21 February 2010

The Man Who Would Be King by Huston, 1975

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 8:43 am

“We hear they’ve two and thirty idols there. So we’ll be the 33rd and 34th.”

“And gold and sapphires and rubies.”

“And the women are supposed to be very beautiful.”

“It’s a place of warring tribes, which is to say — a land of opportunity for such as we who know how to train men and lead them into battle.”

“We’ll go there and say to any chief we can find, ‘We’ll vanquish all your foes and make you King — King of all Kafiristan — for half the booty!” …So we’ll fight for him and loot the country four ways from Sunday!”

“Millionaires we’ll be when next you see us!”

“How’s that for a plan?”

– Screenplay by John Huston and Gladys Hill, from a story by Rudyard Kipling



  1. Glod lines and bad, but should be fun. I just looked on IMDb, trying to see who that gorgeous girl is, mayhe she’s the Arab name I saw maybe 11th or 12th. But mostly men in this. Now, all of a sudden comes back 1975, and I was playing at the Sherry Netherland, nice place but still just cocktail piano stuff I was doing. Caine and Connery came in there, but I didn’t see them, one of the bellboys told me they’d been there, so it was probably around the time of this movie’s opening. A critic told me the Sherry Netherland was where American movie stars stayed, and that European stars stayed at the next-door Pierre. But he’s full of shit, all fhe time, I don’t think that means anything. I wish I’d seen them though, and I never have seen either of them. I DID see *Mrs. Goldman* in her ridiculous mink–she was going around being unpleasant, and said of the guy I’d replaced ‘oh well, he should have been terminated’. I couldn’t believe she used that word. She was the owner. That was a nice moment there.

    Put the movie on hold and will enjoy watching it, although I can’t say all those lines are equally exquisite. I liked them up to ‘We’ll vanquish all your foes’. Somehow I never can take that word even if it was ever used in olden times. It doesn’t seem to match the word ‘millionaire’ io particular. I don’t think they had quite such problem in ‘The Lion in Winter’, which is really good, surprised me. Kate Hepburn great, and truly an ‘older woman syndrome’ with Peter O’Toole, miraculously still alive, surviving his drinking buddies Lawrence Harvey and Peter Finch some 30 years–and I think he had the worse reputation for dypsomania.

    I bet it will be kind of like ‘The Sting’, made also around that time, maybe a little earlier, and/or ‘Butch Cassidy’. Not a big fan of that genre, now that I think of it. Never thought Newman and Redford were that thrilling a pair.


    Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 21 February 2010 @ 6:53 pm

  2. The dialog is similar to that in the original short story. Kipling was awarded a Nobel at the age of 42, making him still the youngest literary recipient ever. I included this bit of dialog to illustrate that the soldier-of-fortune motivation is clear from the outset. Huston dressed up Michael Caine in a British military uniform to emphasize the imperialistic thrust. The Kafiris believe that the Sean Connery character was a son of Alexander the Great, who long ago conquered the place — so these two scalawags represent Western imperialistic conquests of the East two millennia after the “golden age.” The choices are to take the money and run; or to stay, go native, marry the local girl, and become a god. In this story neither choice works out very well, though in retrospect the cut-and-run scheme would have been the better choice. In an ironic twist, Kafiristan, now called Nuristan, is that section of northeast Afghanistan bordering on Pakistan where Bin Laden is supposedly hiding out.

    The girl is surely Moroccan, since that’s where the filming took place. This scene, where she’s about to be married to Connery and her eyes roll back, has stuck with me since seeing the movie when it was first released. The whole wedding scene is fantastic, both visually and auditorially. There’s a location south of Marrakech, just across the Atlas Mountains, where many movies have been shot: Lawrence of Arabia, this one, one of the Star Wars movies, Last Temptation of Christ, Alexander by Oliver Stone, Gladiator by Ridley Scott. I didn’t make it across the mountains so never saw some of these beautiful places.


    Comment by john doyle — 21 February 2010 @ 8:06 pm

  3. Great dialogue in this film, although I’ve never read the original story. It’s shown quite often on UK TV and I’m very fond of it.

