The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

screenshot from The Man Who Would Be King

Directed by: John Huston
Screenwriter(s): Gladys Hill, John Huston
Starring: Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, Shakira Caine, Saeed Jaffrey
Genre: Action / Adventure
Country: UK / USA
Running time: 2h 5m
Rating: 10 out of 10

John Huston actually acquired the rights ot make Rudyard Kipling’s story over 30 years before he eventually made it. His initial casting thoughts were Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, but nothing ever came of it. He revived the idea in the early 1970s, with the idea of casting Paul Newman and Robert Redford to reprise their easy-going Butch and Sundance chemistry. In fact, it was supposedly Newman who suggested the eventual leads.

Caine himself rates it as “the only film I’ve done that will last after I’m gone,” and, although that’s a bit harsh on his other great roles (Get Carter and Alfie, for instance), it’s certainly a film which will stand the test of time.

Ostensibly a rollicking adventure film, it’s a complex moral tale focusing on the damage that greed can cause, more in keeping with Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The story focuses on the exploits of two former British Army sergeants, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Tolliver Carnehan (Caine). Two free-wheeling souls who have remained in India after their usefulness to Queen and Empire have ended, they are charming rogues, making their living by swindling the local British and Indian gentry.

The film opens with an opportunistic theft of journalist Rudyard Kipling’s watch and the tale is narrated in flashback by Carnehan to Kipling (Plummer), three years after their initial meeting. Dravot and Carnehan had headed off through the infamous Khyber Pass and Afghanistan into the unexplored northern land of Kafiristan, unexplored since the days of Alexander the Great, where they planned to become kings and ‘plunder the country four ways from Sunday’.

Although you know from Carnehan’s appearance that it must all end badly, you still follow the duo optimistically as they face hard terrain and restless natives in achieving their quest. It all goes well, especially after they meet a willing Gurkha, nicknamed Billy Fish (Jaffrey), who acts at their official translator which solves their language barrier. Their plan is simple: conquer the country, village by village, training their own army from the local populace (“Not before the others. Not after the others. With the bloody others!”) until they are made kings of this foreign land.

In the hands of another director, it would have been so much Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, swashbuckling tosh. But Huston is more interested in exploring what happens when Peachy and Danny get everything they ever wanted, riches beyond their dreams. It’s Danny who becomes easily seduced by it all, especially after he’s hailed as a God. Huston and screenwriter Hill never shy away from the fact that our heroes are actually amoral chancers no better than the blood-thirsty ’heathen’ populace who use their vanquished enemies heads to play polo.

As you’d expect, Huston has an uncanny eye for the detail, especially in the bazaar scenes in the opening sequences and in casting the locals. He supposedly found the 100 year-old High Priest tending an olive grove nearby the shoot. Shakira Caine (in her one and only film role) is suitably regal as the girl who Danny intends to marry. But it’s the central pairing of Caine and Connery – in their only major film together – who really catch the imagination as the dreamer Danny and his more practical friend, Peachy.

A rare film which is both intelligent and enthralling, The Man Who Would Be King is essential viewing.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards – Art Direction, Writing, Costume Design and Editing – and for two BAFTAs – Costume Design and Cinematography.