[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
John Huston said recently he has made only three good films in the past decade: Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, and The Man Who Would Be King. Though I’m still holding out—more or less alone, I think—for The Kremlin Letter to be included among his better works and I have serious doubts about Reflections, there is certainly no argument that The Man is one of the director’s finest achievements of any decade. It’s a pretty neat trick to make a film so completely faithful to the spirit of Kipling’s original story while not violating for even a moment the spirit of John Huston as well.
Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is, in a sense, Heart of Darkness in a comic vein (should I have said “light-hearted vein”?). Kipling was a believer in the White Man’s Burden—”to bring light to the darker parts of the earth,” as one of his likeable rogues remarks in the film—and saw colonialism’s responsibility as one of giving as much as taking. Yet on the whole, both Kipling and Huston are kinder to the take-the-money-and-run man, Carnehan, than to Dravot, the man who would be king. To be sure, Dravot is never less than likeable; as we see him through Peachey Carnehan’s eyes, we understand and pity, rather than detest, his weakness for power. If his motives seem to become those of Conrad’s Kurtz, he is in death and memory much closer to Lord Jim. Material goals always elude the Hustonian aspirant; near the climax of the film, when the riches that were the original object of the sortie into Kafiristan slip almost parenthetically down the mountainside, there is no forgetting that this is the vision of the man who made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The fall of the treasure presages the fall of Danny Dravot, itself a quite literal correlative for what the Book of Proverbs says about pride and an haughty spirit.
Huston makes rather more of the Freemasonry motif than did Kipling. In the short story, the occurrence of Masonic imagery among the Kafiris was a semi-comic coincidence; in the film, with Freemasonry traced back to the time of Solomon and before, effort is made to suggest the identity of Kafiri religion with the primitive origins of the Masonic Rite. Asked what Masonry is all about, Peachey explains, “It’s about the brotherhood of man under the eye of God.” That’s what the film is about, too: the kind of brotherhood that obtains among the Masons (Kipling, Carnehan, Dravot), and a larger brotherhood that they all respect but that Dravot ultimately violates out of a conviction in his own manifest destiny. His breach of his “contrak” with Peachey coincides with his breach of faith with his Kafiri subjects, which brings about his figurative and literal downfall. But both story and film are far more complex than some “power corrupts” homily; for even at their most serious they maintain a delicately comic touch, a loving and optimistic approach to both the best and the worst in men. Huston’s film is quite the other side of the Kremlin Letter coin, as light and jubilant an expression of the director’s vision as the earlier film was dark and grim. What ultimately happens in The Man Who Would Be King is scarcely different from what happened in Huston’s first film, The Maltese Falcon: One whale of an adventure story is climaxed when someone who has come through hell stumps into an office and leaves an Object on the table. As the finale of Huston’s new film hauntingly reveals, that Object is at once as paltry and transitory as the fake Maltese Falcon, and as rich and enduring as the genuine romance of kings.
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Direction: John Huston. Screenplay: John Huston and Gladys Hill, after the story by Rudyard Kipling. Cinematography: Oswald Morris; additional cinematography: Alex Thomson. Art direction: Alexandre Trauner. Music: Maurice Jarre. Production: John Foreman.
The players: Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Saeed Jaffrey, Christopher Plummer, Shakira Caine.
© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow