How whimsical! I was perusing a Facebook group committed to Criterion Collection discussions (you’re not allowed in, it’s for nerds) and came across a recommendation for The Man Who Would Be King, which is playing as part of John Huston’s filmography on the Criterion Channel this month.
Prior to this, I had absolutely no knowledge of the specifics of this film. I’d heard of the title. That’s all.
As one who likes to appease the constituents, I decided I’d do a bonus post talking about this flick just for you! Sadly I can’t include it with the real project because it’s not part of the collection, meaning it was never physically released by Criterion on any format. But that doesn’t mean I can’t yammer on about it here since it’s streaming on the channel 😉
If I told you there was a film directed by John Huston, the iconic filmmaker behind The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, and The African Queen (to name a few), starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer, about two swindling British military vets with their sights set on ruling a poor west-Asian country by conning their entire nation into making them their king…would you be intrigued?
Oh, and the film is from the ’70s, so we’re getting peak or near-peak Connery and Caine.
If you replied that you are indeed intrigued then you’re likely a fan of one of the renowned actors, the legendary director, adventure films with wacky schemes, or Rudyard Kipling. I mention Kipling not only because he wrote the short story the film is based on, but also because he’s also a character in the film (played by Plummer).
I think IMDB sums up the plot best:
Two British former soldiers decide to set themselves up as Kings in Kafiristan, a land where no white man has set foot since Alexander the Great.
The rest of the film is entirely left to the devices of two of the most charming actors to ever grace the silver screen. Even as you’re watching the plot unfold and you know these guys are in over there head, you can’t help but watch them and, strangely, root for them. Which is saying a lot about the charisma of Connery and Caine, because while the plot of the film is meant to be mostly for adventure and laughs, what we’re really looking at are the horrors of colonialism.
Huston goes to almost zero lengths to condemn these characters for doing essentially what colonizing countries have been doing for a millennia: seizing land, enslaving people, stealing property. That’s not to say their actions are condoned, Huston just makes us want to watch these guys no matter what they’re doing. They engage in some cheeky British banter while they’re literally profiteering by blaspheming the local religion and customs.
It’s also worth nothing that a significant part of the plot revolves around the main characters being Freemasons. The symbol and customs of the secretive group are shown and referenced many times, and often drive the plot.
In the film the reason a white outsider is mistaken as a deity is because their previous ruler, Alexander the Great, was also a Freemason and left their crest etched into the palace wall. Were it not for this plot point, the film would end at nearly the halfway point with our two connivers either dead or banished. One would have to question whether or not Huston was trying to make a statement about Freemasonry, or if he had any connection to the society, himself.
However, the film does not go in that direction and we’re served up a platter of mistaken identities, barbarism, and an expected climax worthy of the movie that preceded it.
Safe to say, the film was a pleasant surprise that should not have been unexpected considering the incredible talent in front of and behind the camera. This is old fashioned movie-star driven adventure cinema at its finest. I will definitely sound like a relic saying this….but they just don’t make ’em like they used to.