Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 23, No. 2, 2024
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
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film appreciation



Roger's reviews have appeared in McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, Spin Magazine, The World, Orlando Magazine Autoweek Magazine among others. He is the founder and editor of Movie Nation


John Huston’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Man Who Would be King” would have been a vastly different enterprise had he made it when he first had the idea — in his post “African Queen” 1950s.

Huston wanted his muse, Humphrey Bogart (“The Maltese Falcon,” “Across the Pacific,” “Key Largo,” “Beat the Devil,” “The African Queen”) to co-star with the then-fading “King of Hollywood,” Clark Gable in a film not that far removed from the racially patronizing classic “Gunga Din,” also based on Kipling’s writing.

Conversely, a modern day take on this story would be worlds away from Huston’s old-fashioned but faintly anti-imperialist post-Civil Rights Movement/post-Vietnam War 1975 “The Man Who Would Be King.”

When he finally got the money to film this misadventure about two former British soldiers staging a coup in a remote land beyond Afghanistan, it still came off as of another era. Some of the positions and points of view expressed and tacitly embraced seem dated. And the three stars were future Oscar winners, and already a bit long in the tooth to be tackling the material.

Christopher Plummer put “The Sound of Music” behind him to play a young reporter hearing and writing down the tale, a 20something Kipling. Plummer was well over 40, and Huston had signed Richard Burton for the role, who looked decades older.

But Sean Connery and Michael Caine could easily pass for robust, years-mustered-out sergeants, making a go at being chancers of the pick-pocketing, extorting and adventuring variety, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan.

Using Morocco to substitute for India under the British Raj, Huston immerses us in the an exotic alien world of teeming street bazaars and epic mountain ranges, the perfect setting for a racially-patronizing boyish adventure about two rascals who set out to take over and then rob a backward, unconquered corner of the Hindu Kush, northern Afghanistan’s Kafiristan.

Our seasoned reporter and editor, Kipling, is a curious and sympathetic Anglo-Indian of the Subcontinent, his superiority coming from his white skin, white linen suits and connection to the occupying white Western power. But we don’t see how ‘enlightened’ he is until he crosses paths with the combat veteran Peachy.

Peachy, we quickly learn, is a hustler who picks Kipling’s pocket, only to discover he’s stolen from a fellow follower of “The Widow’s Son.” His suit may be clean enough, but he’s common and broke and yet not at all shy about expressing his grievances at a government that’s treating him as no more privileged than the locals. He thus exercises his racial superiority over the natives as he returns Kipling’s stolen watch, blaming it on a stereotypically obsequious Indian he’s just hurled out of the moving train.

As gags go, that can make a modern viewer wince.

Peachy leans on Kipling for a favour, passing a message on to a mate he’s supposed to meet. The big and bluff and sideburned Daniel also speaks the language of their shared secret society, Freemasonry.

“We met on the level, and we’re parting on the square.”

Kipling intervenes in a blackmail scheme the two have lined-up, but keeps them out of prison, They decide their best bet for fame and fortune is to cross the mountains with rifles, their scarlet Army tunics and military know-how, throw-in with a local ruler in his conflicts with rivals, change the power balance of the region, and then seize power themselves, looting a bit as they do, before fleeing.

They’re mad, Kipling insists. They’ll be killed.

“Peachy and me, we don’t kill easy.”

But to accomplish their goal, these two rowdies must foreswear strong drink and women, which they do, ceremoniously, with a contract which they sign before Kipling, using him as their notarized witness.

Donning darker-skin and turbaned disguises, they’re off to a place “where no white man has ever been and come out since Alexander (the Great).”

The two provide us of evidence of their serious intent and their qualifications for the job as they battle bandits and tribesmen, a raging river and snowy peaks on their way.

And once they get there, it’s simpler-than-simple to identify a hapless leader (Largbi Doghmi) and a conflict they can intervene in to set their scheme in motion.

Huston serves up teeming masses in the city, and seas of primitive villagers and masked sword-and-bow warriors that are no match for the two sergeants and the 20-man rifle squad they train to be their death-dealing fist.

The film’s pacing might generously be described as stately,” as Huston frames the slow-starting story within a meeting between a battered, half-blinded Peachy who relates the tale from “three summers and a thousand years ago” to an incredulous Kipling.

Huston’s film isn’t exactly an anti-colonialism parable, any more than Kipling’s story was. Highlighting the foibles of human nature, with one character never letting go his greed and the other taking on a messianic/Platonic ‘benevolent despot’ complex, is about as deep as the script gets at seeing the injustice of it all, the heartless slaughter occasionally played for laughs.

I kept thinking of B.Traven/Huston morality tale “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” here, which must have been Huston’s intent. “King” isn’t just about male bonding, which is the cover the story unfolds under.

Daniel reminds Peachy and Peachy reminds Daniel that “we mustn’t be prejudiced” about the “different cultures, different customs” they encounter. But we sense that neither one means it.

Yet Peachy, our narrator, undergoes an almost enlightened story arc. He ventures from the government-resenting racist we first meet into a man who takes their Gurkha interpreter (Saeed Jaffrey, “by Jove”) into his confidence, treating him as an equal and concerned for his safety, before all is said and done.

Yes, the portrayal of the Gurkha nicknamed Billy Fish by the first Brits he worked for can be patronizing. But Billy Fish has some agency, and isn’t above becoming a partner/co-conspirator in their “a bauble here, a bangle there” get-rich-quick scheme. Jaffrey was playing a transitional character, bridging the gap between Huston’s dated attitudes and a more modern regard-this man-as-a-man treatment, and the actor, who would go on to provide stand-out performances in “A Passage to India,” “Gandhi” and “My Beautiful Launderette,” is terrific.

Connery gives us the first hint of his post-James Bond twinkle as Daniel, singing, doing a little dance, playing a madman when it suits the character’s purposes.

Caine is the irritable straight-man, allegedly the brains behind the operation, but no smarter than his mate. He’s good in a sturdy, short-tempered co-starring part, and legend has it that he was flattered to be considered for “The Bogart role” (his childhood screen idol) when Huston pitched him. As a bonus, the director also cast Caine’s beautiful new bride Shakira Caine as the resistant, innocent and superstitious tribal girl “Roxanne who tempts both men to break their contract.

The most striking thing about this classic adventure epic today might be its look. Using real locations, crumbling brick fortresses, parched passes and snowcapped peaks, “King” feels positively analog in its depiction of an exotic place of both beauty and stark, hardscrabble ugliness. There’s no heightened CGI trickery to render this world Shangri La/Themyscira/Marvel Universe wondrous and beautiful.

Taken within its closer to ‘Gunga Din’ than ‘Dances with Wolves' context, “The Man Who Would be King” strikes one as a classic of the “They don’t make’em like that any more, and maybe there’s a reason” school.

But I, for one, would love to see someone try. The psychology and sociology of cultures clashing, and jolly-good-fun fortune hunting and its true consequences and cost would be fascinating to lay over this story of male bonding, machismo, greed and delusions of godhood.











Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


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