John Huston | 2hr 9min
In an era when American directors like Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman were pushing the boundaries of cinema with the cynical and risqué artistic expressions of New Hollywood, John Huston was still finding joy in the classical Technicolor adventures that were more popular in the industry’s Golden Age. At the same time, it is important to note that this particular adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King could not have been made under the censorship of the Production Code, especially given the debauchery and outright irreverence of its two central characters, Daniel and Peachy. On page, neither are entirely likeable in their overt representations of imperialistic British hubris, and yet the performances of Sean Connery and Michael Caine tactfully draw out the self-deprecating, even endearing foolishness of both men, setting up a pair of boisterous egos we wouldn’t mind seeing knocked down a few pegs.
After being mistaken for a god by the locals of a Kafiristan village, Daniel quickly latches onto delusions of grandeur, becoming a literal manifestation of British colonisation that asserts itself as superior to those foreign cultures they invade and dominate. The greed of men has often been a primary preoccupation of Huston throughout his oeuvre, but never has he expanded it to the large-scale, godlike proportions we witness here, matching the epic historical backdrop against which it is set. Huston has rarely ventured so far into such pure, cinematic spectacle, using sweeping long shots to isolate Connery and Caine upon the snowy Khyber Pass, filling his frames with extras in kinetic battle scenes, and later, simply letting us gaze upon the holy city of Sikandergul, sitting high up on the peak of a rocky mountain range. With the whole world laying itself at their feet, Daniel and Peachy quickly grow carried away with megalomaniac aspirations of wealth and power.
“The two richest men in England.”
But just as we observe, the path to glory is through a precariously stacked tower of falsehoods. At Daniel’s wedding to a beautiful local woman he barely knows, Huston builds a frenzied pace in his cutting, reminding us of a holy statue’s all-seeing eye caught in intimidating low angles, all the while the percussive beats played by black-clad musicians build to a feverish crescendo. We fully expect the artifice to come tumbling down around them in this moment, but given the light, reckless tone with which Daniel and Peachy have ripped through these foreign lands and cheapened cultural customs, we aren’t prepared for the heavy weight of the comeuppance when it finally arrives, revealing the true devastation which Daniel and Peachy have wreaked in their careless endeavours.
In a moment of poetic justice, the tearing down of Daniel’s greatest infrastructural achievement during his time as King brings about his own personal, literal downfall as well. Huston offers some sympathy for the death of this rollicking friendship between two arrogant, irresponsible adventurers, though he has no misgivings regarding how it came about. The men and women of Kafiristan may have dealt the final blow, but the fault lies entirely at the feet of these two pompous Brits who believed the world was theirs to own.
The Man Who Would Be King is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.