They are foreign soldiers who have ventured into Afghanistan, a land of daunting geography and ancient conflicts. They represent the preeminent global superpower, and believe their cultural and military superiority will carry the day. They bask in their initial victories, but fail to fully recognize the dangerous case of hubris that quickly settles in.
They are, of course, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, the charmingly arrogant rogues of Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King," further immortalized by Sean Connery and Michael Caine in John Huston's 1975 film.
There's never a bad time to rent "The Man Who Would Be King." I can think of few movies in all filmdom that tell a story so magnificently, even on a small screen. But these days when tales of Afghanistan are being told in thirty-second sound bites, "The Man Who Would Be King" seems especially wise and timeless. And while one must be careful drawing modern parallels to the adventures of two disenfranchised 19th Century British con artists, it's an intriguing exercise anyway.
The visuals are epic. The narrative is tragedy. The dialogue is comedy. The subtext is religious parable. And still at it's very heart, "The Man Who Would Be King" is a buddy picture. Perhaps only Huston could have wrestled this all these elements into place. Huston had originally envisioned Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as his loyal rogues invading fictional Kafiristan. The years passed and he began lobbying for Robert Redford and Paul Newman as Danny and Peachy. Though he coveted both the role and the chance to work with Huston, Newman reportedly told the director that Kipling's story deserved British actors. With Caine and Connery and Christopher Plummer playing Kipling himself, Huston had a stalwart, if not quite superstar cast, and "The Man Who Would Be King" became an immediate classic, if not exactly a blockbuster.
The point is people still talk about this film 25 years later. I'm tempted to say they don't make movies like this anymore. But in fact, they do. They make a lot of movies like this. They just make them bigger, clumsier and far less memorable. The reason "The Man Who Would Be King" still resonates, I suspect, is the combination of Kipling the master storyteller, Huston the master filmmaker, and the year 1975, when post-Vietnam America was willing to explore a little moral ambiguity. And by moral ambiguity I simply mean that no character is innocent, but every character is utterly human and portrayed with honesty and sympathy.
Yes, there are also lessons you can take away about the clash of Western and Middle Eastern cultures. They might take awhile to sink in. But like all timeless classics, "The Man Who Would Be King" will be waiting for you when you're ready.
© 2002 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 10/01
The Man Who Would Be King
UK/USA - 1975