When I first met a man, who is now one of my closest friends, he told me I would love three things: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Withnail and I and The Man Who Would Be King. He recommended a fourth, eight years later, but I’ll tell you that at the end.
As always happens, though, when someone makes recommendations like that you tend to ignore them after politely indulging the lie that you’d immediately go and watch them. Over the years, by dribs and drabs, you’ll discover their recommends on your own accord and realise that your now dear friend was completely right from the get go. Or certainty that’s how it went for me.
To my shame, The Man Who Would Be King (1975) is an echoing example of this. To discover it any later than the day of your birth is to have lost precious time. It is a rarity as having the most replay value of any film ever made and is arguably the best film that Michael Caine and Sean Connery ever made.
To get the elephant in the room out-of-the-way: yes, The Italian Job and Connery’s inaugural Bond are marvellous cinematic creations that will last for as long as moving picture does. But neither man has ever been funny: they were clever, established actors who performed with skill and they embodied their roles so fully that you never really knew who the men behind the masks were. The likes of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton were wonderful actors too, but they were renowned boozers with a love for women and general penchant for hell raising. Just watch Beckett to see them both colossally pissed and in good humour for two hours as a case in point.
King, on the other hand, shows us and combines the impish humour of Caine and Connery to create the perfect tandem of Peachy Carnehan and Daniel ‘Danny’ Dravot. What today would be called a bromance was then a beautiful, and revealing, alignment of brilliant British acting talent wrapped in a thousand thread count blanket of brilliant writing. The camaraderie between both men might be the backbone of the film, but it’s Rudyard Kipling’s short story of the same name that gives them the circumstances and the material to indulge themselves.
Throw into this mix John Huston’s direction and you nearly have a winning formula. Huston made what might possibly be the last grand sweeping epic using thousands of extras in locations that really do feel like 1885. Filming locations in France and Morocco are not only exotic but are made to feel like they’re in another time.
Combine to this the script by Huston and Gladys Hill and you have a film that is underrated to the point of criminality. It must surely have been penned with these actors in mind because they are perfectly matched in humour which is the glue to the whole thing. It’s not that it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on imperialism, it’s that Sean Connery and Michael Caine are going to the made up country of Kafiristan to rule as kings. Who else could do that? Particularly when they’re so honest about themselves:
We haven’t many good deeds to our credit.
None…none to brag about.
Although much of the credit goes to the two main leads for making it iconic, Christopher Plummer as Kipling and Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish give both actors co-stars which not only make it a successful ensemble but a rip-roaring one. Plummer is a marvellous Kipling and the perfect sensible muse for his nefarious Masonic cohorts. Of particular significance is Jaffrey. The Gurkhas are a reputable fighting force, and Billy Fish is no exception. There is a culture clash that makes their interactions funny, but he’s never the stupid foreigner or the noble savage. No, Billy Fish is in on the act and is gut-twistingly funny with his “indeed by Jove” and represents the ridiculousness of Britain exporting her novelties, idioms and cultural ticks to others: “I know you, you English persons. Take off hat to woman, give name to dog.”
So is all of this an imperialistic adventure and a shameful indulgence of colonial arrogance? Partly, but it would be wrong to dismiss the film as merely a hark back to a bygone age. Empire is the context and not the focus of the film; if anything the story is a grand metaphor for the collapse of the British Empire under the weight of its own arrogant belief in its messianic mission to civilise the world under false pretences. It wasn’t designed by good endeavour, but wholly by accident. As Peachy says:
“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!”
In many respects, King is the answer to why I dislike the Indiana Jones series. Journeys to strange lands and the gung-ho hilarity of the heroes are what King does perfectly, yet Jones always felt like a comic strip come to life. While serious, it never takes itself as seriously as the series by Lucas and Spielberg. This is the real deal, a true adventure made possible with great direction and scale and a cast that are hilarious together. Was Jones ever as clever as this:
He wants to know if you are gods.
Not gods – Englishmen. The next best thing!
It’s easy to write, particularly when reflecting on a film you love, that the score by Maurice Jarre (who also composed Lawrence of Arabia) is as good as everything else and somehow as important a cog in the wheel. In truth it is, but it’s the sparing use of music which makes it both exotic (like when Danny and Peachy are crossing the Khyber Pass) and profoundly thematic. The melodic play on ‘Minstrel Boy’ is a cheeky, almost adolescent reminder that this is a cracking yarn. His use of the lyrics from Reginald Heber’s ‘The Son of God Goes Forth to War’ is a perfectly matched combination. The use of its numerous iterations throughout the film before, finally, being both sung by Caine and Connery in their final moments is genius and reflects not so much martial tradition, but the tale of two scoundrels and friendship. Good luck keeping a dry eye when you hear it after this:
Peachy, I’m heartily ashamed for gettin’ you killed instead of going home rich like you deserved to, on account of me bein’ so bleedin’ high and bloody mighty. Can you forgive me?
That I can and that I do, Danny, free and full and without let or hindrance.
Everything’s all right then.
Ultimately, the film is true to its tagline of ‘adventure in all its glory’. It is serious, but fun, and a reminder that the imperial adventure film can have its charm and hilarity too. It needn’t be as literal as Lawrence of Arabia or Khartoum.
It was my pleasure to see Connery and Jaffrey (Caine couldn’t’ make it) in 2010 at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh in honour of Connery’s final year as patron of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It is forever etched in my memory, both for the joy of seeing it with an audience who loved the actors and the film, but also for sitting next to and raising a whisky with the friend who introduced me to it. I find I raise a drink to him again tonight, this time looking at a Spanish sunset. That was a very good suggestion too.