It’s not every day that you come across a loafer in a sweltering train compartment with an educated taste in whiskey. When Rudyard Kipling, the narrator of this strange but sweeping story, meets Peachy Carnehan, former gunner sergeant of Her Majesty’s forces, he is won over by the brash charisma of the man sitting opposite him. He is the same man who had stolen his watch at the station earlier and had returned it only when he realised that Kipling was a fellow Freemason. Carnehan had a favour to ask. “Tell him that Peachy has gone South for the week” is the message that Kipling had to drop to yet another fellow Freemason in the first-class compartment of the Bombay Mail at Marwar Junction. Kipling does accordingly, amused by this little eccentricity, knowing little that these two fellows – the Cockney-speaking Carnehan and the dashing Daniel Dravot – have more to them than meets the eye.
Adapted with a fair amount of integrity from Kipling’s short story of the same name, The Man Who Would Be King is a thrilling but ultimately tragic tale of adventure, peril, imperialism and its inevitable downfall. Even though the title refers only to one of these two men, it is a rousing, pleasantly old-fashioned story of friendship, exploring the rock-solid bond of companionship between these endearing loafers. And that is what makes it an abiding watch, more than forty five years after it first released.
Not only did the director, John Huston, summon up his skill to portray masculine heroism with a stirring sense of glory but he and his crew also took care to stay admirably faithful to the original material without concerning themselves with cultural subversion. J.M Barrie, the Scottish novelist, called Kipling’s story “the most audacious thing in fiction”: beneath the writer’s rich and dazzling storytelling imagination lies not only an atmospheric picture of India – from the loo stench that sweeps across in the stifling summers to the animated hustle and bustle of a newspaper office in the hills – but also a satirical portrait of the underside of the administration of the Raj.
The film skimps some of the latter in favour of the former; The Man Who Would Be King is not only a wonderful tribute to colonial-era adventure films set in exotic lands that were the mainstay decades long before the 1970s – King Solomon’s Mines, North West Frontier – but it also carries the haunting, mesmerising and even poetic quality to be found in masterpieces such as The Four Feathers or the ever-inimitable Lawrence of Arabia. Having a talented British crew helped Huston as well: Oswald Morris’ beautifully textured photography brings to life the noises and sights of the Kumarhsen Serai (Kipling’s fictional creation, inspired by Kashmir Serai), the ardour of the two men’s odyssey across the Hindu Kush, the enticing and alienating pleasures and rituals of Kafiristan and the splendid scenes of swashbuckling glory. Russell Lloyd’s editing has a fluid, almost dream-like quality that revels in the savage beauty of the landscape.
But the film would be incomplete without Peachy and Daniel, played superbly by Michael Caine and Sean Connery respectively. As a pair of lovable rogues, who are disillusioned with the bureaucratic regime of the Raj and are nursing dreams of ruling a kingdom of their own, they bring their distinct styles to the fore to create compellingly flawed but admirable heroes pursuing a vain dream. Caine’s smooth-shaven looks are a perfect foil to his sly mischief, which he uncorks unexpectedly, while Connery pairs his suave Scottish charisma with a boyish enthusiasm – he is wholly admirable when waxing eloquent about his intentions or when prancing and swirling in his unrecognisable disguise.
The two men form an irresistible bond of camaraderie that takes them through an epic adventure. We are aware that they are rogues and even possibly thieves and yet the film, like Kipling’s story, never judges their morality. There is an intriguing contrast between the two men – Peachy is shrewd and pragmatic, while Daniel is so overwhelmed at the thought of becoming a king that he starts ignoring their amusing little contract of forswearing women and drink, thus setting the stage for the travesty in the end.
It is the witty and droll repartee between the two men, thanks to the natural appeal of these fine actors as well, that makes the film such a fun watch. In an unforgettable scene, when unable to cross a chasm and almost certain to die ignobly alone in the snow, their generous guffaws of laughter bring down an avalanche, thus helping them march on ahead with their royal quest. Things don’t quite end with the same blissful convenience at the end and the scene where they pay the price for their foolhardy scheme in blood still has the power to break the hardest hearts.
All this is a far cry from the studied earnestness that marks not only so many of those blockbuster films but also their so-called “heroes” who are only interested in saving us, or USA to be more specific, from certain disaster. In times when even James Bond has become an asexual bore, working for the CIA rather than doing exciting things for England, it is refreshing to see the two heroes of this magnificent film set out with some admirable derring-do to take a kingdom for themselves.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.