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The Man Who Would Be King by Stephen Jared


On September 26, 2008, Paul Newman passed away - but he'll always be with us. One of my favorite stories about Newman's bigheartedness has nothing to do with his legendary generosity to charity; it has to do with movies. In the early 1970's John Huston sent his adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King to Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Huston had been trying unsuccessfully to get the film made for years. He first approached Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable to play Kipling's two lovable rogues, Danny and Peachy. But Bogart's death sidetracked the project until Huston directed Gable in The Misfits, where enthusiasm for the Kipling story returned. Tragically, Gable then died shortly after shooting The Misfits.

Huston's idea of approaching Paul Newman and Robert Redford for the two adventure-loving best friends was certainly not unreasonable at the time. They had just starred together in two classics - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Newman read the script and immediately called the famous filmmaker to say he loved it - but that the film would be better with two British actors. He suggested Huston call Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Danny Dravot and Peachy Carnahan are two soldiers turned fortune hunters who leave India for remote Kafiristan (Country of no Gods) with hopes to conquer and become kings. But when the natives of Kafiristan declare Danny to be the son of Alexander the Great, the role of God proves more perilous than any of the friends' previous escapades. Many describe the film as a parable of Colonialism's crimes. The film, however, is bigger than a political statement; it's a philosophical observation on life. Danny and Peachy witness miraculous twisting of fates as they charge deeper into the unknown; all the while, wisdom remains elusive.


Between the frames, there is some interrogating of humanity, and questions linger long after the closing credits - questions about religion, patriotism, leadership and royalty. Huston contextualizes many of these moments with absurdity but never goes so far as to tell audiences what to think. He also adds little miracles, spread throughout the story, creating mystery and a feeling of unending possibility.

Huston clearly sympathizes with Danny and Peachy's plight. At one point, early in the film, the two characters are faced with impending death and Peachy asks Danny if their lives have been misspent. They acknowledge no good deeds between them, but console themselves with their fantastic experiences.

John Huston was a famously restless traveler his entire life (even directing some films solely for the opportunity to go on location). In The Man Who Would Be King, he delivers audiences into an exotic world as soon as the film opens with shots of overcrowded streets, snake charmers and musicians. One wrinkly man lifts two large scorpions off his face and gently lays them into his mouth.


With this montage, a spell is cast and opening credits follow. Rudyard Kipling (played by Christopher Plummer) is then seen writing at his desk. Kipling seems to replace Huston here as our storyteller. But suddenly a dark figure enters from behind Kipling - Peachy Carnahan. Peachy begins to recite a story to Kipling, essentially becoming the tale's third narrator.

It's an old storytelling device: the author offers an introduction then claims to have met some surprising character under the most unusual of circumstances, which then leads into the character's narrative. Many films of the '30s and '40s appropriated this idea from books. Huston was an extremely well read man and knew exactly how to coax his audience into believing the unbelievable.


Sean Connery and Michael Caine are both exceptional. The dialogue, often dripping with irony, written by Huston and Gladys Hill, could easily have been overplayed. At one point, while training an army of tribesmen, Sean Connery's Danny says, "When we're done with you, you'll be able to stand up and slaughter your enemies like civilized men." Such moments could easily break the film's partition, causing audiences to feel they are in on a clever joke, but Connery's performance remains so thoroughly believable that he succeeds handily at holding viewers into the story. Michael Caine's Peachy is the more intelligent of the two, and yet he maintains a sense of wide-eyed wonder throughout this latest (and greatest) episode in what has clearly been a series of adventures for he and his best friend.

The Man Who Would Be King has become one of the most entertaining and sophisticated adventures ever made. Of all the great films John Huston directed (The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre), this film is possibly the most articulate expression of Huston's own beliefs, enthusiasms and charms. If Huston had been a painter, The Man Who Would Be King could, in many ways, be viewed as a self-portrait.

In John Huston's autobiography, An Open Book, he recalls shooting The Man Who Would Be King. He tells of an old man - over a hundred years old - whom he met and cast as the High Priest, Kafu Selim. Toward the end of shooting, Huston knew the locals he used in Morocco had never seen a motion picture. He decided to run some of the film for them. After the film played, the locals reacted to seeing themselves on screen with much excitement. They talked rapidly amongst themselves then seemed to come to an agreement. Huston asked his translator what they had said. "We will never die."


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"... memorable characters and dialogue, reminiscent of the best of Hollywood's Golden Age."