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"Well pardon me while I fall down laughing!"
Believe it or not, director John Huston was clobbered by critics and auteurists for what seemed forever. His strongest defender was James Agee, who had the misfortune to pass away after adapting The African Queen for the director. Andrew Sarris condemned Huston to his category "Less than Meets the Eye", alongside other "loser" directors like Elia Kazan (!?) and David Lean (??!). It's true that Huston made his share of dogs and some of his projects seemed to be ways to keep the director in him active, like a shark that can't stop swimming. Huston's flamboyance surely contributed to resentments against him. He blew most of what he earned gambling and probably used his theatrical personality to mask any number of betrayals, which doesn't exactly make him an anomaly among Hollywood professionals. A movie director selfish and abusive? Never. The critics of late-career Huston point to drek like Annie and losers like The Kremlin Letter, while we Huston-philes counter with Fat City and argue that The Kremlin Letter isn't a loser, but a great picture!
The Huston movie from the '70s that everyone seems to love is The Man Who Would Be King, a wonderfully light and affectionate adaptation of the famed 1888 Rudyard Kipling story. The rambunctious, witty adventure piece is something of a sideways step for fans who assume that Kipling was a mouthpiece for the glories of English colonialism. The fable-like tale is fanciful as hell while being altogether credible. Like the 'filibuster' Walker in 1850s Nicaragua, Kipling's rascal heroes take advantage of a century where lone adventurers could penetrate some strange corner of the world and set themselves up as rulers -- if they were sufficiently ruthless and clever. Kipling doesn't go all heavy on the subject, like Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, but instead reserves an awed fascination for bold men who risk all on the slim chance of stealing a kingdom from the less developed and the less enlightened. Like Cortez or Pizarro, we can't help admiring these violent knaves, simply because they really know how to Think Big.
The disc publicity has reiterated the interesting story that Huston wanted to make The Man Who Would Be King twenty years before with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. He couldn't put the production together, even with later star pairings. Sean Connery and Michael Caine are so wonderfully suited to the roles that we're glad the first attempts fell through. The story is about the firm friendship and affection between comrades at arms, a grand relationship that Caine and Connery express with every word and gesture.
The story takes place in colonial India in the middle of the 19th century. Newspaper writer and editor 'Rudyard Kipling' (Christopher Plummer) meets two scallywags up to mischief after leaving her majesty's forces, ex- sergeants Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan (Sean Connery & Michael Caine). The three men share a common creed -- they're all Freemasons. Dravot and Carnehan blackmail a Rajah for the funds necessary to start off for Kafiristan, an unknown territory on the far side of Afghanistan. Thanks to their experience and piratical skills, Daniel and Peachy's plan works out beautifully. They offer to help a petty Kafir chieftain to fight his enemies, defeat and consolidate their winnings and slowly unite and conquer the country as they go. The process goes even faster when Daniel is shot with an arrow but left unharmed. The ignorant Kafirs decide that he is a God, and the rest of the country rushes to surrender. Kafiristan is really run by priests in a sacred city on top of a mountain. They seize our adventurers and are about to kill them as frauds until the high priest spies Dravot's Freemason medallion -- which is the totem of their entire cult. Thinking Daniel to be "Sekander", the Son of Alexander the Great, the priests bow and tell Danny that he can do what he wishes. Peachy is ecstatic to realize that they can cart the fabulous treasure of Alexander back to civilization and become the richest men in the world. But... that's not how things work out.
The old saw about John Huston films is that the grand plans and schemes of mice and men consistently fail due to human weakness: bank robbery, a terrorist act, prospecting, treasure hunting, whale hunting, saving elephants, psychoanalysis, even a simple horse roundup. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ends with its frustrated gold hunters laughing themselves silly at being cheated out of their riches, laughter that some interpret as cynical but Huston would claim is the only sane way to get by in the world. In The Man Who Would Be King our two heroes find themselves in even worse circumstances when they're trapped in the snow and faced with a slow death by freezing. They acknowledge this, and enjoy a hearty laugh at themselves and life's strange quirks, accepting their fates with open hearts. The laughter itself saves them -- I won't say how -- giving director Huston a reverse twist on expectations.
Filming in Morocco, Huston and his production team put together a tale that a filmmaker like John Milius could only dream of making. Peachy and Daniel are insolent, proud and articulate representatives of good Englishmen who built the Empire through their sweat and blood but aren't allowed to enjoy its riches. The local authorities don't know what to do with them. They mistreat the local Indians just as efficiently as do their superiors in fine clothing, and are proud to make the acquaintance of a fellow Mason. Kipling is amused and somewhat awed by Peachy and Daniel's assertive manner, hail-fellow-well-met jocularity. They sign a contract ("contrack") to abstain from all pleasures of the flesh until such time as they are Kings of Kafiristan.
