John Huston’s 1975 adventure tale almost defies description. It so filled with important themes (power corrupts absolutely, British imperialism in India was a huge mistake, loyalty to any dogma - religious, historical, political - is dangerous, an adventurous spirit can overcome any obstacle), magnificent scenery (filmed in Morocco), fantastic acting (Christopher Plummer, Sean Connery, Michael Caine), intelligent exposition (John Huston’s script) and great adventure (Rudyard Kipling’s original story) that it almost seems like one is talking about multiple movies. In a sense that is appropriate, because director Huston put everything he had into this film. All his abilities as a storyteller and visual artist are at their zenith for the making of this epic picture. Each scene is a stunning set piece of beautiful landscapes; sympathetic lighting and music; and plot or character development. The Man Who Would Be King is dense with all the details that make for great movies, and it is an enormously entertaining and thought-provoking cautionary tale as relevant today as it was when Kipling wrote it (1888). In many ways it is a summation of Huston’s career, which was already extraordinary by anyone’s reckoning.
Taking place in turn of 19th century India, Christopher Plummer plays young journalist Rudyard Kipling, who befriends two con-men who, when decommissioned from the British army, find themselves adrift and looking for adventure. They strike upon a plan to travel to Kafiristan (mountainous Afghanistan) where they will befriend local tribal leaders, help them vanquish their enemies, and then themselves subvert power and become kings of this primitive land. Huston leads them through an escalating series of adventures, filmed with genuine skill and on-location panache, landing them finally in remote tribal areas. The years since September 11, 2001 have only lent a greater element of risk and mystery to this region of the world making it seem even more likely to contain secrets unknown to the Western world. Amazingly, the two adventurers (Connery as Daniel Dravot and Caine as Peachey Carnehan) actually start to realize their far-fetched plan. Through a series of unlikely but believable coincidences the local pagan tribespeople accept Daniel Dravot as their king, and eventually as the second coming of their God Sikander (who turns out to have been Alexander The Great). On the verge of getting away with the largest treasure on earth, Dravot starts to believe his own hype. He first asks Peachey to bow before him like all the other tribespeople (“just for appearances”) and before long, he has convinced himself that he is indeed some kind of reincarnation of Alexander and that he will eventually gain his rightful place as one of the great rulers of earth.
It certainly doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is going to go horribly wrong, and it does in spectacular fashion. As power clouds Daniel’s vision, his ego takes the lead position and begins to drive the whole train off the cliff (figuratively and literally). The last half hour of the film unfolds in such a precise reading of human failing that it almost feels as if it is in slow motion. We wince as Daniel falls prey to his own weakness. Not that either of the lead characters have projected much humanity. They are, for the most part, despicable thieves who get precisely what they deserve. It is a tribute to both actors that these characters are simultaneously compelling and humorous while embodying all that is detestable in human nature. There are shocks and surprises aplenty, so it is best to stop the plot summary and encourage you to see it…on as big a screen as you can find. I hadn’t seen this movie in over a decade, but scene after scene came back to me as though they were slide shows of my own life: so indelible are Huston’s images. In today’s world of computer-generated, outer space scenery, it is entirely thrilling to remember what great film making was all about. John Huston plies his craft with such confident expertise that it is literally breathtaking. His story takes in the scope of human ambition and failure and he tells it with the visual majesty of nature itself. It is as big and great as movie-making gets.
- Paul Epstein