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Man Who Would Be King, The

Warner Bros. // PG // June 7, 2011 // Region 0
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 2, 2011 | E-mail the Author
"The less said about our professions, the better, for we have been most things in our time. We've been all over India -- we know her cities, her jungles, her jails, and her palaces -- and we've decided she isn't big enough for such as we."

"Therefore, we are going away to another place where a man isn't crowded and can come into his own. We're not little men, so we're going away to be kings."

They were once British soldiers representing the Empire in strange and exotic lands; after all that, Peachy (Michael Caine) and Danny (Sean Connery) could never consider
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returning home to England as things stand...of toiling away in mundanity as valets or busboys. Far greater things are destined, and it occurs to Peachy and Danny that there's a way to leverage both their military experience and their fascination with this largely untamed continent. The remote land of Kafiristan has rarely been glimpsed by the eyes of white men. Kafiristan is separated from the rest of the world by endless stretches of desert and has legions of murderous thieves laying in wait in between. It's an impossible journey, and even for those few who do manage to cross into its borders, Kafiristan is ruled over by a slew of disconnected and relentlessly warring tribes. Anyone who's not butchered along the way isn't long for the world once they're there. The scheme that Danny and Peachy cobble together is as follows:
  1. Don't die.
  2. Swear their loyalty to the first warlord they encounter.
  3. Leverage their military background to steel the warlord's tribesmen into proper soldiers and then overcome his greatest enemies.
  4. Depose the newly-crowned king, unite these two factions, and move onto the next tribe until the entirety of Kafiristan is under their rule.
  5. Once they've finished having their fun, empty Kafiristan's coffers and return to England with unimaginable wealth.
It's an insane plan, but...well, if it were easy, what'd be the adventure in that? Peachy and Danny know their weak spots too, and with no less than Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) looking on, they sign a contract spelling out the terms of this protect themselves from themselves. The key points are no drinking and no women until they have their fingers clasped tightly around the throat of
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Kafiristan. Once the long and arduous journey through Afghanistan is out of the way, things go very much according to plan. Even better, in fact, as our friend Danny is mistaken for the son of Sikander -- the last white man to enter Kafiristan and return -- although you probably know him as Alexander the Great. As a wise man once said, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "yes", and once Danny and Peachy take advantage of that misunderstanding, everything they had ever dreamt of is now at their feet. The problems arise when Danny tosses their plan out the window and starts to believe he is a god...

There's an elegant simplicity to The Man Who Would Be King. Despite its fairly epic scope, this is ultimately the story of two men...scoundrels, friends, and all but brothers. Director John Huston never loses sight of that. There's scarcely a scene in the film without either Peachy or Danny in the forefront, and once their journey is underway, Huston never cuts away from them. The Man Who Would Be King isn't distracted by any dangling subplots from back home, and no one is in pursuit. There's no need for those sorts of derailments either. Caine and Connery are nothing short of brilliant as this pair of impish rogues. They don't have any illusions about standing on the side of the angels, and their entire scheme is predicated on bloodshed, deceit, and cultural elitism, if you look down on that sort of thing. Still, there's a certain code of honor they follow. They don't revel in the deaths of their enemies, and they only kill or torment as a means to an end. They are who they are and are completely unapologetic about it. That's a delicate balance to strike, and it's executed beautifully here. Peachy and Danny are scoundrels without being watered down, but they're still likeable enough that the audience is very much on their side...that their inevitable downfall still hits viewers like a crushing blow. The Man Who Would Be King doesn't play up some kind of fish-out-of-water element, showing how hopelessly out of their depth Peachy and Danny are. In fact, it's quite the opposite; they're damned good at what they do...better than even they ever would've thought possible. They attain a level of success they could never have dreamed of by sticking to the plan they've concocted, and the denouement comes when that plan is shoved aside...that they had it right all along.

The Man Who Would Be King benefits most greatly from Caine and Connery's cacklingly
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charming performances, but it boasts no shortage of other strengths as well. The film's dialogue crackles with wit. Its two central characters are ingeniously clever and shamelessly exploitative. What they do is inspired enough, but how they go about it makes this all the more infectiously fun to watch unfold. Many different tones are juggled -- high adventure, comedy, and tragedy -- and not a single one of those balls ever tumbles awkwardly to the ground. John Huston's direction is exceptionally effective, balancing the intimacy of the bond between these two men with the epic scale of their adventure. As ever, Huston does an extraordinary job creating a sense of place, and this is such an easy film to escape into since virtually everything appears to be happening right in front of me. When someone takes a tumble from dizzying heights, for instance, that's clearly a living, breathing stuntman, not a mannequin that a grip is throwing into the frame or a performer tethered in a wire harness. It just feels real in a way that often doesn't come across in other films. I also love some of the more subtle flourishes. One violent raid is backed by whimsical and almost oompah-like music, mashing together something brutal with something lighthearted, and when the climax rolls around -- a sequence that in any other movie would be heavily scored -- there's no musical accompaniment whatsoever. They're scenes that are visually similar in a number of ways but have dramatically different tones.

