Alan Bates, who died in early December, was three things to me, all of them important parts of my education while I was in my 20s and 30s. For a few hours during a 1970 movie, he became a D.H. Lawrence that wasn’t a pencil-necked consumptive who got beaten up by his wife. That enabled me to read Lawrence’s great poetry with a deeper appreciation than I might have otherwise. When he played the erotically conflicted D.H. Lawrence character in the Ken Russell-directed film version of Lawrence’s great 1920 novel, Women In Love it wasn’t the homoerotic wrestling scene with Oliver Reed that galvanized me—that was more Reed’s great moment as an actor, and more or less his only one. Bates embodiment of Lawrence, most of whose novels I’d read by then, was thrilling because it made all those Lawrentian ideas about sexuality and nature a little more physically attractive, and thus possible to inhabit.
I liked Bates for playing the too-cerebral British writer in Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek, too, for slightly different reasons—for not trying to match Anthony Quinn’s over-the-top Zorba, and maybe, oddly, for not giving all the ground to Quinn’s character. Zorba the Greek, I find to my surprise, was made six years before Women in Love, in 1964, when I was 20 years old. I guess I first identified with Bates then, because I can remember sitting in the theatre thinking that the fucking old goat Zorba should get off his case, and was vaguely irritable in the months following the local showing of the movie whenever my friends started playing Greek music, drinking retszina and trying to pretend they were life forces and other goatish beings.
But the role I liked Bates for the most was that of Charles Plumpick in the 1967 movie, King of Hearts. The Philippe de Broca directed movie is about a Scottish private sent into a French town during the German withdrawl at the end of World War I to defuse a German bomb meant to destroy the town—and kill the advancing Allied soldiers. Plumpick’s only qualification for the job is that he speaks French, but he is sent in anyway, and finds the townspeople gone and the Germans withdrawing. When he’s spotted, he drops his rifle and hides in the local insane asylum, whose oblivious inmates are playing an elaborate—and ruleless—card game, which Blumpick joins, accidentally identifying himself as the King of Hearts.
When the Germans complete their withdrawl, the asylum inmates take over the empty town, free to enjoin the fantasy identities they’ve developed within the closed community of the asylum. Their brand of insanity turns out to be more civilized than anything being practiced by the rational communities contending for control around them: it is non-violent, wildly expressive, mutually indulgent and pragmatic within those terms—anyone can be whoever and whatever they imagine themselves to be. It is, in other words, paradise.
Bates’ Plumpick is no hero, nor even an accidental man of action. He has no idea where the bomb is, no idea how to defuse it, and he’s bewildered by the phantasmal community within which he finds himself King. He accidentally knocks himself cold during an encounter with the Germans, can’t convince his subjects to escape or even take him seriously, and only manages to defuse the bomb by a piece of physical slapstick. What he is able to do, almost despite himself, is to recognize the generosity and sweetness of the lunatics around him, eventually understanding that they make more sense than the communities he comes from. At the end of the movie, he joins the lunatics rather than return to the war.
He is, from start to finish, civilized and confused, which is about the best a citizen can aspire to—in that world, in the world of the 1960s (which was minutes from mutually-assured nuclear destruction when the movie was made) and today, where the triumph of the marketplace seems to promise a less violent but near as catastrophic a return to dog-eat-dog social Darwinism.
I can’t say Bates’ Plumpick became a role-model for me in the late 1960s, but I did park that him somewhere close to the root sequences of my being, along with Zorba’s straight-man and his embodiment of D.H. Lawrence. The three of them helped me to live with my confusion, and to feel comfortable rejecting the insane “normal” reality I was being asked to take for granted.
He’s still there today, which is, I suppose, the best sort of immortality an actor could hope for.
758 words (January 21, 2004)