Warning: This review probably contains some spoilers.
Within every man is a yearning for it, an impulse as deeply engraven as the need for food and water.
Social mores discourage men from giving into this drive. And many are deterred by the immense sacrifices true greatness requires.
But there are men who choose not to be captive to the opinions of the envious masses. Men willing to risk their lives to achieve everlasting glory.
The Man Who Would Be King, based on the 1888 novella by Rudyard Kipling, tells the story of two such men. It’s one of the finest representations of true masculinity caught on film.
Action, Intrigue, Riches
This dashing 1975 film by legendary director John Huston follows the exploits of two ex-India Army officers–Daniel “Danny” Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Cain).
The movie begins with Rudyard Kipling receiving a strange, beggarly-looking visitor in his office at the Indian newspaper Northern Star.
The stranger reveals himself to be Kipling’s old acquaintance, Peachy, and then proceeds to recount how he and Danny traveled to the remote Afghani region of Kafiristan–intent on becoming kings and acquiring immense riches to take back home with them.
Danny and Peachy, armed with their streets smarts, superior hand-to-hand fighting abilities, and 20 Martini Henry rifles, easily best the thugs and robbers they come across on their journey. When they’re stuck and seemingly doomed to die in a snowy mountain range, an avalanche miraculously provides them with a path to survival.
Danny and Peachy make it to Kafiristan, where they offer their military training and firearms to the chief of a small, vulnerable village.
They experience victory after victory, each time adding the forces of the conquered armies to their own.
Eventually, they subdue every tribe in the area. Through serendipitous circumstances, Danny is believed to be a god–the son of Alexander the Great, who had visited Afghanistan and promised to return. The high priest anoints Danny supreme lord over all Kafiristan.
With an incredible treasure of gold and jewels at their disposal, Danny and Peachy have what they wanted. Danny rules the people with equity and makes plans to establish a dynasty that will last millennia.
Of course, you can’t expect these movies to end perfectly. When things finally unravel, you have some very beautiful scenes of heroism, character, and friendship. Of triumph even in the face of loss.
Danny and Peachy embody true manliness. They’re not content to go all their lives blindly accepting the poor lot life has handed them. They seek something more. Something greater.
To this end, they make themselves outstanding examples of using your wits. They’re adept fighters and physically able. But their greatest asset is their cunning–their ability to see and take advantage of opportunity.
They’re schemers who get ahead by gaming the system. When their escapades in India get them outed, they see the big opportunity available for a couple of experienced Western men-of-war among a nation of superstitious primitives.
Even though Danny and Peachy are conniving and in it for themselves, they’re not amoral. They demonstrate their strong sense of morality and honor on many occasions, like when they instruct their armies to show mercy to the conquered, and when they offer a close servant the only way out of a deadly situation in which the three find themselves.
Moreover, Danny’s brief reign in Kafiristan is one of peace and goodwill. He administers the law righteously–like a modern-day Solomon. He keeps the many tribes from fighting among one another and provides economic relief to the villages hit by natural disaster.
The two heroes are also great examples of getting what you want through self-mastery. Prior to departing on their quest, they make a contract stating that they will not touch women or alcohol until they’ve accomplished their lofty goals. It’s an agreement they never break.
These two men are their own agents. They make their own destiny. When they’re reprimanded by a local district commissioner near the beginning of the film, they don’t grovel or try to explain themselves. Instead, they rebuke the official and march off with their dignity intact.
Even though they’re at odds with the country they served for so many years, Danny and Peachy always maintain respect for the nation that begot them. They’re proud to be British men. They’re proud of the Empire. And they’re not apologetic in the least about the superiority of their culture over that of the natives.
Above all, Danny and Peachy exhibit real masculinity in their loyalty to each another. Even after they’ve had the most bitter disagreements, there’s never any question that they have one another’s back. They’ll fight together until the end.
What Makes the Film?
John Huston did a magnificent job bringing this story to life. As with most of his films, he wrote the script, so he deserves full credit here.
You have to remember that John Huston is the director behind classics like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen. By the time he directed The Man Who Would Be King, Huston was well-experienced in making critically acclaimed adventure movies.
Huston had actually wanted to adapt this story since the 1950s. I think part of the reason why he was so drawn to it, and why only he could do it so brilliantly, is that he lived the very spirit this film embodies.
Before he hit it big in Hollywood, Huston was an amateur boxer, reporter, short story writer, portrait artist in France, cavalry rider in Mexico, and documentary filmmaker for the Army during World War II. He painted spectacular portraits of high adventure onscreen because he had tasted it himself.
Interestingly, John Huston went through several possible cast picks for the lead roles. When Huston was planning the film in the 50s, he wanted Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. He later considered the likes of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman.
Thankfully, Huston ultimately stayed true to the novella by choosing British actors Sean Connery and Michael Caine (at Paul Newman’s suggestion).
The combination of Connery/Caine is what makes this film. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the roles of Danny and Peachy. They perfectly convey the brotherhood of two men who have fought side by side for years, who are willing to go to hell and back for the sake of friendship.
Plus, no one could have pulled off Danny Dravot like Sean Connery. The others actors who had previously been considered–Gable, Lancaster, Redford–were certainly talented. But while I could see them getting the rogue side of Danny’s character down, I can’t imagine them capturing the eminence of Daniel the King the way Connery did. It was certainly one of the best performances of his career.
To top it all off, the music by Maurice Jarre (of Lawrence of Arabia fame) was exquisite, full of grandeur and romance.
Few movies combine adventure, wonder, and raw masculinity with so much heart and fun as The Man Who Would Be King. I give this film my full recommendation. Add it to your collection. Share it with your friends. Let it inspire you to live a grander life.