278. The Man Who Would Be King (GB 1986)

Director: John Huston

Starring: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer Saeed Jaffrey

Bit Part: Albert Moses (Mind Your Language!)

Screenplay: John Huston/Gladys Hill

Music: Maurice Jarre

Short Story: Rudyard Kipling

 In one line: Two soldiers travel to the forbidden kingdom of Kafiristan to become kings.

 

Summary

Career soldiers Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Caine) leave the army after taking exception to being referred to as 'detriments' to the Empire by a minor British government official.

They hatch a plan to travel to faraway Kafiriistan and to use their skills to take over the country. They draw up plans and a contract in the office of (Indian) Northern Star correspondent Rudyard Kipling (Plummer).

After crossing the Khyber Pass, Danny and Peachy save a cowardly warlord and his community from marauding bandits. They meet a Gurkha called Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey) who acts as interpreter and loyal follower to the two men. They recruit the warlord's men and fight many battles before being summoned to the holy city of Sikandergul. The holy men of the city have received word that Danny is immortal after he has been seen pulling an arrow from his chest without bleeding. (The arrow had stuck in a leather bandolier beneath Dravot's tunic.)

The elders hope to see a repeat of Dravot's god-like powers and are angered when he refuses to be cut or pierced by their knives. They rip open his clothing and are about to kill him when they see Dravot's masonic medallion. The All-Seeing Eye is the symbol of Alexander the Great who had conquered Kafiristan thousands of years ago. The holy men see Dravot as the reincarnation of Alexander or even Alexander's long lost messianic offspring, referring to him as 'Son of Sikander'.

Danny becomes king and is given Alexander's gigantic treasure horde to do as he wishes.

Peachy implores Danny to come home but Danny becomes besotted with the idea that Fate has led him to this place and he begins to believe that he is the son of Sikander. Danny becomes bethrothed to the beautiful Roxanne (Shakira Caine) but on his wedding day things go wrong and Roxanne draws blood from Danny's skin. The Kafiristanis are incensed and move in for the kill

The three soldiers try to cut their losses and run, but the fates are against them....

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A tremendous version of Kipling’s dour and not particularly exciting tale of fate and fortune.

I’ve never been sure about Michael Caine’s acting abilities (although he’s improved considererably over the past decade). The fact remains that he’s been in a fair number of first-rate films over the course of a very long career – and of course he’s been in a substantial number of terrible films.

Connery steals the show with an assured performance suited to his own persona, and he does ‘realisation of a hidden truth’ better than most screen actors.

There’s good support from Jaffrey (although, Nepalese he ain’t) and the ever-reliable Christopher Plummer who seems to have been around forever, from the second film I saw on the cinema right up to the second last (Up, if you’re interested).

Albert Moses: he can't keep off this site.

The themes of pre-destination, fate and chance are better realised in Huston’s film than in the short story/novella, and Huston and Gladys Hill add an odd, but ingenious masonic insignia motif in their screenplay which adds to the vague supernatural feel to the second part of the story. In many ways, the film is very similar to Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – Connery’s Daniel Dravot’s head is turned by outrageous fortune in much the same way that Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C Dobbs is damned by proximity to gold.

Filmed in Morocco and using Moroccan locals as extras and bit parts, Huston also manages to include an homage to Dads' Army with Corporal-Jones like volunteer who can’t keep in step with Caine’s military drill exercises.

Caine’s wife Shakira puts in an appearance as the possible reincarnation of Alexander the Great’s wife Roxanne (or Rock-shanne,  as Connery puts it,  as his molar problem starts to kick in for the first time).

Connery’s stunt fall in the final Kafiristan (very dodgy, that one) scene of the film is very impressive and almost as good as his stunt work in The First Great Train Robbery.

Huston steals from Zulu in the battle scenes (“Rear rank – fire!”, although this may be an in-joke for Caine’s benefit) but the cessation of the first main battle to let a group of holy men through is a great cinematic moment – especially the framing of a mountain temple beyond the battle field vista.

Caine’s performance is unconvincing,  and he often has to play Sid Little to Connery’s Eddie large, but I think of his riposte to Connery’s apology as both face certain death almost every day:

“Can you forgive me, Peachy?”

“That I can, Danny; and that I do.”

Which is as good a philosophy/modus vivendi as you’ll find.

Oh and you'll be saying "God'sh Holy Trousersh!!" in your sleep.

 

7/10