Sunday, January 30, 2011

# 74 - The Man Who Would Be King

BACK-STORY: “The Man Who Would Be King” is a war movie that was released in 1975. It was directed by John Huston and is based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling. Huston co-wrote the screenplay. Originally intended as a project for Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Robert Redford and Paul Newman, it was finally made starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Writing, Costume Design, and Editing. The movie was critically acclaimed and did well at the box office.

OPENING: We open in an outdoor bazaar which could be “live” considering how little this part of the world has changed since the late 19th Century. British journalist Kipling (Christopher Plummer) is writing in his office when a mysterious man appears. He claims to be an old friend and has obviously fallen on some very hard times. Cue flashback.

SUMMARY: Peachy Carnehan (Caine) meets Kipling when he sits next to him on a train. Peachy has stolen Kipling’s watch. An Indian sits with them and is proceeding to eat a watermelon. Peachy throws the man off the moving train. So much for political correctness. Peachy is a typically racist ex-NCO in the British army.

Later, Peachy and his BFF Danny Dravot (Connery) meet with Kipling in his office and outline an outrageous plan to cross the Khyber Pass into present-day Afghanistan to become kings in a region called Kafiristan. They sign a contract in front of Kipling that pledges each to abstain from women and drink for the duration of their quest. The audience is told that the last person to conquer Kafiristan was Alexander the Great and his first wife Roxanne was from there.

The mates are off as part of a caravan. They are transporting a mule-load of rifles. The scenery is awesome as the cross the Kyhber Pass (actually shot in Morocco). They cross a raging river in goat skins. When they reach an impassable crevice, their bitter laughter starts an avalanche that covers the gap.

When they reach their destination they have an immediate impact by shooting some horsemen who are attacking some women and kids. They bring a captive to the nearby fortified town where they meet a Gurkha soldier named Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey) who is the sole survivor of a map-making expedition. He eagerly agrees to be their interpreter and advisor on local customs. Peachy and Danny offer to train an army for the local chieftain. The village lives in fear of more belligerent villages, so they decide to take up the offer. We get lots of local color like women singing songs and a polo match using a human head.

Next is the obligatory training montage. Danny tells the recruits that “when we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men.” (A line used later by the CIA with the mujahideen when they delivered Stinger missiles to be used against the Russians in the 1980s, I would guess.) He also tells them: “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 up his life for queen and country? Not bloody likely”. Thus does he sum up the British army’s philosophy on discipline.

Let's get the hell out of here before they realize you are only James Bond
In the first battle, the enemy comes swarming out of their village to fall in heaps before the disciplined volley fire of Peachy and Danny’s army. An enemy arrow sticks in Danny’s bandolier under his shirt causing the immediate conclusion that he is a god. Specifically, he is assumed to be the son of Alexander (“Sikander” as they call him). With the morale that comes with having a god as your leader, the army takes several other villages and the army expands.

Danny is smitten with a beautiful woman named Roxanne (just like Alexander was). The boys are summoned to the holy city of Sikandergul to be vetted by the chief priest (played by 103 year old local Karroom Ben Bouih in his only movie). “God’s holy trousers!” say the mates. The priest is very skeptical and wants Danny to stop another arrow as proof of his divinity. Danny refuses and when they rip open his shirt he happens to be wearing a Masonic amulet given to him by Kipling. It just so happens to match the symbol for Sikander. He is proclaimed a god on the spot. Talk about a lucky amulet!

Danny, Billy, and Peachy
Now that he is crowned king, it is revealed that there is a storeroom full of treasure left by Alexander. Peachy and Danny are rich beyond their wildest dreams, as they say. Before returning to civilization, Danny decides to play the role of king to the hilt. He sits in judgment over local crimes and issues proclamations. It naturally goes to his head and cracks in the friendship appear when he insists that Peachy bow before him like everyone else “for appearances sake”. Peachy determines to leave and preoccupies himself with building a bridge over a gorge while he waits for spring. Danny, suffering from delusions of grandeur, decides to stay and develop Kafiristan into a modern country rivaling Britain. Of course a king must have a queen, so Danny decides to marry Roxanne (Michael Caine’s real life wife Shakira). So much for the vow of abstinancy.

