THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING has you wish there was an Oscar category for ‘Best Team’. If so, this grand 1975 High Adventure Classic would have nailed the prize for the marvelously enjoyable pairing of Sean Connery and Michael Caine, in their perfect embodiment of the whole Rascal As Hero daydream that traces in literature, drama and legend at least as far back as Hercules. It’s only fitting then that the charming Victorian Era con-men in this whopper take their loot scheme down a path leading to Alexander The Great. Just a few obstacles in the way, is all…”If a Greek can do it, we can do it.”
Here, director-scenarist John Huston (no wallflower when it came to crazy exploits) takes an 1888 Rudyard Kipling novella he’d nursed as a project for years, and secures it honored placement high on the stack of cinematic derring-do. He’d first had it in mind for Gable & Bogart. As years went by it was teased for Lancaster/Douglas, Burton/O’Toole and Newman/Redford. Any or all would have made for a kick, but thanks to Newman’s urging, Huston wisely settled on Connery/Caine. “Not gods–Englishmen. The next best thing.”
They had a grand time shooting the epic antics in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, with the cigar-hooked/oxygen tank-dependent Huston seeing that the two stars (and close pals) were given free rein to spark off one another and create delightful rogues. Brothers in arms, ‘Danny & Peachy’ “brass it out” from ‘Marwar Junction’ and ‘The Northern Star’, through the Khyber Pass, braving blizzard, avalanche, bandits and raging torrents in the Hindu Kush en route to the wonders of ‘Kafiristan’.
With help from Masonic ‘Brother Kipling’ (a plum Christopher Plummer), the endearing and hearty Gurkha, ‘Billy Fish’ (wonderful job from Saeed Jeffrey), and the cowardly buffoon ‘Ootah the Terrible’ they subdue tribes and convert followers along the way. They also observe polo the way it was originally designed to be played, raise an army “so you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men“, and dispense summary justice, tasks at hand to find enough treasure to make the Crown Jewels “look like cheap family heirlooms“.
Prize and trap is the exotic beauty ‘ Roxanne’, embodied by Shakira Caine (former Miss Guyana, and Mike’s wife). Watch that rope-bridge, lads! “Cut you buggers! Cut!” Sing lustily in the face of death.
Huston’s splendid, quote-stocked script (co-written by Gladys Hill) was Oscar-nominated, as were the Film Editing, Art Direction and Costume Design. Costing $8,000,000, it came in at the #29 spot of the years successes. Connery, 44, had just released the stunning The Wind And The Lion. That rouser is usually thought of as a bookend piece with this movie, both of them playing with outdated concepts of valor from the days of Imperial swagger, both saluting and subverting What Was (more like What We Thought/Wished Was).
“Not for us, thank you. Not after watching Afghans come howling down out of the hills and taking battlefield command when all the officers had copped it.”
Look closely at one scene where an angry old tribesman is waving a sword in the faces of our heroes—in reality, this gnarled extra didn’t need direction: he was pissed at the movie crew and was on the verge of a little old-fashioned infidel skewering. “Pardon me while I fall down laughing. HA HA HA.”
Myth-evoking music score from Maurice Jarre wraps around 129 minutes of glory & hubris, friendship & folly. With Doghmi Larbi, Jack May and Karroom Ben Bouih–born in 1871, 103-years-old here, as the High Priest guardian of the fabled and fabulous treasure of ‘Sikander’.
The larger-than-life duo (not to forget Billy Fish), experts in “whiskey, women, waistcoats and bills of fare ” are ours to revisit as needed, in this dismal, unheroic age we’ve inherited, cursed as it is with fallout from blokes like ‘Dravot & Carnahan’ poking around into valleys in places like Afghanistan. Alas, Danny would not heed old Peachy….