Based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling, adapted and filmed by John Huston in 1975, "The Man Who Would Be King" is a rousing and thought-provoking tale set in India during the time of the British Empire.
Huston lovingly produced a work which is remarkably faithful to the original, and indeed clarifies and enhances it with material not included in the original but which is entirely in keeping with the spirit of both the characters and the themes.
In roles originally intended for Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, Sean Connery and Michael Caine positively dominate the screen as they recount the tale of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, two soldiers of fortune who set out to become Kings of Kafiristan.
This is the story of two charming and immensely likeable rogues who are not afraid to make their mark on the world. They are untroubled by any existential considerations, and are quite amoral yet courageous and, in their own way, principled. They are self-centred and determined adventurers who recognise no man-made authority and have little thought for those whose lives they touch, but they are not evil and intend no real harm.
They are a pair - they complement one another perfectly, with Peachey being the practical, intelligent, cunning schemer, while Danny is magnetic, "spiritual", and provides strength and thought for our duo. Together, they represent a whole, and divided, each is weakened.
Our two "heroes" have such faith in themselves that they are willing to impose their will on others. In the grand scheme of things, they are indeed "little" men, but little men with great ideas and an excess of confidence and (admirable) spirit. The only authority they appear to respect is that of Freemasonry (an organisation devoted to the brotherhood of man under God's principles). Both Peachey and Danny would do anything to help a fellow Freemason, and of course one another, but otherwise they are largely their own masters and are likely to come in to conflict with man-made laws.
Ultimately, as a result of their self-confidence, daring, fate, and sheer luck, they achieve their aim of becoming Kings while claiming divine authority. To Peachey and Danny this is merely part of their scam, but playing on others' deeply-held religious convictions backfires on them as their "subjects" discover their mortal nature and turn on them.
Here the film touches on what I see as a basic truth, that man seems to need to believe in something - to have something or someone as a role model to look up to for direction and guidance. Although hardly devout believers, even Peachey and Danny hold the principles of the Freemasons as sacrosanct. People want to believe in their God, and while it suits Peachey and Danny to play up to that instinct, if people are then let down by their "God", the consequences can be awful.
Our tale is treated very lightly up to the point where Danny begins to be convinced of his own deity, at which point Peachey and Danny are quite out of their depth and we see that real harm could come of the situation. Until then it is a fun adventure with characters suffering fates they more or less deserved, but what they now plan amounts to subversive interference and tampering with an entire culture, and with that comes implied criticism of the colonial system.
"The Man Who Would Be King" can be seen as a metaphor for the colonial system of the nineteenth century (with particular reference to the British Empire), and the imposition of one land's "authority" over a "foreign" land and its people.
As stated in the film, the Empire was indeed built on the efforts (and arrogance) of men such as Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, and it is difficult not to succumb to the charm of these rogues who manage to trample over others' human rights while convincing themselves (and their "victims") that they are doing them a service!
In spite of the implied criticism of the arrogance of the colonial spirit, one cannot help but admire the courage, tenacity, determination, and sheer cheek of our two heroes. They mean no real harm and appear quite unaware of their own shortcomings as they set about their scam, but will ultimately pay a hefty price.
"The Man Who Would Be King" is also a story of faith.
Faith, as they say, can move mountains, and strength of spirit can help achieve greatness, but that achievement may lead to (self) delusion. Excessive faith and lack of self-doubt may lead to loss of a grip on reality and (in this case) claims to divine authority, while showing scant regard for the welfare of others.
Just as Peachey and Danny were delighted to be accepted as Kings, so the Kafiris were delighted to receive them as the vindication of their long-held faith. In a similar way society takes ordinary people and, not content with lauding their achievements, tries to deify them only to spurn them when they cannot live up to what is (unfairly) expected of them.
This is a wonderful and thought-provoking film full of humour, fun, adventure, and ultimately reflections on history and the nature of various elements of society.
John Huston cunningly lets us enjoy Peachey and Danny's company, sharing their adventures and their aspirations before reminding us of the implications and potential seriousness of what they are doing.
Connery and Caine are simply perfect in their parts and are given excellent support by the rest of the cast. It is perhaps a fairly "lean" story, but the performances and Huston's additions carry the whole off beautifully.
The following is an edited version of correspondence I had with Shahedah, an intrigued viewer of the film fromSingapore
, whose comments and questions I thought were well worth adding to this page.
I happened to come across your page on "Reflections on The Man Who Would Be King". I saw this movie about two days ago and would like to draw your attention to some instances in the film where racism or stereotyping comes into play, then relate those instances to the larger category of the 'exotic'.
The most evident and memorable scene where racism was displayed would be on the train, where Peachey throws the watermelon-eating passenger out of the train midway during the ride.
Personally I found it both amusing and yet felt a sense of pathos for the passenger as he was still uttering thanks or something reverent towards Peachey as he was being thrown down to the tracks. Perhaps to the local Indians, Europeans like Peachey seemed exotic and commanded a certain authority about them, further justified by colonialism and colonial masters. The passenger was subservient to Peachey, the "exotic" foreigner, to the point that he allowed himself to be flung off the cabin without retaliating, when ironically, he was the one who actually held a ticket.
Huston very cleverly managed to make the racist element amusing yet at the same time critical - it is accepted because we find our heroes likeable, while recognising their negative qualities. I suppose the character of Kipling represents the audience to some extent, and he seems to share our admiration while knowing that we shouldn't really admire them. Their arrogance is to some extent countered by their sincerity and their willingness to treat everyone in the same way - note the way they treat Kipling himself, the Commissioner and even their soldier colleague (met at the pass). They undoubtedly feel superior, but they are superior to all because they have total belief in themselves and their cause, symbolising, perhaps, the entire British colonial attitude.
Notice how the film opens with scenes from the marketplace, then cut to the opening credits. In other words, the market place was meant to act as a way of setting not only location but also tone. How does the 'exotic' act as an aesthetic category in other parts of the film?
The whole film is quite "exotic" - it is immensely popular, and that can't be due simply to the performances. There must be something about the subject matter, though also the way the whole is treated, with a subtle mix of drama and comedy. But beyond that, the very subject and time seems to inspire interest, mixing complete self assurance with the unknown, vaguely religious mystery and even fate.India remains largely unknown to most, and our knowledge of it is littered with the potential for spiritual mystery, as opposed to our high-tech, materialistic and skeptical society (in the West). I think people like to believe in what is possible, and "The Man who would be King" provides an escape from our rather dull and repetitive lives where character is perhaps not tested as it used to be.
Which brings up the notion of hubris, which is an important one in understanding Kipling's story, as well as Huston's film.
Firstly, about the bridge being a metaphor. I see the bridge as a metaphor which the locals used to "sever all ties" with Daniel Dravot.
I also feel that the bridge represents the imaginary connection that Dravot tried to build with the people of Kafiristan, by lying to them that he was a God. Given that their relationship was founded on deceit, it was only natural that it would crumble once the truth surfaced. Therefore, it was almost as if Dravot had come full circle when he died on the very bridge that the people whom he had falsely ruled constructed, i.e. his own deceitfulness led to his downfall.
My question is can the bridge be seen as a symbol of hubris? Taken to another level, could the empire itself be seen as hubristic?
I hadn't really thought about the bridge as a metaphor but I think you are right, and about hubris - their arrogance leads them to come to believe their own tale (at least in Dravot's case), but the Kafiris are, in a sense, equally guilty in that they are very keen to accept Dravot as a God, vindicating their long-held faith. Clearly religion and deeply held faith are not things to be tampered with lightly.
My thanks for taking the time to read my page. I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film further - I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .