There is a sense that John Huston is on a tear to prove he can outdo David Lean. However, this might only be an observation based rather unfairly on circumstance. Because Huston purportedly meant to make the picture at numerous junctions in his career, though it never got off the ground with any of the dynamic duos originally put to the fore.
There was Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at first. Then Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. It could have even been a reunion for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). Ultimately, none of these pairings came to fruition.
Finally, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, it was given a new lease on life. Regardless, of your personal affinities, it ends up being an unmitigated success given their instant camaraderie even beyond any amount of action, intrigue, or world-building.
Connery is one of the great action icons, partially thanks to Bond, and Caine is very much his equal for a string of iconic roles of his own. It’s no coincidence they both have a “Sir” before their names and still remain two of the most beloved actors in Britain to this day.
Following in the mythic footsteps of Alexander Great, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carehan (Caine) aspire to be the first Europeans to rule the isolated territory of Kafiristan in centuries. In all fairness, The Man Who Would Be King is as much about two lunatics as it is men of valor, soldiers of fortune, and brothers in arms.
Their venture has them fending off local bandits, crossing the frozen deep, and looking to influence the local lords with their modern weaponry. It’s one step on the long road to becoming immortalized. With the fortuitous help of their translator Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a Gurkhan lone survivor of a British outfit, they now have a mouthpiece to pass down their will to the local populace.
They make liberal efforts to lean into the god complex in order to have an easier time subduing the people and subsequently, mobilizing a personal army. However, in crossing paths with the much-revered spiritual leaders, they find it’s just as providential to be Freemasons. Some brotherhoods are universal.
It is actually Dravot who is perceived as a god and soon his head gets overblow with his personal ambitions to have a queen and a kingdom with bridges and infrastructure to connect the entire territory.
He is looking to fulfill all the hopes of his protectorate as a divine answer to their prayers. It’s his buddy Peachy, the mere mortal who knew him well before he became a god, trying to show him how nutty this is. It also proves fatal.
Michael Caine’s performance, in particular, is broad, overblown with vigor. Is he putting too much gusto into it? Given the stakes of the material and how it plays, he probably does it just right. Because we half expect our characters to be blustering and larger-than-life giants.
One can imagine not only Huston but his actors as well would have relished the material for these very reasons. It really digs into this sense of adventure while giving them parts to grab hold of. This is on the most visceral level; we see it playing out on a grand scale. Still, the picture has a certain intimacy worth expounding upon.
Because while it’s easy to refer to pictures of old as references, say Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) or Gunga Din (1939), what sets The Man Who Would Be King apart is the simplicity of the principal relationship.
The beats of the plot are nothing altogether new and novel; it makes sense as Rudyard Kipling’s original novella came out in 1888. However, strip everything away and what are we left with? It really is nothing more than a buddy film.
Certainly, it becomes complicated by all sorts of issues and yet what remains the common denominator as the story unfolds? It’s the relationship between our two leads. Hence the potential ties to Butch Cassidy being somewhat telling. Having a pair of charismatic anti-heroes to cheer for makes it extremely easy on the audience. It takes very little to ask for investment.
Above all, it reminds me of those aforementioned tales of old. They weren’t abashed about having a good time and giving way to adventure in the absence of social significance. There seems to be very, little apart from the actors, who place the movie in the 1970s.
After all, Huston was himself an old boy coming from a different generation altogether. Being the maverick and gargantuan personality of machismo in his own right, it seems fitting he would gravitate toward such a tale. Where the bonds between men speak volumes as do their unquenchable cravings for wealth and glory, verging on the obsessive.
Huston is provided his inroad through a real historical figure. Again, the idea of having an author like Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) be the inception of the story is not a new device. We have Somerset Maugham utilized in The Razor’s Edge for instance and the most obvious might be the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Except this movie is Heart of Darkness in some inverted world where the dark jungles of Africa are replaced with the golden plains of an equally harrowing Middle East. The constricting dankness is substituted with the dangers of the great unknown, wide-open spaces with their own share of pleasures and subsequent perils.
Once more we cater to analogous themes of human avarice and cravings to be made a deity over other human beings. Where setting oneself up as a king of a nation is more of a dream — the ultimate prize in obtaining power and glory — there is no dark underbelly initially.
One cannot help in drawing parallels to The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) where the lust for all the riches the world has to offer rarely avail themselves without cataclysmic implications. Even as it can be riveting to watch such a big-screen adventure, we must check ideas of superiority or superman complexes.
While The Man Who Would Be King comes to accept this colonialistic world order rather than subverting it, at the very least it does imply the flaws in such a dogma. We’ve continued to see the fruit of such ideologies well into the 20th and 21st centuries.