Friday, March 11, 2011

“THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING”- 1975 Dir- John Huston

What I Remember:

From the ad campaign, the posters, the star power, this movie looked like everything I used to hate. A couple of Brits have a wild adventure in the sub-continent, carousing and fighting and living it up, little brown ignorant men get slain by the hundreds, etc., etc. Yet, you had to notice the director. Here was a man responsible for 3 of my favorite films; “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Freud, The Secret Passion” (and WHY is this film not available ANYWHERE?), and “The Asphalt Jungle”. He also had just come off an unforgettable acting turn in “Chinatown”. Regardless, I was in film school at the time, and pretty much saw everything that came through.

How much did I underestimate this film? Memory holds this to be a masterpiece, an utter gem. Superficially it is an action picture, and also a progenitor of the then budding genre, the “buddy film”. Nowadays the term used is “bromance”, but it will always be “buddy” for me. At any rate, when you scratch the surface of “TMWWBK” (another long title I refuse to enter time and again), you end up with a story that is so much deeper. It’s a tale of arrogance, a tale of self-deception. It’s a fable about the corrupting force of absolute power. It’s an allegory of colonial conceit.

I also remember that my impressions of both stars, Michael Caine and Sean Connery, were changed forever in a positive manner. Don’t get me wrong, I had seen and liked both actors in previous films, yet I had never seen them so believable and so far out of their respective wheelhouses. This was no James Bond or Harry Palmer. Daniel and Peachy are two very unforgettable characters, and they owe that to Mr. Huston.

After re-watching:

“If we're going to make it stick that I'm a god, you ought to bow when you pass in front of me like everybody else.” – Daniel Dravot


Peachy and Daniel, a pair of scoundrel ex-members of the British Army, are living in India and running a) various scams, b) guns and c) from the authorities. Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine) runs into the Northern Star’s chief Indian correspondant, Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) in a train station. Peachy lifts Kiplings’ gold watch, and to his chagrin sees a Freemason medallion attached to the chain. Since Peachy is also a Freemason, he attempts to follow Kipling onto the train to return the watch. He then uses his Masonic connection to convince Kipling to pass a message to his comrade, Daniel Dravot. They plan a blackmail scheme that is thwarted by Kipling when they tell him that they will pose as correspondants for HIS paper! They then decide on their next scheme; go to remote Kafiristan and become Kings by using their British street smarts. After a grueling journey, they make it to Kafiristan, wherein Dravot is mistaken for the long lost son of Alexander the Great, and they discover riches beyond their wildest dreams.


I feel like this was a film that I really had right. There were few surprises, and many scenes were stuck in my brain with crystal clarity. It is a tribute to just how visually stunning “TMWWBK” is. Much of the location shooting was in Morocco, but some of the winter Himalayan scenes were shot in the French Alps. The stunning landscapes are a result of the “David Lean” effect- a large scale adventure or historical film made after 1965 needed to have the sweeping landscapes that equal “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago” in scope. Could the film have been as effective without this imagery? Maybe, but I think you get the idea that these men, while absolutely reprehensible in character, also possess a super-human amount of courage and bravado. Traversing the Himalayas seems impossible, and one of the best sequences comes when they are stuck at a crevasse, with no way to cross. Knowing that they are done for, they begin to recount their memories, and begin laughing loud and heartily. The laughter starts an avalanche, and soon the crevasse is filled.

As an adventure fable, it is amongst the best. Where it also succeeds is as allegory to the hubris of the British empire. Daniel and Peachy, though obviously of the lower rungs of British society, feel that they are so much smarter and civilized than the Kafiris, that they underestimate the people and their society. They cringe at the thought of the Kafiris playing polo with a dead man’s head in a sack as the ball, yet have no sense of guilt after throwing a perfectly nice Indian man from a moving train. The history of British Colonial rule has always been one of hypocrisies like these.

