots us into an attractive civilization but one that is
more attractive to us than it would be, I suspect, to Shakespeare
and his contemporaries. We are the ones who are troubled about
living by myths that seem not to help us face death with composure,
that make too much mystery out of human sexuality, that set us too
far apart from nature, that do not ease our feeling of being dwarfed
by towering and inscrutable technologies and bureaucracies. When
we are in Jawpen we seem to have gotten to a place where there are
better answers to these problems. And perhaps in time we can continue
the journey beyond Jawpen. Perhaps Blackthorne or one of
his descendants will pilot us back across the Pacific and land us in
Amourica, the land we want God to bless so that we can love.

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