WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Two British Army officers, tired of rules and regulations in late 19th Century India, strike out to find their own kingdom. Despite the hardship of the terrain and overwhelming odds, the pair arrive in Kafiristan and put their takeover plan into action; however, no kingdom can have two kings and one becomes exasperated with the other’s assumed omnipotence.
When a disfigured wretch appears in the doorway of India’s Northern Star newspaper, journalist Mr Kipling (Christopher Plummer) recognises him as Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine), the chancer who crossed his path three years earlier in the abortive theft of his Mason-inscribed pocket watch. Carnehan recalls the pact he and fellow former Army Officer Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) made in the very same office, to strike out over the Khyber Pass and the Hindu Kush to Kafiristan, a remote state where they plotted to use their rifles and military discipline to take control, village by village, until they were masters of all they surveyed.
Picking up linguistically-gifted gurkha Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey) on the way, the plan works better than either man could have anticipated, since due to a stroke of luck in battle Danny is taken to be the god-like ‘son of Sikander’ (that is, Alexander the Great) and given access to a luxurious temple and immense wealth. Unfortunately, while Peachy keeps his eyes on the prize, namely the promise of a millionaire’s lifestyle back in London, the role of king goes to Danny’s head; his ill-omened decision to take a mortal Queen in Roxanne (Shakira Caine) has dreadful consequences.
It’s easy to fear the worst from a film set in the pomp of Britain’s rule over India, and which starts with scenes of snake charmers and dirty, crowded streets to emphasise the exotic foreignness of the place. However, it would be wrong to assume that The Man Who Would be King is a film which debases or belittles the Indians; it highlights and distrusts Peachy and Daniel’s suavity and assumed superiority just as much as it shows us the ‘savagery’ of the people of Kafiristan. The Indians’ belief in Gods is seen – in English Eyes, at least – to be primitive and savage, but equally the avaricious, power-hungry attitude of Carnehan and Dravot is shown to be ultimately repellent – early on, Peachy outrageously pitches an Indian out of his train carriage for no reason whatsoever. And what is the Masonic brotherhood if not a form of superstitious worship, or at least a white man’s Brotherhood? I couldn’t tell you whether or not the film’s even-handedness accurately reflects the tenor of Kipling’s short story, which I understand is generally faithfully recreated.
The PC credentials of the film are among its least interesting aspects, however. The Man Who Would be King is a beautifully-shot movie, which spares no expense as it follows our ‘heroes’ over impossibly difficult terrain (France standing in for the Hindu Kush) into their series of skirmishes, which result in Danny being crowned Son of Sikander. The plot is also fascinating, building up Danny’s self-destructive arrogance which mirrors the sentiment of Wallace Stevens’ line ‘Let be be finale of seem’ – if he looks like the king and acts like the king, and everyone treats him like the king, who’s to say he isn’t? The story can be seen as a fable comparable to that of Icarus, or as a microcosm of colonialism, prefiguring Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and, therefore, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s all proper, high-quality film-making, with an equal emphasis on substance and style.
But – let me come back to that line of poetry. One of the strange things about any form of drama is that although we know we’re watching actors, we’re willing to accept them as the characters they’re playing too, no matter how famous the star. But this is only true to an extent. Unfortunately, because Michael Caine and Sean Connery have two of the most recognisable voices in the movies, and neither does anything to alter their voice in any way here, they always seem to be Caine and Connery even if we’re also aware that they’re playing Peachy and Danny perfectly well, and with decent chemistry. Which is not to say that the actors are miscast, only that they might have tailored their performances a smidgen to their specific roles (this is, of course, an observation made thirty-five years after the fact, when impersonators have done their worst with both actors and Connery has made a fortune giving his characters Scottish accents regardless of their origins). Elsewhere, both Plummer and Jaffrey are rather good, while Mrs Caine’s acting chops are barely tested as Roxanne.
Tastes in film change over time and to many, The Man Who Would be King will feel slow and plodding, indulging two star names who have a whale of a time to the (slight) detriment of the story as a whole. Get over the fact that it’s Caine and Connery, however, and an epic tale of friendship, power, religion and human ambition unfolds handsomely before you. Definitely worth catching, not least because it’ll tell you more about Alexander than Oliver Stone’s miserable movie ever did.