Friday, 6 November 2015

The Man who would be King (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #6

This film was directed by John Huston and released in 1975, but the viewer can be forgiven for thinking that it's older. It's a film made in the style of the big Hollywood epics from the 1950's and 1960's, the cast of thousands films. A difference is that the old Hollywood films were based on historical records, either secular or Biblical, whereas "The man who would be king" is based on a work of fiction, a novel written by Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling himself appears as a character in the book (and the film), which was common in popular literature of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Another author who frequently used this prose style, first-person narrative, was Somerset Maugham. In 1886 Rudyard Kipling was a correspondent for the Northern Star in Calcutta, a fine British gentleman in an age when a man's manners and clothing meant everything. He meets two British men who are anything but gentlemen. They are ex-soldiers who served in India, but are now making money from crimes such as blackmail. When he realises that they, like him, are Freemasons, he feels a holy bond with them and pleads for them not to be imprisoned after an unsuccessful attempt to blackmail a Rajah.

The two ex-soldiers, Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) devise an audacious plan and request assistance from Kipling. They want to find a remote kingdom where they can first make friends with the king by helping him conquer his enemies, then betray the king by killing him and becoming kings themselves, and finally steal the kingdom's treasure and return to England as rich men. Rudyard Kipling gives them directions to Kafiristan, a small country north of Afghanistan (which has become a province in Afghanistan today).

More by luck than by skill the two men arrive in Kafiristan. They ingratiate themselves with a local chieftain by protecting women from an attack by a neighbouring tribe. They train his tribesmen as soldiers and conquer the other tribe. Danny and Peachy are given the praise for the attack, so the tribesmen kill their leader and appoint Danny their new leader.

The people of Kafiristan worship a God called Sikander, who left them 2000 years earlier and promised his son would return one day. Peachy figures out that they are referring to Alexander the Great, who conquered their country but returned to Greece in 382 B.C. After an incident where Danny is struck by an arrow but survives (because it struck a leather belt beneath his jacket) the natives think he is a God, the Son of Sikander. Soon all of Kafiristan submits to his rule.

I expect most of my readers have seen this film already, but I shan't say what happens next, for the sake of the few who still haven't seen it. It's a beautiful vivid spectacle, visually overwhelming, with perfect performances by the two lead characters.

After reviewing each of my 30 films I make recommendations for other similar films for future viewing. In the case of this film it's difficult, because it stands in a class of its own. The closest matches I can think of are epic historical films from the golden age of Hollywood.
  • Ben Hur (1959)
  • Spartacus (1960)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


  1. Yes, this is one of sean's best films and performances.
    Will watch it again soon in HD.

    1. Do you own a Blu-ray of this film? I'm curious. According to a review I read yesterday the remastered version is an improvement on the DVD, but still far from perfect. I'm not sure whether it's worth buying or not, so I'd like to see it first.

      When it comes to remastered Blu-ray releases, some films (like "Doctor Who and the Daleks") are praised unconditionally, and other films (like "The land that time forgot") are criticised as hasty releases to make a quick buck, not worth buying if you already have the DVD. The review of "The man who would be king" falls between the two extremes.


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