When Danny announces his marriage plans, the priests are aghast because a god can not marry. Danny insists, even though everyone in the theater is yelling at him to read the omens. At the wedding, Roxanne is so afraid of marrying a god that she is in a trance-like state until she bites Danny on the cheek. All hell breaks loose as gods cannot bleed. The crowd wants a new polo ball and Peachy uses his riflemen to try to hold them off. Billy makes a suicide charge waving his kukri and yelling “Ayo Gurkhali” to buy time, but the mates are overwhelmed and captured.

CLOSING: Danny apologizes for being such a egotistical fool and Peachy accepts the apology. Danny’s punishment is to have to walk out onto the bridge over the gorge and then have the supports cut causing him to plunge to his death. (Connery performed the stunt landing on a pile of cardboard boxes.) At least he dies instantly, unlike the punishment for Peachy who is crucified between two trees. He miraculously survives the night so they set him free. Flashback over, Peachy reveals what’s in his bag to Kipling.


Acting – 10

Action - 6

Accuracy – 8

Realism – 7

Plot – 9

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Definitely. The story is a classic. The leads are among the greatest leading men of their time. The violence is not graphic. They can elbow their significant other in the ribs at the parts where Danny proves to be an insufferable jerk, like all men would be in his position. Oh, and did I mention that when Danny is getting robed for the wedding, you get to see Sean Connery’s bare ass? No fair fast-forwarding to that scene, ladies.  Or rewinding continuously.  Or pausing and sighing.

ACCURACY: The movie is based on a fictional story so accuracy is not really an issue. However, I can comment that the depiction of life in Afghanistan at that time is authentic. They really did play polo with human heads, for instance. After all, Kipling knew of which he was writing. Peachy and Danny did reflect the attitudes of your typical British soldiers. The Gurkhas were armed with knives called kukri like what Billy wielded. His last war cry, which translates to “the Gurkhas are here!” is the traditional war cry of them.

Kipling got the inspiration for the story from the real-life adventures of an American named Josiah Harlan. Harlan travelled to Afghanistan to become a king. He became involved in politics and military conflicts in the region. He trained local armies and did such a good job that a prince awarded him with the title “Prince of Ghor”. However, when Harlan made a trip back to Kabul, the British came in and conquered his “kingdom” and he was not allowed to return. He bounced around other parts of the world for the rest of his life and did not die falling in a gorge.

The movie follows the story very closely.  Kipling's story is pretty short so Huston had to fill in the details.  He does an outstanding job.  The movie is an excellent companion for the book and what few changes Huston makes with the book are wise ones.  For instance, the book is vague as to why Danny is considered a god.  The movie adds the arrow scene.  Also, the significance of the Masonic symbol is more adeptly handled in the movie. Huston decided wisely to make the unnamed journalist Kipling himself. The ending is different with Danny not leaving the item from the bag on the desk. Two days later, the narrator has Peachy committed to an insane asylum where he dies from the effects of sunstroke.

CRITIQUE: “The Man Who Would Be King” is rollicking fun. As the British would say, “It’s a golly good show”. Caine and Connery were obviously having a great time and it is contagious for the audience. (Of the four pairings considered by Huston, I would imagine them as number two behind Lancaster and Douglas). They have a roguish swagger appropriate for playing two rogues. Something to ponder: if remade today, who should the leads be? Saeed Jaffrey is a great third banana and adds some humor. I was very impressed with him.

John Huston does his usual great job as director. It was a labor of love which took twenty years to bring to fruition. He chose his actors well. They fit their characters perfectly. Even Shakira Caine (who was chosen when Huston was having trouble filling the role) fits well. Perhaps wisely, she is given no lines. She bites well, however. The scenery is beautiful. The score is wonderful. The one battle is artfully staged and accurately reflects modern fire discipline versus swarm tactics. The story is by Kipling so you know it is going to be grand. The script, because it does not sanitize Kipling’s British attitudes, is refreshingly politically incorrect.

My only quibble with it is I do not think it fits comfortably in the war movie genre. . It does not appear in some war movie review books. It is much more of an adventure story than a war story.  It also fits well in the buddy picture genre.  For example, Peachy commends his buddy for being able to "break wind at both ends simultaneously - which is more than any god can do".  That was meant as a compliment, by the way.  Being a war movie / buddy picture makes TMWWBK pretty unique.

