Review: The Man Who Would Be King

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

It’s hard not to think about Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing The Man Who Would Be King, for reasons that range from their broadest similarities as adventure yarns involving men balancing vision against obsession and finally losing everything in their efforts to get everything, down to minor but perhaps tellingly matched details like the strings of frisky mules who in both cases wind up spilling fortunes of gold back into the wilderness from which they came. To enumerate a few other likenesses: one could easily see the Mexican Shangri-la that Walter Huston falls into in Treasure of the Sierra Madre as something of an incipient Kafiristan (who knows that Huston didn’t have Kafiristan in mind even then, if it is true that he’s had a film version of Kipling’s story forming in his head for some twenty years) and the schism that festers briefly between Peachey Carnehan and Danny Dravot when Danny decides to take a wife and remain a .king in Kafiristan as another version of the paranoia that alienates Fred C. Dobbs from his companions and finally leads to his death—as Danny’s much less self-destructive delusions lead to his. Cutting it a little finer, there is the director’s own little joke in Treasure when Bogart (who, interestingly, was one of the actors—Clark Gable was the other—Huston originally intended to play the roles in his version of Kipling’s story) keeps on badgering John Huston to “stake a fellow American to a meal” (Huston plays a small part as a moneyed American in a Mexican city full of penniless expatriates) until Huston gets pissed off and tells Bogart, “This is the last peso you’ll get from me; from now on, you’ll have to make your way through life without my assistance!” In The Man Who Would Be King Peachey Carnehan swipes a watch from Kipling—if not the auteur, at least the author who set Peachey and Danny out into the world and into Huston’s imagination.

Kipling’s way of including himself in a first-person narrative gives Huston a chance to play upon the idea of creation on a number of levels. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (taken from B. Traven’s novel) was Hustonian storytelling at its best, but The Man Who Would Be King is something even more than that: it’s a celebration of the storytelling process. Huston is eager to postulate Rudyard Kipling as prime mover of all the creative business that transpires in and about the movie, giving us a feeling that his characters are an extension of Kipling, that their identities are molded from the past, from a realm that is perhaps more than legend but just shy of truth. Still, the movie doesn’t literally begin with Kipling. Peachey Carnehan, in fact, is the first real character to appear on the screen (as a shadow shuffling crabwise toward the office of the Northern Star), and even he is preceded by a pre-title sequence of pointedly exotic Indian street life oozing bizarre performances and rituals. The first indication we have of Kipling’s presence is a piece of poetry being scratched onto some onionskin, presumably after the Northern Star has been put to bed and Kipling’s poetic imagination has taken flight from the everyday drone of responsibilities as a British correspondent in India. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal Kipling the man, then eases a little to the right so that Kipling is in the lefthand side of the frame. The rest is shadow, and then, when Peachey—or what is left of him—moves a little further into the light, that shadow becomes Peachey himself, as though, somehow, he had sprung from the creative atmosphere pervading Kipling’s early-morning stint with pen and paper. Kipling, of course, doesn’t initially recognize him. Peachey must remind him of the contract signed “three summers and a thousand years ago” before Kipling lights up with horrified fascination that this could be the same man. A moment later, when Peachey begins the story “proper” with his own flashback to his initial encounter with Kipling at the train station, he is, most fittingly, veiled behind an edition of Kipling’s own Northern Star, which slowly drops to reveal Peachey’s shifting glance as he cases the joint for a prospective pocket heist victim. Almost in the same way that he emerges from behind the paper which Kipling authors, Peachey seems to have emerged from Kipling’s imagination.

Huston creates a very auspicious sense of things and people being conceived, coming into existence in a world which itself in some way emanates from that vast, nearly timeless context of India that Huston establishes with his opening montage. Not long after Peachey’s story has begun, Kipling is seen searching a train for Daniel Dravot, for whom he has a message from Peachy re their plan to blackmail the rajah (a plan Kipling is so far innocent of). Dravot, asleep in his compartment, suddenly comes to life, throws aside the hat that had been lying across his face (“God’s holy trousers! Tickets again? !”), discovers that Kipling is a Freemason like himself, and then, as the train slowly begins to pull out, yells the key to his and Peachey’s plan: to pose as correspondents from the Northern Star. Kipling’s jaw flaps. He yells, “You can’t do that! I’m the correspondent from the Northern Star,” but Danny can’t hear him and he’s already disappearing into a bluish haze of night and steam and whatever lies out in that infinitely potential world beyond the station. But it’s a terrible world as well as one full of possibilities. Danny’s ghostly drift away from Kipling chillingly prefigures another recession into space at the end of the movie, when Danny falls like a penny whirligig to his death, literally swallowed up by the world that he and Peachey had nearly come to own.

