Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they're starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ’ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ’eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ’eroes” when the drums begin to roll.
These lines from Rudyard Kipling’s bitterly expressive poem ‘Tommy’ are something you can easily imagine Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) or Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) muttering vehemently to themselves, ex-serviceman with a grudge against the Forces and a healthy disrespect for the politicians they feel have let them down; men, it has to be said, who were just as petulant when they were in uniform, the majority of their time spent up on a charge or doing jankers.
No wonder, then, that Carnehan is introduced to us picking someone’s pocket in the crowds at Marwar Station, or that Dravot makes his first appearance dozing in a railway carriage and lambasting the individual who disturbs him with a message from his old mucker Peachey. The victim of Carnehan’s wandering fingers and the receipt in Dravot’s tongue-lashing is one and the same person: journalist and aspiring writer Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer). His interaction with our (anti) heroes provides the framing device for John Huston’s enjoyably cynical epic.
Carnehan returns Kipling’s stolen pocket-watch when he recognizes the symbol on the watch-chain as Masonic; passing himself off as a Mason, he inveigles Kipling into passing a message to Dravot. Tipped off by Dravot as to a blackmail scheme he and Carnehan are planning, Kipling reluctantly passes the information along to the British consul. In the first of many uproarious scenes where Connery and Caine play off each other like a music hall double-act, they troop into the consul’s office, cock a snook at authority, and troop right out again.
They next cross paths with Kipling when they gain access to the newspaper offices he works at to consult maps and documents in the planning of their latest head-in-the-clouds scheme: travel to the far country of Kafiristan (the last white man to successfully mount an incursion: Alexander the Great), back some local tribal leader, defeat his enemies, install him as monarch, overthrow the poor bugger and reign as kings.
The extended mid-section of ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ details their arduous journey and the means by which they set about conquering Kafiristan. It’s a shaggy dog story of the highest order, riddled with coincidences, twists of fate, broad (and borderline xenophobic) humour, sweepingly epic set-pieces and two rip-roaring lead performances. The final stretch of the film, when the deus ex machina of Kipling’s watch-chain (presented to Dravot as a gift at the commencement of their lunatic odyssey) compounds a misapprehension by the locals that sees Dravot hailed as a god – any implausibilities are easily excused by the fact that he’s played by Sean freakin’ Connery! – takes things into darker territory.
The friendship between Dravot and Carnehan – the characters’ jocular, bantering relationship and the actors’ palpable chemisty is the backbone without which the film would be little more than some pretty cinematography and a few impressive crowd scenes – is compromised by Dravot’s burgeoning egomania, his to-the-manner-born assimilation of absolute power culminating in his suggestion that Carnehan demonstrate subservience in order to continue the façade. Then Dravot takes a fancy to a local woman, Roxanne (Shakira Caine), whom he believes the reincarnation of the bride his spiritual predecessor, Alexander the Great, took when he ruled Kafiristan two and half thousand years before.
This righteously pisses off the country’s holy men and the scene is set for the film’s justly famous denouement.
‘The Man Who Would Be King’ is bustling, colourful and ultimately poignant. It begins as a Flashman-like romp, occupies buddy-movie territory for most of its running time, delivers a couple of sweeping battle scenes reminiscent of Caine’s earlier turn in ‘Zulu’, and finally becomes a cautionary tale of the wages of greed and the price of hubris capped off with an almost affirmative moment of reconciliation. It’s a high point in the careers of both Connery and Caine, as well as nestling in the top tier of Huston’s filmography. It’s the kind of Sunday afternoon movie that reminds you – with a glint in its eye, a swagger in its step and a dash of ballsy attitude beneath its seemingly breezy exterior – that Sunday afternoon movies can actually be good.