December 19, 1975 [The Man Who Would Be King]

John Huston makes Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King--and lucky that he waited twenty-five years, just in time for Sean Connery and Michael Caine to grow up and stride with false but irresistible bravado across a fairy-tale so immense that I had to double-check to make sure that the source was a short story, not a novel. From teeming train stations to stretching plains to snowbound peaks, from fakirs to fakers, hidden kingdoms and gold-stuffed palaces--and every variety of human one can imagine, even Kipling himself popping in, the only sane man in an Empire built by martinets and mercenary dreamers, the whole lot of them surging forward with a snap in their step but making it up as they go along, trying hard to be--well, I'm reminded of Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," in which the "young and ill-educated" Orwell finds himself having to shoot an elephant that had killed a man--and he surely didn't want to shoot it, but at his back is a crowd of about 2000 Burmese--and, as he puts it, "I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly." It's an essay on the tyranny imposed by Empires--but it's the white man who is enslaved, who "becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib." As Orwell observes with bland horror, "He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it"--all "to avoid looking like a fool."

In The Man Who Would Be King, Peachy and Daniel set themselves up first as civilized conquerors, then--at least on Daniel's part--as gods. And these "hollow, posing dummies" rule as tyrants--better than their predecessors, to be sure, but still nothing more than robbers. Huston grants us the luxury of loving these cast-off Tommies--and he does not punish us for this; no, he punishes them, Peachy and Daniel having to "brass it out" and let those Post-Colonial mountains fall on their heads--Daniel's crown still intact, but more of a portable grave-marker than a symbol of rule. It began with Alexander the Great but ends in a mad Cockney whisper, with the last Masonic King wrapped in dirty linen and staring, like Orwell's elephant, with the "enormous senility" that overcomes when a shot hits home.


  1. This is a great appreciation of a very good film--ah! 70s cinema; better than anyone knew at the time--with your first sentence as wonderfully long as that tracking shot in (what else?) *Touch of Evil.* Ready when you are, C.V.!

  2. Thanks, Tom. I always say I admire the clipped prose of the "manly Modernists"--Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett--but in the end I'm more James Joyce--not in talent, just long-windedness. And yes, you've found me out: The continuous tracking shot is my favorite; I admire the extended note more than is good for me!

    And you're right about the '70s: As dismal as things could get, there was room for all kinds of pictures. "The Man Who Would Be King" straddles two worlds: Golden Age Hollywood and the critical eye of the post-studio young Turks. And it took a tough old bird like Huston to do it.


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