Interestingly enough, the film I believe “TMWWBK” resembles the most is Huston’s own “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. Greed, of course is the motivational factor, but there is also the juxtaposition of cultures, and the Caucasian feeling of superiority and entitlement that is their undoing. I believe that Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” also play into this theme. Adding the buddy film into this brew causes an interesting dichotomy; on one hand you are rooting for these bastards because they are so endearing, and obviously care for each other. On the other, you have to hate how completely awful they are to the Kafiris, Afghans and Indians.
Daniel’s and Peachy’s success in Kafiristan is sheer luck; an arrow hits Daniel in the heart, but actually gets stuck in his bandolier. This is how Daniel becomes God-like to the Kafiris. Then, when the high priest is about to shoot an arrow point blank at him to prove his immortality, Daniel’s exposed chest reveals the Masonic medallion Kipling gave him for good luck. It turns out that Alexander the Great used the same emblem, and for the holy men, that is enough to prove Daniel’s connection to the Gods. As always, luck runs out, as it must for our “heroes”. When it does, you realize that it’s not their superior intellect or cleverness that has been keeping them alive, but the acts of a bemused deity, simply waiting for the proper moment to knock them off their perch.


The story is beautifully told, both in imagery and in pacing. Visuals from the Khyber Pass and the Himalayas scenes are indelible, as are the initial shots of Zigandergul, or whatever it is they call the holy city. The matte paintings are amongst the most gorgeous I have ever seen, and they are utilized perfectly. There are lots of street market scenes early on in the movie, giving a sense of place and time. Huston always took great care with that part of his works. Placing a fable such as this in the most real of atmospheres can cause a disconnect, but not here. It gives you the feeling of veracity, and it helps you become invested in these characters and their less than believable exploits. The two British soldiers going into battle in their Beefeater red, leading a ragtag group of Kafiris also provides an image that is almost shocking. It reminded me of that great scene in “Interiors” when Maureen Stapleton enters a dining room in a bright red dress, where everyone else is in muted tans and grays.

Visuals aside, Huston works the pace of this film artfully. The story unfolds just right, and you are sucked in early. It’s an exciting world that these people populate, yet your seat in the theater is about as close as you’d ever want to get.


As I stated above, both leads step out of their carefully developed images for this movie. Huston originally conceived this as a vehicle for Gable and Bogart in the ‘50’s, and how different a film this would have been with Americans in those parts? He later envisioned Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the lead roles, the two actors who invented the buddy film with “Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid”, and perfected it with “The Sting”. Again, I feel using American actors in these roles would have ruined the film. Caine was known for playing the humanistic spy Harry Palmer, and the cad Alfie, had never really played up his Cockney as much as he got to in this film. His take on Peachy is a bullseye. Connery also gets his Scotsman just right, and you get the sense that these performances were based on childhood memories of folks or relatives that they knew well. No American actor could possibly pull this off, just as a Brit could never really do a Woody Allen neurotic Jew (See Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity”) or a Police chief in the deep south like Rod Steiger’s award winning turn as Gillespie in “In The Heat of the Night”.

Caine’s wife, Shakira, plays the part of Roxanne, whom Daniel attempts to marry in the film. She has no lines, but her beauty is incomparable. Christopher Plummer as Kipling does a very standard job, but this is what the film calls for. If he emoted in this role the way he does in some later performances, it would have been entirely out of place. Almost every other part except that of Billy Fish, the Indian translator, is played by locals and extras, again adding to the sense of realty in which Huston envelops the movie. The faces are striking, especially those of the high priest and the warlord they encounter early on in Kafiristan.


If I had to sell this film with a Hollywood agent, it’d go like this: “Gunga Din” meets “Fitzcarraldo”, or…. Howard Hawks directs “A Passage to India”.
OK, now I’m just free-associating.

This film is every bit as good as I thought it was. It’s huge and sprawling, it’s visually without peer, it’s quite well acted, it’s comic and tragic, it’s enthralling and disturbing. I love it.

1st Look- ★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★★

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