Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #27: The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Cast: Sean Connery (Daniel Dravot), Michael Caine (Peachy Carnehan), Christopher Plummer (Rudyard Kipling), Saeed Jaffrey (Billy Fish), Doghmi Larbi (Ootah), Jack May (District Commissioner), Karroom Ben Bouih (Kafu Selim), Mohammed Shamsi (Babu), Albert Moses (Ghulam), Paul Antrim (Mulvaney), Graham Acres (Officer), Shakira Caine (Roxanne).

Crew: John Huston (director), John Foreman (producer), John Huston and Gladys Hill (writers), Maurice Jarre (music), Oswald Morris (cinematography), Russell Lloyd (editor), Alexander Trauner (production designer).

Synopsis: Writer Rudyard Kipling is working his office at the Northern Star newspaper in India when he is approached by a crippled, disfigured beggar. Kipling eventually recognises the beggar as Peachy Carnehan, an ex-soldier whom he met three years before. Peachy stole Kipling’s watch and then returned it after discovering they were both Masons. Peachy and his friend Daniel Dravot had Kipling witness a contract between them foreswearing alcohol and women until they completed a mission. The pair of rogues planned to become kings of a backward country called Kafiristan, north of Afghanistan. Kipling said it was impossible. A survey team had tried to map the country and never returned. The last white man to make it back was Alexander the Great, 2200 years earlier. Kipling gave Danny a Masonic symbol for luck. Peachy and Danny went ahead with their plan, overcoming many dangers to reach Kafiristan. They met Billy Fish, a Ghurka warrior and sole survivor of the survey team. He acted as interpreter with the people of Kafiristan. Danny and Peachy trained the men of one village to be soldiers, then led them into battle successfully against their neighbours. An arrow hit Danny but did not kill him, merely lodging in the leather of his bandolier. The locals took this as evidence that Danny was the son of the god Sikander, their name for Alexander the Great.

Danny and Peachy’s army swept across the country, conquering all before it. The high priest of Kafiristan, Kafu Selim, summoned the Englishmen to the Holy City of Sikandergul. Selim did not believe Danny was a god but became convinced when he saw the Masonic symbol hung around Dravot’s neck. Alexander the Great also bore the symbol of a Mason. Danny ruled wisely but began to have delusions of grandeur. He decided to take a wife, a beautiful native woman called Roxanne, against the wishes of Selim. At the wedding ceremony Roxanne bit Danny’s face, drawing blood. Everyone saw Danny was a man, not a god. He was thrown into a ravine and Peachy was crucified. But when Peachy did not die, the priests let him go. Kipling listens to the beggar relate all of this in amazement. Peachy departs, leaving behind the decapitated head of his friend Danny – still wearing the crown of the king of Kafiristan…


Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King was first published in 1888. Nearly a century later, director John Huston got the chance to fulfil his long-held ambition to film the high adventure tale. The maker of such beloved movies of The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947) and The African Queen (1952) had almost succeeded in launching the project in the 1950s, with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the leads. The combination of Paul Newman and Robert Redford was also considered, before Huston settled on Caine and Sean Connery.

The two leads had been friends for more than a decade, but this was the first chance for Caine and Connery to make a feature together. ‘It was one of the most delightful films I’ve ever made in some of the most uncomfortable conditions,’ Caine told Venice magazine in 2002. ‘I’d never met John before that film. It could’ve been a dreadful experience if it had been done with two other men.’

The $8 million production was shot near Marrakesh in Morocco, with further filming on the Grande Montée at Chamonix in France and studio work at Pinewood. Caine rates Huston as the director who has most influenced him. ‘I’d been shooting a couple of days and he stopped me in the middle of a take,’ the actor told the Sunday Times in 1992. ‘I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “You can speak faster, Michael. He’s an honest man.” And I thought that’s right, and I got the whole character then and there.’

Huston insisted everyone came to see the rushes of what had already been shot during filming – even Caine, who had refused to attend such screenings since Zulu (1964). Huston rarely gave direction to his leads, as Caine recalled for Venice: ‘I said to him one day, “You don’t really tell us much, do you?” He said, “You’re being paid a lot of money to do this, Michael. You should be able to get it right on your own.” Sean and I were obviously giving him what he wanted, so he said nothing. Good directors always do that. Bad directors can’t shut up.’

During shooting Huston changed his mind about who should play Roxanne, the Kafiristan woman that Daniel disastrously takes as his wife. The part had originally been given to actress Tessa Dahl, daughter of writer Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal. The director decided Roxanne had to be played by a woman with dark skin. In 2002 Caine told the San Bernadino County Sun how his Indian-born wife Shakira was chosen over dinner one night. ‘John said, “We’ve got to find an Arab princess somewhere.” And we were all eating away and we stopped eating and looked at Shakira. She didn’t want to do it. She had never acted before. But I said, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll show you how.”’

The film was released in December 1975, rated A in the UK and PG in America. Reviewers praised the picture, although influential US trade paper Variety singled out Caine’s performance for criticism. The Man Who Would Be King was nominated for four Oscars, including screenplay adaptation and one for the costumes by Hollywood legend Edith Head. The film also received BAFTA nominations for its costumes and cinematography. Thirteen years later the movie was released on video (reclassified as PG in Britain), before making its DVD debut in 2002. Entertainment Weekly magazine singled out Caine’s work in the film as one of 100 performances unjustly overlooked for an Oscar.

Reviews: ‘The film is beautifully served by the performances of Sean Connery and Michael Caine, very funny as twin incarnations of typically endearing Kipling ranker-rogues.’ – MFB
‘Whether it was the intention of John Huston or not, the tale of action and adventure is a too-broad comedy, mostly due to the poor performance of Michael Caine.’ – Variety

Verdict: The Man Who Would Be King is a delightful film that only seems to improve with age. Full of spectacle and stirring music, this is a boy’s own adventure of the highest standard. As in many Huston films, this is a story about the dreams and follies of men – woman are kept very much in the margins. Nevertheless, the script is funny and wry, while Caine and Connery give some of the warmest performances in their careers. It’s only a shame the duo haven’t had a similar vehicle since. The Man Who Would Be King is highly recommended. If you’ve never seen it before, you’re in for a rare treat.

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