    My favourite quotes:

    “Now, the problem is, how to divide five Afghans from three mules and have two Englishmen left over…”

    “We’ll rob them four ways from Sunday!”

    “Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men.”


    Comment by NB — 22 February 2010 @ 6:51 am

  4. These two fellows ain’t posh, so they don’t talk posh. I too liked “benighted muckers” — my father is the only person I know who actually refers to people as “muckers” in ordinary conversation. He hails from New Bedford Mass, where Ishmael begins his narrative. I just picked that book of the shelf, and in Chapter 1, on page 5, my eye was grabbed by this bit:

    “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.
    “Whaling voyage by one Ishmael.

    “Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces — though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.”

    The Kipling/Huston story presents the usual stereotypes of the oriental natives: ignorant, superstitious, petty, violent, disorganized, yet possessed of strength and wealth and beauty that only a civilized Westerner can appreciate — and control. Kipling may or may not have been a racist and an imperialist himself, but it’s clear that he’d have treated the hero of Avatar more harshly than Cameron did.


    Comment by john doyle — 22 February 2010 @ 9:57 am

  5. I’d already thought about Moby-Dick while watching this movie, because the narrative conceits of the two stories are similar:

    “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” — Job

    Ishmael and Peachey are the sole survivors of the events they recount. Are they reliable narrators? In Kipling’s story, and in the movie, Peachey tells his story to Kipling himself, or at least to a fictionalized version of Kipling. Is Kipling a reliable transmitter of the story he’s been told?


    Comment by john doyle — 22 February 2010 @ 10:05 am

  6. “Ishmael and Peachey are the sole survivors of the events they recount. Are they reliable narrators?”

    Yes, I’d say they were both pretty unreliable – The fictional Kipling too – and that helps make their stories more compelling, despite the device being a bit clichéd these days.

    Danny and Peachey are liars, swindlers, chancers and rascals, which is what makes them so loveable of course. As far as the film tells it, this is what Kipling finds so admirable about them, and typical they are of the real “captains” of the Empire. They are the common voice of the Empire, like Gunga Din the real voice beyond the bullshit of generals.

    “Detriments you call us? Detriments? Well I want to remind you that it was detriments like us that built this bloody Empire AND the Izzat of the bloody Raj. Hats on.”

    He romanticises them, thereby romanticising the British empire, but it’s a bit of an odd way to romanticise imperialism by talking it up as a crafty thief (the subjugated have little or no voice at all, sadly). Is that why Kipling still compels many people against their better judgment? We want to believe Kipling’s story of Peachey’s story against our better judgment, whereas Peachey probably lost everything through drink (does Danny’s crowned skull appear at the end of the book too?). I think Kipling brilliantly romanticised the empire against his better judgment too, trying imagine it as a communitarian environment of rough noble-men.

    Billy Fish: He wants to know if you are gods.
    Peachy Carnehan: Not gods – Englishmen. The next best thing.

    Maybe Houston loved Kipling’s stories against himself too: he was publicly critical of Britain after Bloody Sunday but this film was made in the mid-Seventies as he was living in Ireland.

    “It took him half an hour to fall.” (Paradise Lost?)

    Peachey tells a fantastic adventure. It’s probably the same in the US, but in the UK it’s still common to hear “adventure” meant as “folly”, especially hubristic folly. Thus, politicians on TV might talk of “Blair’s Iraq adventure” or historians of “the Suez adventure” – they are often compared: “the worst foreign policy adventure since Suez” etc. Kipling seems to have a masterly grasp narrating adventure and The Man Who Would Be King is the exemplar of the hubristic adventure parable.


    Comment by NB — 23 February 2010 @ 6:48 am

  7. Houston’s film also reminds me of Ray’s The Chess Players, made around the same time. Maybe they are kind of companion pieces, although the latter is definitely not an adventure tale. Ray’s film also stars Saeed Jaffrey.


