May 27, 2021
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Grade: 68/100

Director: John Huston
Stars: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer

What it's about. David (Sean Connery) and Peachy (Michael Caine) are 19th century British soldiers stationed in India. They are expelled from the Army due to roguish behavior, such as theft, gun-smuggling and blackmail. They decide to journey to remote Kafiristan, install themselves as rulers there, and plunder its reputed treasure. Their plan goes very well, until David decides that he would prefer to remain as king, rather than flee with the loot.

Christopher Plummer is third-billed as Rudyard Kipling, who at the time the film is set (circa 1885) was an obscure journalist in British-ruled India. The real Kipling wrote the source novella.

Billy (Saeed Jaffrey) is a British Empire soldier who befriends David and Peachy, and proves invaluable to them as an interpreter and informant. Michael Caine's real-life wife, Shakira, plays Daniel's involuntary Kafiristani bride. The man who plays the Kafiristan high priest, Karroom Ben Bouih, was reportedly 103 years old when he made his one and only movie.

How others will see it. Aided by the reputations of its director and two leads, The Man Who Would Be King was well received. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, though none in the most prestigious categories.

Today at, it has a fairly high user rating of 7.8 out of 10. The rating is consistent across all demographics. The user vote total is above 45K, more than expected. The user reviews tend to praise Huston, Connery, and Caine.

How I felt about it. The more one considers this movie, the more flaws become apparent. Daniel and Peachy have never been to Kafiristan. They don't know the language or the culture. They don't have an interpreter. They would survive past the first encounter with a village.

Because it's a movie, the first person in Kafiristan that they exchange words with just happens to be a former British Empire soldier who speaks English. In fact, he is apparently the only person in the country who speaks English. How convenient, then, that Daniel and Peachy find Billy so soon, but that he is so eager to serve them as interpreter, ambassador, and soldier.

The origins of freemasonry are in the early 1700s. Alexander the Great was not a freemason. This subplot of the movie is a complete fiction.

I can believe that Daniel wants to marry a gorgeous young Kafiristani woman. What seems most unlikely is that she already bears the name Roxanne. I would guess that there is not a single person presently in Kafiristan named Roxanne.

I have to admit that I cannot tell a Moroccan from a Kafiristani. But the two lands are separated by 5,000 miles. They are in different continents, and have different languages and religions. It is obvious, to the culturally aware, that Arabic-speaking muslims in Morocco (where the movie was filmed) are less than an ideal substitute. Not that I am culturally aware, nor was the film's intended audience, English-speaking whites.

But the real elephant in the room is white colonialism. The arrogance of English adventurers who believe that conquering a nation, and killing thousands in battle, for glory and treasure, is a worthy pursuit. But then, this is what English soldiers believed circa 1885, when the film was set. Daniel and Peachy are true to the stereotype of Victorian-era British soldiers, just as obsequious Billy is a stereotype based on Gunga Din, another Rudyard Kipling invention.

Still, it is grating to watch Billy fawning on our two leads, and an eye-roller when Peachy throws a submissive Indian man out the window of a moving train. A scene that is presumably intended to be humorous.

So, The Man Who Would Be King has its problems. But it is a class production, with three bona-fide moviestars, a heralded director, and a celebrated author providing the source novella. We like the costumes, the sets, and the scenery. In any event, it is much better than most movies.