This year is the 40th anniversary of the Prague Spring, when Czechoslovakia—then controlled by the USSR—got a new president who ushered in a season of happy reform: Art and literature flourished, the press rediscovered its backbone, civic rights were restored. (Sound familiar?) The joy was fleeting. Eight months after it began, Brezhnev crushed the political and cultural flowering with Soviet tanks.
Writer Bohumil Hrabal—along with Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, and Josef Skvorecky—was one of the flowers of the Prague Spring. A famous smoker, drinker, and dirty-joke teller, Hrabal supposedly wrote his masterpiece, Closely Watched Trains, in his favorite local bar. (He died in 1997, when he fell from the fifth floor of a Prague hospital where he was supposedly trying to feed pigeons. Eerily, he often spoke and wrote about feeling tempted to jump from the window of his fifth-floor apartment.)
I Served the King of England, like many of his stories, is a coarse, gallows-humor picaresque about a wise simpleton who gets battered by the forces of Czech history—provincial narrow-mindedness, then the Nazis, then the Communists, and finally, provincial narrow-mindedness again. In the opening shot of this charming film adaptation, Jan Díte, the eternally impish protagonist, strolls out of prison and tells us: "I was sentenced to 15 years. But because of the amnesty, I only served 14 years and 9 months." The film moves backward and forward in time as Jan works as a waiter in fancy brothels and hotels and makes sweet, sweet love to a parade of beautiful young ladies. (Towheaded actor Ivan Barnev plays the amiable, scheming clown like a Czech Chaplin.)
Director Jirí Menzel throws in a bit of Czech surrealism—like when Jan's Nazi fling briefly turns into Hitler in bed—and keeps the picture bright and lively. The classic 1966 film adaptation of Closely Watched Trains captured Hrabal's sense of meaninglessness and pathos; I Served the King of England captures Hrabal's sense of fun.