    Comment by NB — 23 February 2010 @ 6:52 am

  8. I picked up this movie from the library after having just watched Alexander and Gladiator. Kenzie has been studying the Greeks and Romans in world history, and the teacher used these two films as pedagogic aids. We had recently watched both District 9 and Avatar for updated movies on a related theme. The Man Who Would Be King makes an explicit connection between Alexander’s “adventures,” Western government-sponsored empire, and good old exploitation and plunder. Kipling premised his story on two adventurers — one an Englishman, the other an American — who achieved similar god-king status in remote Eastern realms, so presumably Kipling does expect us to believe him and Peachey. Besides, Peachey doesn’t pull many punches about his and Danny’s motives. That he perceives the Kafiris in racist terms is understandable given who the character is. And the fictional Kipling to whom he tells the story writes in racist terms about the classes of people who ride in the different classes of train cars and so on.

    Kipling seems to have been an avid propagandist for imperialism and the “white man’s burden.” Did he really believe in the altruistic mission, or did he acknowledge that the real motivations were money and power dressed up in fancy uniforms and fine rhetoric? The Man Who Would Be King certainly suggests the latter.

    Wikipedia informs us that John Huston became an Irish Citizen in 1964, so one would have to believe that he put no great stock in the altruism propping up British imperialism. He was by all accounts an adventurer, so he probably would have endorsed the lust for power and wealth and the shrewdness required for actually grabbing it, stripped of all the rhetorical niceties. What kills the deal is when the conquerors start believing their own rhetoric.


    Comment by john doyle — 23 February 2010 @ 9:22 am

  9. “Kipling seems to have been an avid propagandist for imperialism and the “white man’s burden.” Did he really believe in the altruistic mission, or did he acknowledge that the real motivations were money and power dressed up in fancy uniforms and fine rhetoric? The Man Who Would Be King certainly suggests the latter.”

    Yes, he was a propagandist for empire, certainly by the twentieth century. He talked up WWI as a noble cause, whereon his son was killed in action. He often undercuts the imperial bullshit only to retract again. He can be full of praise about India and the Indians just before falling again into racist stereotypes. And he has such a good ear for idiomatic speech that it is difficult, in his fiction at least, to know where he stands (no bad thing for an author, in my opinion). So, maybe we have to take his other work at face value. He is maddening. I guess he also became a little like Danny.

    The Man Who Would Be King is a far superior film than Gladiator, in both moral complexity and veracity. It’s more exciting too! I’ve been warned off Alexander… They should really make a big screen version of I Claudius.

    Haven’t seen either District 9 or Avatar yet. Will try to see the former tonight. Even though Cameron no doubt has a considerably more enlightened view of native peoples than Kipling, I just can’t quite bring myself to give him more money.


    Comment by NB — 23 February 2010 @ 10:25 am

  10. I’ve already requested the first disk of the I Claudius miniseries. I’ve not seen it, but the book was fine. Gladiator was like Ben Hur but without the moral dilemmas and the lepers and the Jesus cameo. Alexander was of more historical interest but the movie itself was tedious and confusing and at times almost silly. I agree that ambiguity amidst complexity is characteristic of much good fiction.


    Comment by john doyle — 23 February 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  11. “Gladiator was like Ben Hur but without the moral dilemmas and the lepers and the Jesus cameo.”

    And the chariot race was more exciting! Actually, I would have preferred Gladiator if they’d the audacity to stick Jesus in at some point. Maybe as Marcus Aurelius’s aide. What’s the bible film where John Wayne looks up at the cross and says, “Truly, He was the Son of Gaad”?

    Saw District 9 last night – very disappointing. For the first half hour I was thinking, “This is great,” and then it turned into Transformers. I think I’ll watch Avatar on my scratchy portable when it comes to TV. Here’s an excellent Avatar review by Buffalo Bill (he likes Titanic way too much but, hey, he’s a psycho):


    Comment by NB — 24 February 2010 @ 8:00 am

  12. If you thought District 9 was really disappointing, wait till you see Avatar. No wait: you’re already expecting the worst. Agree though that D9’s first half is the good part, and at least it’s the alien who’s going to be the savior of his people. I also liked it that the human didn’t want to stay alien, that he kept “pinin’ for the fjords” right to the end. Titanic I liked better the second time I saw it, entirely because of the alternate reality of the ship and the sea. And I agree with your curmudgeonly reviewer who regards Avatar as a remake.


    Comment by john doyle — 24 February 2010 @ 11:45 am

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