THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
Somewhere in the exotic India of the Raj days, an erudite gentleman sits at his desk writing. He is disturbed by a figure in the shadows who drags himself slowly into the light, revealing a horrifically-scarred face. To the writer’s bemusement, the man rasps: “I’ve come back…” He recalls a contract made in this very office so many years ago – one that would set out the terms before a most incredible undertaking. In shock, the writer suddenly recognises the man. “Carnahan”, he gasps…
In 1975, the release of JAWS changed the movie landscape for ever, ushering in a new wave of blockbusters and creating the phenomenon of the summer ‘tent-pole’ film that would build the studio year around increasingly FX-driven movies. Yet while a new generation took over - dubbed the ‘Movie Brats’ (Spielberg, De Palma, Scorcese, Lucas) - there was still room for a good old-fashioned traditional solid Hollywood epic still driven by story, character and practical effect set-pieces all filmed for real. One such crowd-pleaser was acclaimed old-school director John Huston’s film of Rudyard Kipling’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.
Huston had planned to make this period action-adventure romp far enough back to have starred Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as the loveable con-men Peachy Carnahan and Daniel Dravot, but their deaths meant the project was shelved. Later, it was to be attempted with two other classic Hollywood real-life friends: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and even Burton and O’Toole (Huston being one of the few directors who could have handled the latter two hell-raisers). Finally, his ideal duo was found courtesy of Newman and Redford, another wonderful 1970s buddy-buddy pairing. Newman rightly felt that the old-world Britishness of the material (co-written by Huston and Gladys Hill) could only be done justice by actors from that world. This led to such a perfect combination that it’s hard to think of anyone else in the roles.
Michael Caine as Peachy and Sean Connery as Daniel were both at the height of their box-office appeal and the vital chemistry that the film hinges on came ready-made from their great friendship in real life. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is the kind of Boy’s Own tale of derring-do that really captures the imagination. It centres on Peachy and Danny under-taking the ultimate adventure for con artists, that of taking a kingdom and its riches by cunning and, to be fair, not entirely self-serving use of their ex-military skill - but that’s getting ahead of ourselves…
We mustn’t forget the pleasure of the whole story unfolding, beginning with Peachy’s reunion with Kipling as mentioned at the start. It’s a marvellous opening to the confident story-telling throughout, reeling us in with many questions and an immediate desire to hear what brought these men to their present. Christopher Plummer is an ideal Kipling, possessed of warmth and an indulgent twinkle of fondness toward these two scallywags. Caine is introduced to us with a roguish charm. He’s a quick-witted, cheeky chancer who knows how to parlay his Masonic membership “for the sake of a widow’s son” for all it’s worth to link him up with Connery, the more gruff and domineering of the two but lacking Peachy’s guile. These genial con-men are performances of huge charm and brashness AND BOTH Caine and Connery retain their natural accents to increase the snug fit of the parts. A signature famous scene is their entertainingly belligerent defence before the government official on a charge of impersonating Kipling’s credentials. After both men march in military-style, Caine produces the blackmail card they hold then loudly quashes the patronising official’s attempted besmirching of their names: “May I remind you it was ‘detriments’ like us what built the bloody empire!” before drilling themselves triumphantly out.
Peachy and Danny ask Kipling to witness their signed agreement that details the sharing of treasure and abstinence from women and liquor before they venture to far off Kafiristan: “We are not little men so we are going away to be kings”. They plan to offer their mercenary services to warring tribesmen, building selected ones up as puppet leaders, before subverting them so they can install themselves as rulers and loot the kingdoms. Kipling laughs at their grandiose scheming but wishes them well.
Once in the remote Kafiristan, after a dicey snow-bound trek, Peachy and Danny find themselves plunged straight into inter-village skirmishes. They are aided though by the unlikely appearance of an Indian who speaks English. This is the memorable Saeed Jaffrey, the recently-deceased distinguished British/Bollywood actor giving one of his most memorable roles as ‘Billy Fish’, Gurkha and invaluable translator of languages and culture to the boys. He injects an extra enthusiasm and knowledge peppered with quirky Raj-influenced anglicisms such as ‘Alas, by Jove’.
Through Billy, the Englishmen begin their campaign by assisting the cowardly thug leader Ootah with his local tribal conflicts against the neighbouring Bashkai, flattering him with their desire only to serve him. Peachy drills his hopeless rabble into a fighting force in a funny scene of un-coordinated exasperation. The resulting battle gives rise to another striking sequence where the entire battlefield of men abruptly and silently prostrate themselves before a crossing line of priests. They belong to Sikhander Gul, the Holy City and signal a turning point in the boys’ fortunes when a stray arrow caught by Danny’s bandolier is mistaken for him having the immortality of a God. This accelerates their plans when the high priests summon him to be verified in the Holy City, leading to a second stroke of luck courtesy of Masonry when his lodge pendant is judged to be proof that he is the coming of the fabled son of Sikhander(Alexander the Great).
From this point, Danny and Peachy find their wildest dreams have come true – but an ancient horde of priceless treasure and the unquestioning loyalty of a kingdom corrupts weak mortal men. Whereas Peachy is smart enough to want to leave in the spring while their luck holds, Danny gradually becomes fatally seduced by his position. He assumes a Solomon-like pose of wisdom in his dispensing of justice to the villagers and requests that even Peachy bows to him in public. He develops such delusions of grandeur that he views his entire life as fated to lead him here: “You call it luck. I call it destiny”. Despite the protestations of his old friend and the blasphemy accusations of the priests, he decrees he will take an earthly wife. (This turns out to be Michael Caine’s real-life wife, the beautiful Shakira Caine). It not only breaks Danny’s side of their pact, but seals their doom when she resists his advances with a cheek bite in the ceremony that reveals his mortal vulnerability. The men flee for their lives, loyally backed by Billy Fish who bravely sacrifices himself with swashbuckling sword to the vengeful crowd enveloping him.
As the incensed Kafiris descend on them, Peachy and Danny touchingly reaffirm their friendship, the strongest theme in the film. Danny asks his friend sincerely to forgive him “On account of being so bleedin’ high and bloody mighty”. Equally poignantly, Peachy does so instantly and unquestioningly. He is forced to watch his friend walk the rope bridge and have it cut from under him as he lustily sings a brave anthem falling to his death.
When Peachy completes his story in Kipling’s office, by way of proof of their unbelievable adventure, he leaves a memento that he kept with him all the way through his homeward ordeal. It is the crowned skull of his best friend who truly had become King of Kafiristan – an enduring testament not just to vanity and greed but to brotherhood and lives burned brightly…
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is a perfect Sunday afternoon escapist thrill-ride, a captivating tale enriched by terrific performances all round and spectacular sets of epic scale in the days before CGI.