Kipling’s story is only about 40 pages long. Huston’s movie hovers disproportionately large at somewhere around a couple of hours running time. But in the face of such a monumental chore as expanding the scenario to those proportions, Huston still managed to retain small cherished bits of narration and dialogue from Kipling’s story that prove to make for some of the movie’s most delightful moments. Connery and Caine, as well as Huston, seem to revel especially in the contract-witnessing scene where Peachey and Danny ceremoniously light each other’s cigar to prove to Kipling that they are indeed sober. Whisky is poured, a map of Kafiristan is studied. Closeup on the contract with a glass of whisky sitting beside it. Danny is about to sign, thinks twice, drinks the whisky down (the contract forbids partaking of liquor until they become kings), then writes his name. It is almost a comic affair. But then the horn motif that Danny will overwhelmingly reiterate in song just before his death edges onto the soundtrack, and in the absurd hopefulness of these two crazy men we suddenly sense something almost unspeakably heroic and steadfastly human that balances their fate somewhere between the solemn and the ridiculous. Kipling simply walks out of the room, leaving Peachey and Danny to begin realizing their dream, his discreet exit perhaps indicative of Huston’s own predilection to respect a certain amount of foolishness in the face of destiny.

There are certainly a lot of instances when grand moments are undercut by nonsense, by absurd little motes in the eye of Fate. One of the most colossally conceived scenes in the film is the first full-scale battle between Peachey’s and Danny’s raw troops and the inhabitants of a hilltop citadel who come pouring out of its gates, spreading across the sloping battlefield like a viscous soup. Just as the fighting is about to begin we hear a distant tinkling of bells. They move nearer, and finally a line of blind priests step into the frame, cutting a swath between the opposing forces who fall like dominos in synch with the lateral motion of the camera as it pans from let to right. Pullback to an encompassing shot of the battlefield. Even before the priests have disappeared out of the righthand side of the frame the troops are whooping it up again. Peachey’s riflemen let loose, Danny’s horsemen upstage them with a cavalry charge, and Danny gets an arrow in the bandolier that is strapped across his chest. The enemy mistake it for a sign of divinity and fall down in worshipful awe while the horseback Danny, a bit confused, prances about. The entire countryside seems to fall absolutely still. Well, not quite. You can hear a fly buzzing. Danny is on his way to becoming a king.

It’s a big movie, and in it Huston exploits size and importance—the idea of the epic itself. But while sheer magnitude is an important part of Huston’s world, so is an attitude toward size, toward epic storytelling. Huston is intent on depicting the vastness of his world on a number of levels, but not just vastness in terms of geographic expansiveness. More essential is a sense of almost infinite possibility that reigns within, and beyond, the edges of the frame. This gives Huston a certain freedom. For instance, while necessity obviously required him to rely heavily on his matte artist Albert Whitlock (who deservedly won an Oscar this year, although not for his work on this project) during certain scenes and sequences—the mountain scenes in the Hindu Kush with its bottomless crevasses and vast snowfields through which Danny and Peachey toil, or the approach to the holy city, a Parthenon-like skeleton of decaying columns and arches set high on a distant mountain—it is precisely those touches of just slightly conspicuous illusion-making which indicate an essential aspect of this world where imagination is again and again implied, relied upon, and celebrated. Peachey and Danny, entering their first Kafiristani village with an enemy hostage and high hopes of receiving a hero’s welcome, are greeted instead with a flurry of arrows. An English-speaking native comes out with apologies, identifies himself as ex-rifleman Billy Fish, late of Her Majesty’s service, and Peachey, still wiping the sweat from his face, demands that Billy Fish account for himself: “Report, rifleman, what are you doing here … wherever here is.” Michael Caine delivers that addendum without a flinch. It’s not really supposed to be all that funny, and only secondarily is it a definition of some geographical dilemma. “Wherever here is” says something about the very sort of world Huston is creating. A sometimes unlikely but always maddeningly sensible world. A few moments later, Peachey nonchalantly shoots a crow out of the sky to indicate their power to the village honcho; the bird just kind of falls from nowhere right through the center of the frame and lands at his feet. The villagers are very impressed.

Imagination lives at the very center of The Man Who Would Be King, along with the forces of destiny, forces so maligned and inhospitably twisted in earlier Huston movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Asphalt Jungle. Their confluence here has a significant effect. Huston takes advantage of just about every chance to emphasize that a story is being told, to amaze us with outrageously propitious coincidence—an avalanche that fills a crevasse and enables Danny and Peachey to continue on their journey, the Freemason symbol that saves Danny’s life and turns him into a king just as a no-bullshit holy man is about to run this cockney imposter through with a sword, that silly arrow that lodges in Danny Dravot’s holster instead of in his heart—as well as to indulge in such quaint absurdities as reducing the militant political power structure of an entire kingdom to a matter of one village pissing upriver while the downstream folks are trying to bathe. We can hardly help but feel that the pluck and spirit of the storyteller is something on a par with the droll heroism of the characters, the romantic impulses that burst time and again through the narrative fabric lending validity and meaning to the tremendous scope of the dream that Danny and Peachey have.

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Direction: John Huston. Screenplay: John Huston and Gladys Hill, after the story by Rudyard Kipling. Cinematography: Oswald Morris. Production design: Alexandre Trauner, Tony Inglis. Editing: Russell Lloyd. Music: Maurice Jarre. Production: John Foreman.
The players: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Saeed Jaffrey, Christopher Plummer, Shakira Caine.

© 1976 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here