The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Written by John Huston & Gladys Hill
Directed by John Huston
In a 180 from the bleakness of Fat City comes this large-scale adventure film with a message. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s novella, The Man Who Would Be King was a story that Huston had wanted to make for twenty years. I assume Humphrey Bogart was initially in mind for one of these characters as the themes and plot feel very similar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is a picture about treasure hunters going off into a land foreign to them only to learn that their quest for a fortune is doomed from the start. I don’t think there is another director who could have made this picture as perfectly as Huston.
Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) is working late at his newspaper office, The Northern Star in India, when a stranger approaches him. He seems to know Kipling and reminds him of an encounter years earlier with two British non-commissioned officers. Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Dravot (Sean Connery) became entangled with Kipling as they were attempting to blackmail a rajah. They find their criminal plots foiled at the British’s hands at every turn and decide to venture into the remote region of Kafiristan. It was visited once by Alexander the Great but has remained cut off from the outside since. The two men believe they can use their tactical military knowledge to empower a local tribal leader there, usurp him after taking over his rivals, loot the nation, and leave.
When they arrive in Kafiristan, they find Ootah, a tribal leader more than eager to have them take out the neighboring tribe. Before they know it, Carnehan & Dravot take a group of tribesmen and turn them into regimented fighters. They begin a campaign across the land where Dravot is suddenly believed to be the scion of Alexander. He’s shot with an arrow, which gets caught in his bandolier, leaving him unharmed. To the tribespeople, this is a sign he is a god, and they associate him with their worship of Alexander. Dravot begins to get caught up in the myth around him while Carnehan sees their chance to loot & run getting less & less.
So many takes on this film are that it is a swashbuckling adventure which is such a fascinating take from my 21st-century perspective. By modern standards, this is nearly an arthouse movie. The action is very muted & there are not many action set pieces. The characters are at the forefront of the story, their arrogance & braggadocio. The Treasure of Sierra Madre seems to have also gained that ‘adventure movie’ moniker. I see them as classic narratives about archetypal characters. They center around man’s constant dance with greed & misery. The Man Who Would Be King is predominantly about the folly of European interference in lands where they do not fully understand the place there are in.
Unlike films like Lawrence of Arabia, which is undoubtedly a great picture, there’s a wry sense of humor here. Huston just isn’t interested in messianic characters. Dravot is a mistaken messiah who makes all the wrong choices and pays for them in the end. This is undoubtedly one of the better Connery performances. I have never really warmed up to him, and playing a doomed rogue feels like a great choice. Caine always comes off best when playing a scoundrel, and the two bounce off each other with great chemistry. They are having a lot of fun together, and it’s all the more tragic when their schemes are upended.
There’s just enough happenstance that the audience will start to believe Dravot could be Alexander’s descendant and the film leaves it open-ended. By the end of the film, we’ve seen that greed with disregard for your fellow man won’t be rewarded. Just like the conclusion of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, all one can do is laugh at the cold hand of fate, the wheel of fortune constantly spinning. This made me wish for more films like this, less interested in overly lavish special effects and centered around strong performances and thematically sound stories.