Presented as part of the British Empire in Film Blogathon.
“Dear me. Alas, by Jove.” John Huston’s 1975 movie The Man Who Would Be King is one of my most loved, most watched, all-time very favourite movies (as opposed to the hundreds of ordinary favourites I claim to have). It’s a buddy movie, one of the best adventure films ever, it’s about hubris, the corruption of power, it’s the Icarus tale, it’s nation building and mob rule, human nature, spirituality and friendship and bravery and tall tales, and most of all it’s fun and magical entertainment. During the British Empire’s time ruling India, good friends and fellow soldiers Peachy and Danny, played by Michael Caine and Sean Connery, are tired of cooking up small time cons, and increasingly feel like rogues and misfits in a world with too many rules and too little room for dreamers. They hatch the ambitious plan of conquering isolated and ancient Kafiristan, where they will rule for a time, unite the tribes, help themselves to whatever untold loot is bound to be there (plus some women, after their contract allows for it) and return. You know by the flashback structure that it won’t work, and as the story unfolds you learn they have the cheek to scoff at some silly Greek historical bloke named Alexander who was the last guy to try something this bold. Though you may, like Christopher Plummer (playing Rudyard Kipling, author of the source story), shake your head and laugh at their harebrained plan, they’re so likeable and charming you’d follow them anywhere and hope for their success. They trek up high into the mountains, almost die a couple times, impress the Kafiris with their Englishness and their guns, succeed in gaining power and even mythic stature, but one big ego causes the wheels to come off.
Peachy and Danny have sides that represent views of colonialism as motivated by greed and plunder, but their characters’ overall motivations and especially their portrayals are never malicious, which is a huge part of why the movie works so well. Along with the plunder they also want to live free from government and rules, and relive and share their glory days away from a military that thinks them too old, too bold and mischievous. Connery expresses an earnest and well-intended aim to improve and bring “enlightenment to darker regions.” When they gain power they do try to make peace between the tribes and bring them together and improve their lives the only way they know how. They’re disgusted by the uncivilized treatment of women and babies, the wanton beheadings and the habit of playing polo with those heads.
The good intentions get corrupted as the myth of Alexander the Great goes to Connery’s head. When he survives being hit by an arrow, and when he’s told the Kafiris consequently believe him to be Sikander, Alexander’s godlike son, Connery initially says pretending to be Sikander would be blasphemy. But he goes along for the sake of efficiency– it will make for speedy building of trust and loyalty. So he plays the part, takes the offerings, dons the robe and crown. Summoned to a high priest for test of immortality (i.e. getting stabbed) the act is halted after everyone sees Connery’s Masonic pendant, which matches iconography left by Alexander centuries ago (the level, square, plumb line, and all seeing eye of the even higher resident deity Imbra). All seems smooth until Connery gets pompous and power-mad. He begins settling disputes, issues dozens of proclamations (isn’t over-regulation something they wanted to get away from?) and starts lusting after Roxanne (Shakira Caine). Though superstition dictates that no god may have a mortal woman, Connery persists, until she proves to be his downfall. The men’s friendship starts to crack when Connery tells Caine to bow before him too, you know, for appearances. When Connery decides being Sikander is his destiny, Caine confronts both fantasy and arrogance in a great scene with super acting. Connery’s delusion erases all the warm and playful, even innocent bravado that came before it, and his eyes are filled with rage at Caine’s insolence: “ha! ha! pardon me while I fall down laughing!” Caine, ever the practical realist is no longer light and impish, but astonished and hurt at Connery’s breaking the contract–the one on paper and the one between friends. It all comes to a disastrous end as Connery is tricked into revealing his mortality and the two are chased down by a murderous mob.
In addition to the great acting by the leads (much of it improvised), you have fine supporting work by Plummer, who’s wonderful in every scene. His horrified, engrossed face as he listens to this whole story is chilling and unforgettable, as is the souvenir Caine leaves him before he disappears to “meet a man at Marwan station,” full circle to the start of the plot. It’s brilliant to write Rudyard Kipling into the story; he becomes the device through which the men are introduced, their plot conveyed and their very existence witnessed, making it more than just a tall tale, but an almost actual event related by a reporter. Saeed Jaffrey is fantastic as Billy Fish, whose stories about the powers of “Englishmans” precede Caine’s and Connery’s arrival and pave the way for their reception as “Heaven sent” deities. Jaffrey heroically gives his life in the end to try and help the men escape, single-handedly taking on the mob and being consumed by it. I also love the acting of Doghmi Larbi as the dimwitted but fiery tribal leader who goes from being fascinated by the men to defying their commands. He has that great battle scene where he cowers behind one of his men then gives a quick glance around to make sure nobody saw. He ends up taking part in a game of polo.
Huston planned to film in Afghanistan but that was prohibitively expensive so they shot in Morocco, and the scenery is grand and gorgeous, deep earthen and natural tones of all the seasons and ancient structures, dotted by colours of tribal gowns, costumes, gems and gold. The men are specks against this vast setting, and their expectations, their desire to improve is too large, far beyond them, because native beliefs run too deep and too contrary to their English sensibility. Huston shows us that clash in both serious moments and comical scenes, like Caine’s frustration at the troops who can’t grasp the concept of counting off to march and defy formation, or the line “she ain’t a wife, she’s a going concern,” about the man who profits in goats and cows from his wife’s numerous infidelities.
I love that scene of failure near the beginning, when they get trapped on a snowy mountain, ice bridges collapsed both ahead and behind. Believing themselves doomed, they try to keep warm in a cave while saying their goodbyes. As they reminiscence, their booming laughter starts an avalanche which creates a new bridge and way out. I always took that as a lesson that when things look worst, stay positive and maybe you’ll tease out whatever blessing might still be in disguise. Bravery and defiance in the face of danger is a recurring thing with them, the spine of their friendship and the key to their appeal: “bluff it out, polish our buttons and leather, stuff ramrods up our jacksies and look bold,” is solid advice for marching into many situations. In their last scene together, knowing their end is nigh, they start singing “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” (to the tune of The Minstrel Boy), while Connery is marched far onto a rope bridge which is then cut from from under him.
I love that business at the start with Caine stealing Plummer’s watch and then returning it out of respect for a fellow Mason. I love how Caine picks a scapegoat to toss off the moving train when he returns the watch (I would have done the same after the guy spit watermelon seeds on the floor). I love the scene where they’re agog at the immense treasures bestowed to Sikander; Connery holds up an absurdly huge ruby and Caine holds up another that’s five times bigger. I always puzzle at that strange ritual of the holy men of Sikandergul who travel everywhere with eyes closed so that they don’t “see the bad of the world,” thereby remaining ignorant of reality, and missing out on whatever beauty there is to be found everywhere. I love the bit in Plummer’s office where Caine and Connery strike and light each other’s matches.
Every time I watch this I try to imagine Gable and Bogart in these roles as was intended when Huston started planning the picture two decades earlier (casting ideas in the interim included Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Peter O’Toole). It may be fun to imagine how great The Man Who Would Be King might have been with other stars, but that’s taking nothing away from my love of this version. It’s a fabulous adventure with a warm and a cautionary message, brought to life by two perfectly cast actors with charisma and presence as large as the landscape the story is played out on, guided by the sure hand of John Huston, who directed all these forces in service of a timeless film that tells of the dreams of two friends set against the clashes between two ages and ambitions.