The Man Who Would Be King is the unlikely, but fascinating, adventure (or misadventure) of two mischievous and scheming ex-British Army officers in late 19th century British India who go off into the wilderness in search of glory and fortune.
Co-starring Sean Connery as Caine’s bald and burly partner in mischief,this is one of those movies that over the years has carved a small but permanent and deep impression on film fans’ collective unconscious. It is one of those underrated, and in some quarters almost completely forgotten, gems of the 70s that really should have a bigger general profile.
I first saw it on TV as a kid in the late 70s, no doubt with my father, and no doubt slightly inappropriately (the content being just a little unsuitable for under-12s in places). Dubious parenting decisions aside, the film moved me and has stayed with me all these years. A fair few repeat viewings on TV down the line cemented it as a bona fide masterpiece for me, and now I’m very pleased to be getting an opportunity to revisit it. Having inexplicably never owned it until now, it’s been quite a while since I last saw it. Let’s see how it measures up to my rosy recollection.
Adapted from the Rudyard Kipling short story of the same name, this film version has a terrific pedigree. First and foremost, there was Captain Maltese Falcon himself, the great John Huston. Huston was also responsible for the screen adaptation (as was so often his wont) and found some very tidy ways of bringing the book to life on screen. Long time compadre, and cinematographer extraordinaire, Oswald Morris was also on board and there’s a suitably imperial, majestic and strident music score from Maurice Jarre. The rest of the production crew list reads like a who’s who of top flight, Hollywood production elite, including legendary costume designer Edith Head. I mean, who did the excellent matte paintings? Albert bloody Whitlock of course, who else? Whitlock’s credits include everything from the best of Hitchcock to John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s amazing how many of the biggest names from the 40s and 50s were still vital, relevant and producing great work in the 70s and beyond. In this respect The Man Who Would Be King represents a late career masterpiece for many of the creative team involved, including Huston himself.
And a masterpiece it most certainly is.
Along with Caine and Connery, there was a notable early turn from Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish, and Christopher Plummer as Kipling, who bookends the movie with a bedraggled and wretched ‘post-adventure’ Caine.
From a technical point of view, The Man Who Would Be King looks bloody marvellous. Any filmmaker who shoots locations like these and doesn’t choose a wide anamorphic ‘scope’ lens solution has got to be crazy. Huston and Morris weren’t crazy at all, of course, and knew exactly how to maximise the cinematic impact of their filming locations and squeeze every last drop of potential from just about every damn setup. It’s a real pleasure. Even more so when you realise that the film was shot in Morocco (political and logistical nightmares prevented filming in Kafiristan, now a remote part of Afghanistan).
Re-watching the movie on standard def DVD I was impressed with how vivid, detailed and visually sumptuous it looked. My word, it’s really impressive. Breathtaking in fact. Panavision and Technicolor earning their plaudits in fine style. Only a few composite shots that have had to pass several times through the optical printer suffer from that unavoidable second- and third-generation grain look by comparison.
[Note: By the way film nerds, I am fully aware that technically I shouldn’t use the term ‘scope’ to describe a movie shot in Panavision. I know, I know, strictly speaking it refers literally to Cinemascope lens systems, but I just don’t care. Just so you know; I’m gonna use the word scope whenever I talk about nice wide 235:1 or more, movies. Scope, scope, scope. Radical I know, but I think we can all handle it.]
Caine plays Peachy Carnehan and Connery is Daniel ‘Danny’ Dravot, both highly experienced ex-British Army officers who, despite their obvious shortcomings in other areas, have definitely ‘been there, seen it and done it’ and are very good at what they do. Disillusioned with life in India and not at all attracted to the prospect of returning to England, and the kind of drab normalcy they would find there, the chaps hatch a plan to travel out of India up through the Khyber Pass and make their way in to remote Kafiristan. Intending to find a village/tribe there and ingratiate themselves by teaching them superior British military tactics and skills, to ostensibly help said village conquer their local enemies– all the while gently pillaging and plundering of course.
The plan is somewhat sketchy and they go through all manner of trials and tribulations just to get to Kafiristan. Once they do, however, things begin to go well, particularly with the (rather too) fortuitous happening upon Billy Fish in the very first village they come across. In the book Billy Fish is a local chief, but the movie makes him a lost Queen’s own Gurkha who just happens to have taken up residence with this particular community. As such, Billy is naturally accepting of Peachy and Danny’s assumed authority (and supposed good intentions of course), and his eventual role as translator/functionary. In reality, this particular deviation from the book can look a little contrived. I mean, how handy is it that they meet Billy immediately – without whom, most, if not all, of their subsequent adventures and misadventures would not have been possible due to a complete inability to speak the lingo? That aside, Peachy and Danny gradually build a bigger and bigger following of amalgamated village soldiers and essentially begin working upstream with the endgame being to set themselves up for life as millionaires.
However, this is where things begin to unravel, as Danny takes an arrow to the chest in a battle, but pulls it out with no blood, and no ill effect. The assembled masses on both sides take this as a sign that Danny is not only immortal, but he is in fact Alexander the Great reborn (it’s a bit of a leap, but there you go). Although initially dismissive of the idea, Danny comes round when Peachy convinces him to accept his holy ascendance (as a means of facilitating their continued and growing success). This eventually brings them to the notice of the biggest and richest city in the area…and major trouble.
