Friday, November 28, 2008

The Man Who Would Be King

"The Man Who Would Be King" (John Huston, 1975) The obsessive quest. The lust for riches and the good life it will bring. The realization that the journey may be more important than the rewards. Laughter.

Two ne'er-do-wells cross into unknown territory for riches and are undone by their own greed and discord.

John Huston made this story before--a couple times, in fact. The closest might be "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," which "The Man Who Would Be King" resembles. But it could also be "The Maltese Falcon," from the villains' perspective. Both films deal with wealth evading their questers' grasp, and both end with some laughter.* In "The Man Who Would Be King," that laughter comes earlier, and provides the miracle that leads the adventurers to achieving their hearts' desires. And gaining wisdom.

Although in each film someone always has to take "the fall."

The story is by
Rudyard Kipling, and story-teller Huston provides the conceit that might have led to the writing of
the tale, as Kipling is featured prominently in the film, portrayed with genial bonhomie and a writer's intrigued fascination at the train-wreck-sure-to-happen by Christopher Plummer. The story, of two confidence men/ex-British militiamen--Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and P.T. "Peachey" Carnahan (Michael Caine)--who brave the impossible journey through the Himalayas to find the fabled city of Kafiristan to set themselves up as "kings" held echoes of themes featured prominently throughout the work of John Huston. When he realized his dream of making this film, he was nearly 70 and suffering from emphysema, but the travel and the foreign locations did not dim his enthusiasm at such an age. He said it was one of his favorite shoots in his long-storied career. And one of the easiest.

And it was all due to the casting.

Huston had wanted to make the film in the 50's with
Clark Gable as Danny and Humphrey Bogart as Peachey then later with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

It was
Newman who suggested Connery and Caine. The two old friends had never worked together before and seized on the opportunity. Evenings during filming the two would go over the next day's scenes and work out little bits of well-coordinated business that would indicate the relationship between the two con-men, like old vaudevillians who had shared many a stage...and those routines would delight the wolfish Huston when presented with the ideas the next morning.

One wonders what Huston would have made of the film earlier in his career with those teams of actors. Lighter, perhaps. More comedy. Maybe not so hard on the message of the exploitation of conquered nations. But, with Connery and Caine there is a maturity as these two "
soldiers for fortune" go about their business robbing the various "-istan's" "three ways from Sunday."

Would it have ended as it does now, with the grisly but apt ending, and the story-teller becoming so engaged in the telling of the tale, that he is no longer a part of it? Would it have resonated so?

In the end, the point is so moot as to be laughable in itself. "The Man Who Would Be King" is a classic motion picture of any era--a dream project from a master director who had thirty years to perfect it, many chances to get it right, and, unlike his protagonists, the grace and wisdom to appreciate the luck he'd been given and let it live on its own when it was in his grasp.

Not even emphysema could have stopped his laughter at that.

* "The Asphalt Jungle" also has a similar ending...but its low-level crooks do not possess the self-knowledge--or the grace--to laugh at the Cosmic Joke played at their expense.

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