The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

“Now the problem is how to divide five Afghans from three mules and have two Englishmen left over” Peachy Carnehan

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As I make my way through the film career of Sir Michael Caine there are some of his movies I come to for the first time, there are others that I have seen once or twice before and then there are those that I have seen an enormous amount of times. The Man Who Would Be King very much falls into that final category. It was a staple of bank holiday television schedules (much like Zulu and The Ipcress File) and as a favourite of my Dad’s never one to be missed. It remains not just one of my favourite Michael Caine films, but one of my favourite films full stop. It is an absolute joy from start to finish and even after many repeat viewings I was still excited to come back to it for my blog.

For the uninitiated Caine stars alongside his great friend Sean Connery. They play Peachy Carnehan and Daniel (Danny) Dravot, a pair of ex-soldiers now AWOL in India and looking to get ahead any way they can. They hit upon a scheme to make the dangerous journey through Afghanistan to neighbouring Kafiristan and using the skills they have developed in the army make a rise to power. As they make themselves indispensable to one of the many faction leaders Connery’s Danny fortuitously survives being hit by an arrow leading to him being mistaken for an immortal God. The pair take full advantage of the misunderstanding until events finally begin to unravel for them.

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The Man Who Would Be King is part action adventure, part buddy comedy and part male platonic love story. Based on the original short story by Rudyard Kipling it was brought to the screen by legendary director John Huston. Kipling’s involvement doesn’t end there as he also features in the story played by Christopher Plummer. His inclusion not only adds some wonderful comic moments, introduces the important Freemasons element to the plot but also provides a very effective narrative device as Peachy recites his tale to the great writer, then working as a journalist. That allows Caine to add some narration over the beautiful imagery and deliver some of Kipling’s delightful prose straight from the page.

Huston, who included the likes of The African Queen, Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon on his impressive CV had originally planned the movie in the 1950s with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable in mind for the two leads. Even knowing that it seems almost impossible to imagine the film with anybody other than Caine and Connery at the forefront, so perfect are they for their roles. The parts fit them like a glove and they are clearly having an absolutely wonderful time throughout. Great friends as they were in real life it is no surprise to see the chemistry transfer onto the screen so seamlessly. They have always been two of the most charismatic actors of their generation and they imbue Peachy and Danny with a sense of delight that makes it impossible not to like them even when they are doing things on the edge of being morally acceptable.

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It helps of course that the script they are working with is utterly brilliant. With a wonderful Kipling story to work with Huston and Gladys Hill’s adaptation more than does it justice and earned them an Oscar nomination. It’s a witty and clever script with some wonderful dialogue that still retains an interesting and entertaining adventure tale at its heart. When watching the films for this blog I will often jot down a line that I particularly like or has made me laugh. For The Man Who Would Be King I could fill a whole notebook with such lines, but fortunately so familiar am I with them and so instantly quotable are they that I didn’t have to. There are more laugh out loud moments than in many a pure comedy with the scene of Danny and Peachy delivering their first training to the local ‘army’ being a near perfect couple of minutes of cinema. Danny’s speech, which includes the classic line “when we’re done with you you’ll be able to stand up and slaughter your enemy like civilised men” is a pure joy and it’s obvious Connery is having a ball with it. If that wasn’t already brilliant enough the cut to Peachy and his growing exasperation at one soldiers inability to keep in time with everyone else just adds the icing on the cake. I could watch it on a loop and never stop loving it.

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The Man Who Would Be King is more than just a funny film though (and that is a worthy enough achievement anyway). It creates some wonderful characters who you genuinely care about and want to succeed even though you know ultimately that is unlikely to happen. A classic example of that is Billy Fish played wonderfully by Saeed Jaffrey, a Gurkha and lone survivor of an expedition to map the inhospitable territory between Afghanistan and Kafiristan. Peachy and Danny meet Billy and strike up an instant friendship as he acts as their translator. Billy is a wonderful source of comedy as his English is peppered with entirely inappropriate idiom, “oh dear me alas by Jove,” but he is also far more than just a comic foil. He is a brave and loyal man who both the story leads and us as an audience develop a genuine affection for.

Jaffrey gives a wonderful supporting hand to the two leads and the performances of all the cast are magnificent. Plummer is terrific as Kipling giving a quiet, but assured performance opposite the brasher Caine and Connery. You get the sense of a man in conflict, knowing he should advise Danny and Peachy against their plans, but whose love of a story and an adventure is such that he can’t quite bring himself to do it convincingly enough. There is also a superb performance from Larbi Doghmi, a successful Moroccan actor. He is sensational as Ootah the cowardly, vain and stupid leader of the first tribe they meet. Huge credit should also go to Shakira Caine who after being thrown into a role in her husband’s film at the last moment with little acting experience gives an accomplished performance in a small in terms of screen time, but nonetheless significant role as Roxanne.

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This is Caine and Connery’s film though and they make a perfect pairing. Their performances are often deliberately loud, but in a manner that is entirely right for their characters and the tone of the film. The pair are so in tune with each other that their lines bounce beautifully from their very first scene together as they defend themselves against accusations of blackmail. What we see from both actors isn’t all brash as they also deliver plenty of subtlety. The looks they shoot to each other as they are shown the treasure they are about to inherit are perfect in a quiet and understated scene. Most of all though there is a genuine heart and warmth to their relationship. As it becomes clear they have different ultimate goals and are going to head in their separate ways there is a real sadness that comes across from both of them and it is obvious that neither really wants to leave the other. Any doubts about the strength of their relationship are quelled as we come towards the end of the film and, spoiler alert, things fall apart for them and Peachy accepts unconditionally Danny’s apology for likely getting them killed. Danny’s response of “everything’s alright then” is so matter of fact and genuine that you honestly believe that for him the prospect of death is less distressing than the though that his friend would be angry with him. It adds an extra weight to their separation and is only possible due to the brilliance of Caine and Connery and what they have built on screen over the course of the movie.

For me The Man Who Would Be King is just over two hours of pure joy, fun, adventure and laughter with a real heart. It’s a film loved by an awful lot of people who have seen it and yet somehow doesn’t seem to quite get the credit it deserves. It remains one of my favourite films of all time and I could happily sit down and watch it again right at this moment. A delight from start to finish.

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