CONCLUSION: “The Man Who Would Be King” is one of the great adventure movies. In fact, it should be required viewing for all boys. Or men who still have a bit of the boy still in them. Parents, force your boys to watch it, they’ll thank you after.

Next up:  #73 - The Bridges at Toko-Ri

the trailer

Danny = son of Sikander


  1. Its interesting to note that both MWWBK and Wind and the Lion were released in 1975. And both starring Connery! He was a busy man that year. Though MWWBK is by far the better movie they are both sorta the last gasp of that old fashioned rollicking history/adventure epic. Milius who did WATL obviously was influenced by Huston.
    I remember getting the movie tie in paperback of MWWBK around that time thinking it was a novel. Its really a surprisingly short story by Kipling. This is one of the few examples where hollywood took short source material and didnt screw it up by overinflating it or ruining it by updating the time period. That was Hustons genius and power im sure. he was very good with period pieces and working with "real men" type scenerios. Women dont do much in this one that is for sure other then give an inaccurate hickey.
    What makes this movie so good is that it kept its british flavor. something to me a pairing of Redford/Newman or Lancaster/Douglas would have had a hard time finding. Kipling is Kipling thru and thru and casting Connery/Caine was perfect. Just for the accents alone. Christopher Plummer is also very good in this playing Kipling. The framing device is very well done and the ending of whats in the bag though predicable is suitably creepy.
    Today alot of this movie would have prob been done with CGI effects instead of on location.
    The best thing about MWWBK is the sincere comradery between Connery/Caine. It never seems forced and they obviously got along well. Caine has the tuffer role of the two as Peachy and this is to me one of his best acting jobs. He even plays the badly crippled Peachy at the end well.
    I just finished watching Shout at the Devil with Lee Marvin which was made one year later in 1976. Not of the same caliber by any means but a similar British buddy adventure setup. And a very good rollicking Lee Marvin role. Thats actually more of a war picture then MWWBK as its set just at the beginning of WW1 in Africa. While Roger Moore is good in this one i hate to think if he had been picked to stare as Peachy or Danny!
    Oh i forgot that scene where Danny and Peachy try to brave it out and march out of the city like good Britishers. Arrow under arm and shoulders thrownback. That was classic.

  2. You make some excellent points, especially about British actors in British roles. Now that you mention it, it is hard to imagine any of the other pairings suiting the story.

    A little trivia pertinent to the cameradery. Huston was going to fire Plummer (for unknown reasons) and Connery threatened to go if he did.

    Here is another surprise: Michael and Shakira Caine are still married! He saw her in a commercial and tracked her down because she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

    Thanks for the recommendation of Shout at the Devil.

  3. Shout is good but way too long and episodic. But good old fashioned adventure fun. Plus i love Lee Marvin movies. This one has a good sense of humor too. Marvin has a great death scene behind an old fashioned machine gun. "See you soon Fliecher...we'll shout at the devil together!" Now thats a good final line.
    I dont imagine Huston was an easy director to get along with. he probably boned with his two leads but not Plummer.
    Its good that Shakira Caine didnt really need to act or talk. Just look exotic. Huston would have no doubt been merciless on her acting and gotten Caine pissed off and he would have walked. you never know.
    Dont bother with The Sea Wolves. Just worth it to see familiar british faces having a last hurrah. Shout is much better even tho it rambles.
    Shout reminded me of that old Peter O'toole movie Murphy's War by the way. In both movies the character(s) are hunting for hidden german ships or subs. And the main characters (O'toole and Marvin) both die at the end. Murphy's War is a strange movie but entertaining in an O'toole sort of way.

  4. I thought of Murphy's War when you mentioned the plot of Shout.

  5. I like Murphy's War but I think this one would NOT be for me. And of all the actor duos they had in mind this is the one I am least intersted in. The combination of the two is an equation that sums up to zero for me. I have a slight Sean Connery aversion, can't help it (watching him with clothes is already nightmarish but...). Michael Cane is OK but another of those actors who was never young.

  6. Way harsh! I take it you are not a ten year old boy or a 50 year old woman. I guess you did not bond with Connery (get it?) I did mention he dies in the end, didn't I?

  7. Had plans come to fruition, this would have been made in 1967-68 with Burton and O'Toole.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.