Isn’t it funny how some movies get landed with labels like ‘chick flick’ or ‘a man’s film’ regardless of how enjoyable they might be to a universal audience. I was one of the few men who admitted to liking ‘Mamma Mia’ yet at the same time I thoroughly enjoy ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Dances with Wolves’ and most of the Bond movies. The ultimate Boys Own adventure has to be ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, most certainly branded ‘a man’s film’ in our house and one to be reserved for occasions when it can be savoured without interruption from one’s other half constantly asking questions, the answers to which seem pretty obvious to a chap.
Now out on American Region free Blu-ray, John Huston’s cinematic version of Rudyard Kipling’s short story is one that I’ve been waiting on for a long time. It’s one of the handful of films that I’ve owned on 16mm film, VHS, Laserdisc and DVD over the years since its release in 1975. Now with a restored Blu-ray release, we have it in a format that stands up to projection on a big screen, so we can again be immersed in the larger than life tale in the same way that it was originally intended.
John Huston wanted to make the film for years but had struggled to get it off the ground due to lack of studio support for the venture. His original casting had Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable in the two lead roles but it’s hard now to imagine anyone other than Sean Connery and Michael Caine filling the boots of Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan – a pair of cheeky con men, formerly of the British Army who set out to be Kings of Kafiristan.
The movie opens with a pre-title sequence depicting local colour in the dusty heat of India. Snake charmers, market traders, men forging steel tools, sun ripened faces – all contributing to the atmosphere of a time when the British Raj ruled. After Huston paints this backdrop we’re introduced to Kipling himself, played by Christopher Plummer, as he writes an article for ‘The Southern Star’ newspaper. His scribblings are interrupted by a shuffling figure in filthy beggar’s clothes who asks if he remembers him. Kipling can’t recognize the almost blackened face of the one eyed man who appears to be at death’s door and who requests a drink before telling him his tale of high adventure.
It’s a great opening to the picture and it allows the body of the story to be told in flashback. Without recounting the whole script, there are many scenes that stick in the memory such as the one where Peachy Carnehan (Caine) picks Kipling’s pocket at the railway station. On examining the valuable pocket watch he has just liberated, he curses when he finds that the chain has a fob bearing the emblem of the Freemasons on it. Realising that he is one of the ‘brotherhood of man’ Peachy is honour bound to return it whence it came without being discovered. He achieves this in a smoky railway carriage by blaming it on an unfortunate (but polite) Indian when Kipling falls asleep and then forcibly ejecting said man from the moving train – along with the watermelon he has been devouring.
Another memorable scene is where Peachy & Danny have been arrested for attempting to blackmail the local Rajah and are called before the area's British Official, while Kipling attempts to intervene on their behalf. The two march into the office in true British military fashion and then talk their way out of the situation by blackmailing the very bigwig who is trying to have them deported. This is a very amusing scene full of bravado, brass neck and sheer arrogance – but a routine you wish you could pull off yourself. You can’t help but admire their sheer guts.
Arriving in Kafiristan after a journey fraught with danger, our two heroes set out to gain the confidence of the head of a local tribe by vowing to rid him of his enemies. Here they meet ex-Ghurkha Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey) who acts as their interpreter and accomplice in their campaign. They deliver a captured member of a rival tribe to the tribal leader, Ouda, who swiftly organises a game of Polo using the severed head of the poor chap as the ball. They then set out to capture a city belonging to the rival tribe after first training tribe members in British Military tactics.
There’s a very funny scene where Michael Caine as Peachy takes them through parade ground drill and one platoon member is a few steps behind the rest. This wasn’t scripted and happened for real with a willing but slow tribesman recruited locally to appear in the film. Many of the local tribesmen had incredibly lined faces that would have taken hours in make-up to recreate had they used actors.
The theme of the ‘brotherhood of man’ raises its head again when the pair have their necks saved by the Mason’s emblem on the fob, given to them by Kipling, when it is recognised by the tribesmen. It seems that Alexander II started it all off and the ‘all seeing eye’ is found on a statue. Danny can’t believe his luck when, in the midst of battle, an arrow lodges itself in his bandolier. The tribesmen drop to the ground when he pulls it out and there is no blood, so they now believe him to be a God. Treasure beyond their wildest dreams awaits our two heroes as they are taken to the Holy City, where Danny is hailed Son of Sekunder (Son of Alexander) but will they be able to take the riches back to civilisation and live the life of Riley?
There are at least a couple of generations who won’t have seen ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ so I’m not going to give away the ending. Suffice to say, Sean Connery and Michael Caine are superb as the two rogues and the story has the right mix of drama and humour to keep it interesting. John Huston’s direction is of a leisurely manner, but this is a storyteller taking the time to tell the tale properly and without any shortcuts. He keeps you watching and, above all, entertained.
Watch out for Michael Caine’s wife, Shakira, who was only visiting the set but ended up taking a fairly significant role in the movie at very short notice. The movie also benefits from a score by Maurice Jarre that adds drama where necessary and gives it a large scale feel. Indeed, the whole story is larger than life but it’s a hugely enjoyable affair with a dramatic ending. There are those who haven’t got around to calling ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ a classic yet, but I’m not one of them. Send your other half on a girls night out, dim the lights and settle back to enjoy a rip roaring adventure.
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