Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Man Who Would Be King

A few months ago I had the chance to catch the TCM airing of the rousing adventure movie The Man Who Would Be King. It's airing again tonight at 8:00 PM as this week's TCM Essential, and is well worth a watch.

The movie starts off in British India sometime in the 1890s. Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) is a civil servant working in some God-forsaken part of the country, when into his office walks one Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine), who looks vaguely familiar despite the fact that he's also looking very haggard. It turns out that the two men met several years ago, introduced by an old friend of Peachy's. Flash back five years to how Kipling and Peachy met.... Kipling was taking the train to get to his posting, where he was accosted by on Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery), a cashiered British Army officer. Daniel picked Kipling's pocket watch and then returned it, claiming Kipling had lost it. But that was all a ruse for Daniel's scheme that he was planning to carry out with Peachy.

Beyond the borders of British India lies what is today Afghanistan; recall that India and Pakistan were carved out of British India and partitioned off at independence in 1947. Back in the day, what was beyond the Khyber Pass, the border pass leading northwest out of what is now Pakistan, was little known, at least not until you got someplace as far north as Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan. There were, however, rumors of various tribes, some with fabulous wealth, living in the mountainous terrain. In particular, there's one tribe that is supposedly descended from Alexander the Great and the wealth that he plundered from his conquests along the way to the Hindu Kush. Daniel and Peachy have decided that, since they've got access to modern weapons, they can turn one of the tribes against another and get at some of that wealth themselves. Daniel and Peachy need maps from Kipling's office.

It's a daft idea, and already a quarter century earlier Hollywood westerns had running arms to the American Indian tribes being presented as a terribly bad thing. So you'd think Daniel and Peachy should be really bad people. But The Man Who Would Be King isn't that sort of movie. It's far less social commentary and far more straightforward adventure; after all, this was based on a story by Kipling himself, written back in the days when people like him would have felt the "white man's burden" to try to civilize places like India, or even more those tribes up in the northwest. So Daniel and Peachy are lovable rogues

And they actually do fairly well in getting away with their scheme. At least, they do at first. They're able to get past the Khyber Pass and meet up with another army man they knew, Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey). He helps them, being mixed-race and not quite feeling British. Eventually, they all get to Kafiristan, which it seems is the legendary land of the descendants of Alexander the Great. Their mythology posits that someday, Alexander's son is going to return to rule them -- and it just so happens that they mistake Daniel for that son! This gives Daniel the idea not to plunder the wealth, but to become a king and rule over these people. This is really a gilded cage, but it's probably also a hell of a lot less dangerous than trying to remove the wealth from the Kafiristanis. And who wouldn't let power go to his head?

Peachy, for his part, just wants to get that wealth. And we know that he makes it out of Kafiristan, since he shows up back in India in the opening scene of the movie. To be fair, though, it's not like the good people of Kafiristan were mistaking him for the son of Alexander the Great. He's just a dumb schlub accompanying Alexander's son. Who wants to be in an unequal relationship like that? So Daniel and Peachy start to develop a rift between themselves, one that could possibly put their entire scheme in danger. But there's a much bigger problem, which is that the Kafiristanis believe that the son of Alexander isn't just a king, but a god. Daniel, obviously, is not a god. What's going to happen when the natives figure that out?

I said in the opening paragraph, and stand by my comment, that The Man Who Would Be King is a rousing adventure story. Don't look too hard for deeper meaning. There might be some in places, but this is much more an entertaining movie, not a message picture. Sean Connery had finished up being James Bond a few years earlier, and was in a phase of his career where he was doing quite a few action movies (Zardoz and The Wind and the Lion spring to mind). The Man Who Would Be King is squarely in that mold, and Connery is well-cast as Daniel Dravot. Michael Caine is an interesting choice. He had already proven himself to be quite good at playing roguish heroes; Alfie is a cad and Gambit is rather closer to The Man Who Would Be King, only set in a different era. I wouldn't necessarily have thought of Caine as being the right person to do colonial India, but he's just fine here. Christopher Plummer doesn't have much to do, but is more than up to the task. One other notable cast member is Roxanne, the Kafiristani with whom Daniel falls in love. Roxanne was played by Shakira Caine, Michael Caine's real-life wife. They're still married after 42 years.

The Man Who Would Be King is a hell of a lot of fun. If you haven't seen it before, do yourself a favor and watch it tonight. It's also available on DVD if you can't catch it tonight, however.

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