Saturday, July 27, 2013
The Man Who Would Be King is one of those few film renderings of a great short story that is also worth seeing upon the screen. The 129 minute movie succeeds because of the story, the acting of Michael Caine as Peachey Carnehan and Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, and the direction of John Huston. It is one of the best adventure movies ever filmed. Carnehan and Dravot are scoundrels, but one understands that they lived more deeply than we ever will. At the same time the film contains a warning: we as a people cannot improve upon the lives of others by dictating how others should live.
Former English soldiers Carnehan and Dravot have many get-rich schemes. They are pickpockets, blackmailers, gun-runners and devout Free Masons. They swindle their ways through life and are willing to take great risks in the improving of their fortune. They decide to head to a country called Kafiristan to make themselves kings. Through brashness and a series of larks they come very close to succeeding. They cross the Khyber Pass, ford a dangerous river and steal mules from Afghan bandits. They then wander through the Hindu Kush and arrive in Kafiristan to an area where no white man had gone since the time of Alexander the Great. An arrow stopped by Dravot’s bandolier convinces the natives that the two white men have tumbled from the heavens. That Dravot is wearing a Masonic symbol introduced to the people by Alexander the Great convinces them further that Dravot is the son of Sikander (Alexander the Great) – in other words a god.
Through their adventures they meet up with Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a transplanted Indian who had survived an avalanche that killed an English party, and he becomes Carnehan and Dravot’s cohort and translator. We also meet Kafiristan native, Roxanne (Shakira Caine – Michael Caine’s real-life wife), who Dravot becomes smitten with (despite his agreement with Carnehan that they would keep away from the temptations of women). While Carnehan is still intent on robbing Kafiristan of its plunder and then returning to the west, Dravot begins suffering from delusions that he is a god and that his destiny is to remain the ruler of Kafiristan.
Two things happen to thwart their plans: the high priest of Kafiristan, Kafu Selim (Karroom Ben Bouih) believes Dravot could be a god, but remains suspicious. Also, because of native superstition, Roxanne is afraid to marry Dravot out of fear she will go up in flames on their wedding night. She bites Dravot while they are about to marry, Dravot bleeds, the high priest proclaims that gods don’t bleed, and Dravot is forced to cross a rope bridge that is then cut and plunges to his death. Carnehan in turn in crucified on a tree, but he survives to return to India to tell his story to Kipling (Christopher Plummer).
The Man Who Would Be King was written in 1886, but its lesson is still not heard. Kipling was torn for the love of the English soldier, his on and off belief that the English were in some manner superior, and his deeper conviction (that does manifest itself in his best work like the story The Man Who Would Be King) that western man with its politics, religion, education and culture had become far too sure of itself to leave other people alone.
This film is not escapism. There are many moving, funny and powerful scenes in this film. We come to admire Carnehan and Dravot for their audacity, but we all along know that they would also meet their doom. The film imparts a sense of mystery in that it tells us we don’t always understand what drives on other men. I watch the film once or maybe twice a year because I cannot convince myself that movies like The Lone Ranger or all the endless sequels are really the best we can do in film. Compared to what Hollywood is tossing out as a message, the antics of Carnehan and Dravot are refreshing.
© Robert S. Miller 2013