After spending much of the ’60s in the creative wilderness, director John Huston rebounded in the early ’70s with the acclaimed character drama Fat City and the eccentric Western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, both released in 1972. Still, it seemed unlikely he would ever make another classic equal to his studio-era masterpieces The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951), both of which starred Humphrey Bogart. It also seemed unlikely he would ever find the right actors for his adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King, since Huston originally meant to make the picture with Bogart and Clark Gable. Yet Huston gracefully achieved both goals: Engrossing, spectacular, and thoughtful, his film of The Man Who Would Be King is among the all-time great adventure movies, perfectly meshing a once-in-a-lifetime onscreen duo with a timeless parable about man’s lust for gold.
Michael Caine and Sean Connery play English soldiers in late 19th-century India, when the country was still part of the British Empire. Determined to improve their lot and emboldened by their belief in the superiority of white Christians over dark-skinned pagans, Peachy (Caine) and Danny (Connery) quit the army and venture to the remote terrain of Kafiristan, which is rumored to harbor untold treasures. Employing their army training, the lads help bolster the defenses of a remote village against violent marauders, and then a chance occurrence elevates their stature.
During an attack, Danny is hit by an arrow but doesn’t flinch, convincing the locals he must be a god. (In fact, the arrow struck his leather bandolier.) Soon, Danny is summoned to a nearby holy city, with Peachy in tow, and another chance occurrence secures their illusion of divinity: The locals mistake Danny’s Freemason crest for a symbol of Alexander the Great, thus mistaking him for a reincarnation of the fabled conqueror. A palace filled with gold is handed to the soldiers, but when Peachy suggests they grab as much loot as they can carry and leave before their ruse is discovered, a power-mad Danny insists on staying.
The stage thus set, Huston elegantly stages the duo’s inevitable fall from grace. The film’s climax is beautifully realized thanks to committed acting, crisp storytelling, and dazzling stunt work. Huston and co-screenwriter Gladys Hill capture the dangers and delights of Kipling’s style throughout the picture, so scenes in crowded India are chaotic and fast, while scenes in sprawling mountaintop temples are meditative and resplendent. Furthermore, veteran cameraman Oswald Morris’ lush photography makes locations like a vertiginous mountaintop staircase and a terrifying rope bridge seem like legends come to life. Huston employs a quasi-documentary feel for the most exotic scenes, creating a sense that Caine and Connery wandered into a never-before-seen wonderland; this intoxicating atmosphere is accentuated by the presence of Caine’s real-life wife, Guyana-born beauty Shakira Caine, in her only significant acting role. (Christopher Plummer appears in enjoyable framing sequences as Kipling.)
As for Caine and Connery, they live up to the grandiose production surrounding them. Trading working-class banter like blokes sharing a pint, the actors convey the quality of deep friendship, so watching avarice cleave their relationship feels like observing great tragedy. That the actors never reunited onscreen defines The Man Who Would Be King as a singular document of their cinematic camaraderie.
The Man Who Would Be King: OUTTA SIGHT