Things inevitably go awry after Danny has actually managed to ascend to the throne as god/king of the entire area. He begins getting delusions of grandeur and believing his own hype. It all goes terribly wrong and ‘King’ Danny is revealed to be merely human and ousted. In the ensuing chaos, Danny is killed, Billy Fish is torn apart by a mob and Peachy is crucified but survives to tell the fantastical story to Mr Kipling in the film’s bookend segments.
Watching the movie now with a significantly more synthesised and perhaps even revisionist historical sensibility than that of even 1975, there are aspects of our heroes that make it harder to like them (although we do). Peachy ejecting of the inoffensive and apologetic Indian gentleman from the moving train near the beginning is a good example. It is supposed to be comedic, and while one understands the humorous component, and we know said gentleman is alright because he’s apologetically thanking Peachy the whole time, even after he’s been shoved off the train; it is still jarring to see such an unprovoked act from one of our ‘heroes’. He’s physically throwing an innocent paying customer from the train simply for being Indian, as far as I can tell (although he is trying to pin his earlier theft of Kipling’s pocket-watch on the poor gent too). It’s certainly something Peachy would surely hesitate to do to a fellow Englishman. More serious is the film’s primary conceit which is that whole communities of people could be hoodwinked so easily into believing Danny is a god. The movie requires the viewer to accept that absolutely no-one ‘native’ has any kind of logical inquiring mind, or can figure out how Danny survives the arrow. Seriously? No-one can figure it out? Even Billy Fish, who was an educated Queen’s army Gurkha and has by now got to know our two fellows and their motives quite well, is surprised by the ‘revelation’ that it was in fact a fluke, and the arrow struck Danny’s thick leather ammo bandolier (conveniently hidden under an over-shirt for just that one battle).
I have to watch the movie with a sort of apologist stance then, by which I mean that while I like Danny and Peachy, warm to them and enjoy their characters immensely; I kind of feel that not only did they bring everything that happens to them on themselves, but that their actions are such that I can’t fully root for them, and don’t really feel too sorry for Danny when he dies (one feels more for Billy). I’m not 100% sure we, as the audience, are supposed to anyway. There is an ambiguity to Kipling’s drawing of the characters and his attitudes towards colonialism and the Empire in general that seems to support such a conclusion. Peachy and Danny, for instance, exhibit quite a specific bitterness about the Empire and the governing of India. You, dear reader may see it completely differently.
These misgivings aside, I still love this movie as much now as I did back in the day. Connery and Caine make a perfect double act and it’s great to see both men acting their asses off (sailing close to accusations of overacting at times). Neither of them were spring chickens in 1975, but there is a vitality to both men that is quite refreshing to see, particularly when compared to the more sedate versions of themselves they each inevitably became. In particular, Caine (barely into his 40s at the time) was at his belligerent and cheeky best and delivering line readings with real gusto. The only caveat to this is that his acting style in movies like this one (and notable others like Get Carter and The Italian Job), really do represent a large proportion of the much clichéd and parodied character elements/traits countless comedians have picked up on for years when doing their Caine impressions. It’s not the lines themselves, as this movie is not a heavily quoted one (it’s always Zulu and The Italian Job that provide the dialogue for comedic quotes). No, it’s just the immense attitude on constant level 11. Something in the way Caine delivers his part throughout the entire movie. It’s so distracting in places that you almost laugh. It would be unfair to do so though, as in the final analysis, the comedic parodies really only represent a veil one has to try and penetrate. That’s not to say I didn’t occasionally think of Paul Whitehouse’s excellent Michael Paine: Nosey Neighbour act while watching the movie. I did, but I tried really hard not to. Sorry fellow Caine fans, I just couldn’t help it. However, I thoroughly enjoyed his performance nonetheless, even if part of me was waiting for him to say something about throwing spears at him or blowing the bloody doors off.
Connery fares better, his performance containing less of the clichés he’s parodied so mercilessly for. He’s also on top cheeky form, sporting some truly epic sideboards on his chops and managing to be brilliantly as far from James Bond as he can be. It’s a very enjoyable performance, my favourite ‘non-Bond’ Connery role apart from maybe Highlander‘s Juan Sanchez Villalobos Ramirez! (You just can’t beat that one, you fat Spanish peacock!) Oh, and speaking of quotes, one of my favourite lines has to be from Peachy, delivered when our boys first make it down the mountains into Kafiristan and encounter Fish:
Billy Fish (talking about the chief): “He wants to know if you are gods?”
Peachy: “Not gods, Englishmen! Which is the next best thing.”
In the end then, I think The Man Who Would Be King is still a truly great film and certainly worthy of being called a masterpiece. Huston was a master filmmaker and proved it time and time again throughout his long and illustrious career. The film looks fabulous (would love to see a full HD transfer), is hugely enjoyable and has actually dated very well in almost all appreciable terms.
I’m not altogether sure, if this film was ever subject to the current trend and remade, it would still feature the train ejection scene in quite the same way or, if various other racial and cultural qualities would be drawn or highlighted the same way. I truly hope no-one ever bothers and that Huston’s film remains forever definitive and unique. It’s a pure classic and I would love it if, in some infinitesimally small way, this retrospective might help bring it to the attention of a few good folks who might enjoy it if they gave it a go.
I promise you’ll be impressed.