John Huston had toiled for decades to bring The Man Who Would Be King to the screen, mulling over Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and Robert Redford and Paul Newman to bring to life the film's pair of charming scoundrels. As marvelous as any of those combinations would undoubtedly have been, it's difficult to imagine any of them packing nearly as much of a punch as Sean Connery and Michael Caine do here. It's kind of perfect, really: an epic adventure with a smirkingly dark sense of humor, rich characterization, infectious fun, and some genuine gravity when it counts. The Man Who Would Be King doesn't have quite as much marquee value as some of John Huston's other films that have found their way to Blu-ray to date, and it unfortunately hasn't been lavished with that same sort of special edition treatment, but still, this is a film that really shouldn't be overlooked. Highly Recommended.

The Man Who Would Be King was one of the very first films I'd ever watched in high definition, and although there's only so far I'm willing to trust my memory seven years and several HDTVs behind me now, I do recall that presentation on HDNet Movies being rather soft and hazy. I was expecting much the same from this Blu-ray disc, and I'm pleased to say that my expectations were completely off-base. The Man Who Would Be King looks terrific on BD. Outside of a tiny handful of optical shots, definition and detail are both robust, bolstered by a palette that packs a wallop when appropriate. The texture of its film grain is unintrusive from a normal viewing distance but doesn't suffer from any excessive filtering or processing. There's no speckling or wear whatsoever, and despite the disc's modest bitrate, no compression artifacting ever grabbed my attention. Edge enhancement is never a concern either. Though I don't have the DVD release handy to do a direct comparison, I can't imagine its level of clarity or definition could approach this. The Man Who Would Be King is a film with a number of exceptionally expansive shots, and I'm sure the characters that are so clearly rendered in the sample screenshot below would be a muddy smudge in standard definition:

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I'm very pleased with the effort Warner invested in preparing The Man Who Would Be King for Blu-ray. It's not a revelation, exactly, but this is a very strong showing just the same and very much in keeping with what a film of this caliber deserves. I'm really not left with any complaints about the presentation whatsoever.

The Man Who Would Be King is presented at its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been encoded with AVC.

The Man Who Would Be King boasts a reasonably effective DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack. Dialogue sounds somewhat edgy at times, and although background noise has been filtered out of silent sections, the film's dialogue is still marred by some hiss when delivered. Still, the audio is clean and clear enough, and Maurice Jarre's score is fairly full-bodied. Nothing remarkable but perfectly adequate.

The lossless monaural soundtrack is the only audio option; there are no remixes or dubbed tracks this time out. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish, though.

Very little, disappointingly.
  • Call It Magic: The Making of The Man Who Would Be King (12 min.; SD): This vintage promotional featurette dates back decades but
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    follows much the same formula that similar clips do now: a mix of talking head interviews, a heavy emphasis on recapping the overall premise, a few behind-the-scenes shots, and a number of excerpts from the film itself. John Huston speaks briefly about how long he'd been pursuing The Man Who Would Be King, to the point of Clark Gable and longtime Huston collaborator Humphrey Bogart heading his initial dream cast. The sight of Huston at work on the set in Morocco is wonderful, as is the very detailed look into the film's most ambitious stunt. "Call It Magic" is rather cursory but still fairly intriguing as a historical document.

  • Trailer (1 min.; SD): The only other extra on the disc itself is a minute-long theatrical trailer.

The Man Who Would Be King arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a small hardcover book, featuring a slew of production stills, brief biographies, a page of costume design concepts, and a short essay.

The Final Word
So many classic directors are underrepresented on Blu-ray, and it's heartening to see that a talent as towering as John Huston isn't among them. Though I would have loved to have seen The Man Who Would Be King lavished with the sort of special edition treatment we've seen for The African Queen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Maltese Falcon, it's still a thrill to be able to experience a longtime favorite such as this in high definition. Clever, thrilling, infectiously fun, and very much Highly Recommended.

A Couple More Screenshots...
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Highly Recommended

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