"The Man Who Would Be King"

He had to bide his time, but humane cynic John Huston finally got the chance to make one of the most sophisticated American entertainments ever.

Published September 21, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Man Who Would Be King"
Directed by John Huston
Starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Saeed Jaffrey, Shakira Caine
Warner Bros.; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of featurette, theatrical trailers for several John Huston movies, background on Rudyard Kipling's story and Freemasonry, production notes on director, stars and location

There's a moment in "Call It Magic," the making-of documentary that accompanies the DVD of "The Man Who Would Be King" (and, unlike most promo "documentaries" tacked onto DVDs, actually tells you something about the film's making), in which the director, John Huston, sits smiling in his director's chair as the chaos of the scene he has unleashed unfurls around him. It's a terrific, indelible image of a great wily filmmaker, perhaps the grandest, most eloquent cynic ever to work in the movies.

There's no telling if "The Man Who Would Be King" would have been a different movie had Huston gotten to make it in the '50s with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, as he originally intended after acquiring the movie rights to Rudyard Kipling's short story. Even then, the film would likely have featured Huston's darkly amused fatalism toward the men who would be kings that characterized "The Asphalt Jungle" and especially "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," which remains one of the toughest and least compromised of American movies. But among the changes wrought by the racial upheavals of the '50s and '60s was that countries could no longer be comfortable with their colonial past, and a straight treatment of Kipling's jingo might not have played. Even so, instead of opting for the self-loathing that characterized many American movies in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Huston opted for a far trickier approach.

Sold and acclaimed as a great adventure in the swashbuckling tradition, "The Man Who Would Be King" is closer in spirit to Akira Kurosawa than Errol Flynn. It's one of the most sophisticated and complex entertainments ever made in this country. Huston, a movie classicist and a supreme ironist, turns Kipling inside out. The result might be called ironic jingoism. Huston clearly loves his rogue-heroes Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine), two British army officers who set off to become kings of Kafiristan, the mythical city of Alexander the Great. They represent the masculine world of daring and adventure he was drawn to. But he doesn't present their plan to, in Peachy's words, "plunder the country four ways from Sunday" as a triumph of bringing civilization to the godless heathens. Danny and Peachy may be more ruthless than the people they aim to conquer, but those people are hardly unspoiled innocents poisoned by their encounter with the world. Huston is alive to the unfamiliar faces of Danny and Peachy's "subjects." (The city's high priest is played by a local, a 100-year-old man the crew found working as a night watchman at a local olive grove.) The dark joke of the movie is the way it mixes up the civilized and the savage, as when Danny and Peachy see the Kafirs playing polo with the head of an enemy.

The result doesn't provide the rousing good time you might expect from grand adventure. But Huston's not a debunker. You don't cast Connery and Caine in a Kipling story without having the desire to give the audience pleasure. Huston and his screenwriter, Gladys Hill, use the bare bones of a classic adventure story for one of the director's characteristic parables about the calamities of greed. Huston was a humane cynic. He directs from a magisterial height, certain that Danny and Peachy's scheme is doomed, but still capable of loving their nerve and showing merciless pity for their folly. The triumph of the movie isn't just Huston's realization of a longtime dream to bring the Kipling story to the screen but the way he both honors classical movie tradition and brings it forward into a new era. The best American films of the time, pictures like "The Godfather," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "The Return of a Man Called Horse," were made by directors who used the great Hollywood genres to speak a new language. Maybe it was fate that delayed Huston's making "The Man Who Would Be King" until 1975. He had to wait for American movies to catch up to him.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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