Daily Archives: February 25, 2023

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

*. The kind of film, I think even in 1975, that (they say) they don’t make any more. Here’s how Roger Ebert kicked off his review: “John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King is swashbuckling adventure, pure and simple, from the hand of a master. It’s unabashed and thrilling and fun.”
*. You could say that in 1975. But times change. Star Wars would come out just two years later and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, setting new benchmarks in “swashbuckling adventure.” They were faster, more “thrilling and fun,” less interested in sex, and perhaps most significantly, more mystical. What I mean is that Kipling’s version of the Great Game only has a pair of rakes pretending to be gods so they can loot and screw the natives; there’s nothing like the Force or an angry Ark of the Covenant operative in Kafiristan.
*. So you could see this movie as the end of something. It was dashing derring-do of a previous age of filmmaking, and literature. Huston had liked the story as a kid and had been planning on making a movie out of it for more than twenty years. The original pairing was going to be Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, if you can believe either of them as the scourings of the British Empire. Then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were approached, followed by Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, and Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That’s three full generations of Hollywood stardom.

*. Even with Sean Connery and Michael Caine the movie seems old. Post-Raiders of the Lost Ark audiences (an audience I consider myself a member of) expect things to move a little quicker, with less talk and fewer time outs for epic location photography. Huston (born 1906) was someone from an earlier dispensation. He could certainly do an adventure story like this. I love The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and it’s actually a very similar sort of story as the one we get here, with the roguish buddies making a pact but then falling out over some treasure (only with Sean going after Caine’s wife being added to the mix). Then the treasure is blown to the winds. But times weren’t just changing, they had changed.
*. All of which is to say that I found this to be pretty dull when I first saw it and it was no better this time around. But then I’m not a fan of Kipling’s story either. To be honest, I find it a bit hard to follow. If anything, the script here is an improvement, streamlining some bits and introducing more cinematic material, like the stolen pocket-watch stuff that introduces Kipling (Christopher Plummer) and Peachy (Caine) at the beginning.
*. Of course, Kipling’s attitudes, in particular his enthusiasm for imperialism and the white man’s burden, haven’t dated well. Apparently Caine had some objections to Saeed Jeffrey’s Billy Fish character, and I can see that, but the treatment of the watermelon man in the train carriage is even worse. In any event, no one was “woke” in 1975 so these Brits may be scoundrels but they can still have some good fun killing all those beastly natives and then take as well as they give by keeping a stiff upper lip under pressure and going down singing some jingo anthem.
*. The leads are both in good shape, though I’d pull up far short of Andrews Pulver, writing in the Guardian, saying that this was Caine’s best-ever performance. The problem is that Huston is more a director of great talk and the talk is nothing special here. I think both actors considered this to be an enjoyable shoot, among their favourites, but that feeling doesn’t always translate to on-screen fun and it doesn’t here.
*. It’s not a turkey. I’d just as soon watch this as Gandhi or A Passage to India or Carry On . . . Up the Khyber again. But it’s a movie that I don’t think has lasted and I’m not sure anyone watches it much anymore. Times, and movies, change. And while some things never go out of style, the action here has.