The Man Who Would Be King
John Huston spent more than two decades trying to get Kipling’s tale made, first with Bogart and Gable, then with Lancaster and Douglas, before Paul Newman (Huston had seized on the idea of Newman and Redford, no doubt impressed by Butch and Sundance) suggested Caine and Connery. And it’s difficult to conceive of a better combination; really this does deserve the accolade of the all-time best “buddy” movie. The chemistry between the two is vibrant and, as it’s their friendship that endears the audience to them in spite of their many less admirable traits, vital to the success of the film.
The themes of imperialism and values of Freemasonry, both dear to Kipling, are foregrounded throughout but Huston’s presentation of the story is self-aware and thematically dense. It’s something of a rarity to see Freemasonry’s presence in a film where it is not criticised, even blamed for a full-blown conspiracy to rule the world, but here the warmth the author feels towards the Order carries over into the camaraderie between the two ex-soldiers. If not for their roguishness, one might see it as unreserved promotional material.
Kipling’s story, however consciously, concerns the imperialist impulse misused. There is no idealism in Danny and Peachy’s quest for dominion over Kafirstan, so the author’s less palatable views are shielded by a cautionary tale of greed and hubris.
Danny: In any place where they fight, a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find, “D’you want to vanquish your foes?’ and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dynasty.
This is, in part, what the two achieve. Except that being a god isn’t the same thing as being a king, and the plan agreed between the two of them (they will leave Kafirstan in four months with their treasure, when the weather has turned) is ultimately rejected by Danny.
Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan are amoral and thoroughly unscrupulous, and in no doubt of their superiority to others. They are both disrespectful towards their English superiors and dismissive and shrewdly manipulative of the “heathens” they encounter.
Danny: Detriments you call us? Detriments? Well I want to remind you that it was detriments like us that built this bloody Empire AND the Izzat of the bloody Raj.
Because they are from the lower classes they are enabled a degree of cynicism about their role and function as part of the British Empire, but there is never any doubt that they identify themselves as British; it is a badge of pride as much as belonging to the Brotherhood (“Not gods – Englishmen, the next best thing”, they announce early on). They are seized by an adventuring spirit, and a sense of pride. The fate of an ex-soldier, wearing “a porter’s uniform outside a restaurant and six penny tips from belching civilians for closing doors on their blowsy women” is not for them.
Unlike Plummer’s Kipling (“Once a Mason, always a Mason”), they use their membership to turn circumstances to their advantage (“Ow was I to know you were a Mason?” asks Peachy, having returned Kipling’s stolen watch). Freemasonry’s roots are emphasised as aged and honourable. King Solomon’s Temple is name-checked but, more significantly to the narrative, Alexander the Great (Sikander) was a practiser. He brought this wisdom to Kafirstan, and it is the recognition of the common Masonic symbol that saves Danny from being shot with an arrow to prove his godhood.
The duo also lack any romantic notions of the army that has made them who they are (“When we’ve done with you, you’ll be able to stand up and slaughter your enemies – like civilised men“).
Danny: You are going to become soldiers. A soldier does not think. He only obeys. Do you really think that if a soldier thought twice he’d give his life for queen and country? Not bloody likely.
But they do follow a sworn code in their mission (to make themselves kings in a foreign land, and to abstain from women and liquor until they have succeeded) and it is the breaking of it that results in their downfall.
While Huston’s film tackles some grand themes, it can’t be understated just how funny The Man Who Would Be King is. The dialogue can only do so much, and it’s as much about the spark between Caine and Connery. Their hilarity in recounting the story of Pipe Major McCrimmon’ pursuit of his sporran is infectious, masterfully positioned at a point in the tale when they are facing certain death. Their attitude to the native population cycles through pretence of respect to mock outrage to genuine horror, such is the dangerous game they are playing.
Billy Fish: All town comes out and pisses downstream when we go bathing.
The riffing on “Different countries, different customs” makes a neat underlining of the lengths they are willing to go to for their prize; they are only non-judgemental as far as it suits their purposes. Peachy pushing the watermelon-eating Indian out of the train carriage where he meets Kipling informs us of this early on.
Apparently, Caine was criticised for playing too broad when the film first came out. I could see that argument if it had the effect of undermining the drama, but Caine calibrates his performance with an acute awareness of what the story requires and where. All the performances are quire broad, in truth, but this is never at the cost of verisimilitude.
Peachy is the more loquacious of the two in the first instance, and as such Danny is something of the straight man – particularly once the latter has been deified and is issuing edicts. But his concern over Danny’s increasing identification with his make-believe status is subtly played (“You ought to bow before me” advises Danny, strictly for appearances of course). Danny envisages meeting Queen Victoria as an equal. And Peachy’s alarm at Danny’s blinkered belief that he can make a fist of things in his venerated state (“You call it luck. I call it destiny”, says Danny), as unsettling cries are heard from without, creates a palpable shift in tone.
It’s appropriate that, hoisted by the presumption of their own cleverness, they (or rather, Danny) should slip up due to an inability to sustain the simple logic of their deceit. The pronouncement of being a god becomes merely a stay of execution, as the priesthood reacts badly to Danny’s announcement that he will marry Roxanne; a god cannot lie with a woman, they tell him. Even if Roxanne hadn’t scratched him and drawn blood (distraught that carnal relations with him would kill her), its unlikely that it would have taken the priesthood long to depose a god who no longer fitted their bill.
Their final reconciliation is unquestioning and agreeably matter-of-fact; of course Peachy forgives Danny. Their exuberance and capacity for accepting and dealing with whatever they encounter makes them such appealing characters to spend two hours with. That, and their rich repartee.
Danny: Peachy, I’m heartily ashamed for gettin’ you killed instead of going home rich like you deserved to, on account of me bein’ so bleedin’ high and bloody mighty. Can you forgive me?
Peachy: That I can and that I do, Danny, free and full and without let or hindrance.
Danny: Everything’s all right then.
While the film is very much a two-hander, with Plummer bookending events (his final scene with Caine is particularly touching), the rest of the supporting cast should be given their due. Saeed Jaffrey as ex-Gurkha Billy Fish wonderfully complements the comic timing between Caine and Connery. Jack May pops up early on as the District Commissioner. Shakira Caine is luminous, and was apparently cast at a late stage. Huston was unable to find the right Roxanne until someone had the presence of mind to suggest the wife of one of this lead actors. Most curiously, the 103-year-old Karroom Ben Boulh plated Kafu Selim, the high priest. The film’s contemporary Making Of… documentary sees the cast and crew relate how he was a night watchmen working at a nearby olive grove who for the first few days of filming, returned to his night job after he had finished. He would show up on set tired, until he was told he didn’t need to do both. That particular documentary isn’t free from embellishment, though, as it is quite willing to allow the viewer to think that Connery himself performed the plunge into the ravine. It was actually stuntman Joe Powell.
That The Man Who Would Be King was finally made against landscape of ’70s Hollywood seems highly appropriate, in particular that it was able to make use of the more naturalistic approach of Caine and Connery. It may not pay close attention to some of the details (for example, filmed in Morocco, it features Muslim prayers and Moroccan Arabic rather than reflecting the Kafirstanis of the storyline) but it never feels that it has succumbed to Hollywood fairy dust in place of telling its story. On the other hand, one only has to look at Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to conclude that even in an earlier period the director could have made a finished film that would have been no less satisfying.