The tale of how Dravot and Carnehan get along is indeed marvelous, and also funny beyond words -- much of Kipling's original story is hilarious when interpreted as dialogue by Caine and Connery. They find an apt helper in Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a Gurkha guide who knows British Army ways. They tolerate and then sweep aside a moronic, cowardly Kafir chief named Ootah (Doghmi Larbi). Daniel has an eye for the ladies, and notes that a good hot bath will turn any of the local girls into proper ladies; Peachy warns him of their 'contrack' about pleasures of the flesh. They also comment on the barbarity of their Kafir hosts, who offer them their own daughters and sons for sex (!) and play a game of polo with the heads of defeated enemies. The glorious benefits of English civilization are seen when Peachy screams himself blue in the face drilling sense into a maladroit Kafir recruit, who crosses his feet when on parade. Later on, when Ootah draws his sword against Danny, it is this particular man who reflexively bars Ootah's way. They learn fast.
The moral of the story is an rumination on the sin of letting success go to one's head. Treated like a God, Daniel dispenses justice like a wise Biblical king, and starts to get accustomed to being master of all he surveys. This is all fine to the spaced-out priests in their mountaintop eyrie, half local architecture and half Greek columnar edifices. As far as they are concerned, Daniel is a God and can do what he wishes. But Daniel instead falls for a local beauty named Roxanne (Shakira Caine, Michael's spouse) and gets the notion that maybe he is Alexander's son after all, and his adventure is a prophecy fulfilled. As Daniel is waxing enthusiastic about his God-hood, Peachy reacts in the only sane way he can, throwing himself to the floor and kicking his feet in the air: "Well pardon me while I fall down laughing!" 1
Well, I lied, as The Man Who Would Be King's real ending is yet another marvelous plan that falls to ignominious defeat due to plain bone-headed human weakness. But Huston definitely believes that the dream makes it all worthwhile. We come away from the show realizing that practically every other image is a keeper for the filmic memory: Danny and Peachy lock-step marching into the commissioner's office; lighting each other's cigars like adult Katzenjammer Kids; Kipling laughing in disbelief at their illegal antics; Danny dancing in his guise as a mad fortune teller, and holding the "magic arrow" up for the cheering Kafirs; the line of priests crossing the battlefield, their eyes closed; Roxanne in a convulsive trance, terrified by the presence of a human God; the lonely scene at the suspension bridge; the grimy little head with the golden crown on it. The Man Who Would Be King is a terrific show to catch sight unseen, or to spring on a friend unaware of its many laughs and pleasures.
Warner Home Video's beautiful Blu-ray of The Man Who Would Be King can finally replace the 1998 WB DVD that looked okay but not exceptional. The colors on this disc are terrific, and the heightened resolution does justice to scenes with dust, backlit material and special effect mattes. Many of the snow scenes in long shot are mattes. We also see a good example of a matte painting goof when we first approach the priest's forbidden city -- a staff sticks up beyond the frame line and under the painted part of the image. A trick to try to fix the flaw doesn't work at all. In this movie, we'd forgive almost anything. Oswald Morris' cinematography is uniformly marvelous.
Maurice Jarre's quiet score makes heavy use of the 1812 Richard Heber song The Son of God Goes off To War, which apparently was imposed over an earlier Irish patriotic song. This accounts for its association with the Richard Harris Irish rebel character in Major Dundee. The disc's track is in DTS or English mono, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
The disc contains an original trailer and a vintage featurette. It does not contain what an old Fox laserdisc had, a slightly different ending seen on all original Allied Artists U.S. release prints. If you remember a certain slow-motion close-up special effect angle in the film's penultimate scene, that's what this refers to -- the scene in the feature as encoded on this disc is Huston's original cut that shows the action only from afar, in a wide shot.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. This is recommended as a healthy and constructive response to life's most intolerably insane outrages, like unreasonable demands from employers, terms set by car salesmen and most anything said by politicians. Use with caution.
2. An interesting note from reader Hank Graham, July 4, 2011:
The Blu-ray of The Man Who Would be King has a missing line of dialog that has been missing since the first DVD release. When Danny and Peachy first meet Billy Fish at Ootah's village, Billy Fish shouts out, asking if they're Englishmen, and Danny says yes, and asks who the devil he is.
The missing line of dialog is Billy Fish's reply: "You just wait one jiffy!" which he shouts from the top of the walls before coming down to speak to them. I remembered it because it was funny -- the chipper Pidgin-English of Billy Fish, delivered with perfect cheerful enthusiasm by Saeed Jaffrey. The line was in the VHS release of the film and in the release print I saw on the film's opening day in Houston. Best, Hank.
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T'was Ever Thus.