Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

I live near Michael Caine. I just wanted to say that.

I seem to review a lot more books here than movies. There's definitely a paucity of British-Empire-themed movies compared to books, and the movies that have been made are sometimes pretty hard to come across. Though I had virtually no knowledge of this particular film before someone gifted it to me, it's considered something of a classic. Well, who knew? I didn't know just how much I needed to be reminded of why I own a pith helmet.

The Man Who Would Be King is a film version of a Kipling story. Now if you've been following the blog, you'll know that I've recently come around (in a small way) to Kipling after not liking him for years. As such, it's rife with allusions to other works of the Bard of Empire.

Things get off to a fine start with Maurice Jarre's stirring theme, which includes a version of the Irish revolutionary air The Minstrel Boy (though sung with Christian English lyrics). The music contains echoes of nostalgia for a time when big-whiskered men could be big-whiskered men, and could ride out into the wilds of British India's North-West Frontier to Have Adventures.

Christopher Plummer, his days as a Shakespeare-spouting Klingon in Star Trek V (special thanks to my brother for correcting me on that!) still ahead of him, plays Kipling himself in the wraparound sections that give the movie the flavour of a round-the-campfire tale. One night, Kipling is working hard in his newspaper office when a wreck of a man shambles in. Kipling doesn't recognise him until he reveals himself to be one Peachy Carnehan.

'You?' says Kipling in disbelief. Carnehan then replies with one of cinema's great lines:

'The same... and not the same... as the man who sat beside you in a first-class carriage to Malwar Junction, three summers and a thousand years ago.' It's stirring and wonderfully evocative of adventure, like everything in this first section of the movie.

Carnehan reminds Kipling of a similar night some years earlier, when two cheeky but charismatic jack-the-lads entered that selfsame office: Carnehan and his hetero life-mate Daniel Dravit. There's some footage of these ne'er-do-wells in their earlier adventures; wheeling, dealing, throwing respectable Indian citizens out of trains ('Out the window Baboo!) and falling foul of authority. As Dravit says, they know India; her cities and deserts, her palaces and her jails.

'It was detriments like us who built this bloody empire,' snarls Carnehan to one starched-shirt official. He's speaking with more truth than he knows: particularly in the early 19th-century, it was irresponsible and irrepressible characters such as 'Rajah' James Brooke, Stamford Raffles and John Nicholson who enlarged the British Empire by literally carving out kingdoms for themselves in the East, with or without official consent from London.

And this is precisely what Carnehan and Dravit intent to do. With Kipling as a witness, they sign a contract stating that they are never to rest, nor to dally with drink nor women until they are kings of the central Asian state of Kafiristan. They have chosen this place - now in modern-day Afghanistan - because it is inaccessible and little-known. When Kipling wrote the original story, Kafiristan didn't have long to wait before becoming first a Muslim state and then a vassal of the British Empire for real.

Having signed the document, the two leave Kipling and set off for some adventure (and some serious pith-helmetage). They head for the Khyber pass - realised most convincingly by the stunning Moroccan scenery -and come across Private Mulvaney, a Kipling character from Soldiers Three. Dravit mentions that the last time he came through this way he was with General 'Bobs' Roberts, a reference to the 2nd Anglo-Afghan war of 1879. And so they make their way towards Kafiristan, and destiny.

It's an amazing first act. And it's almost an amazing movie.

It's got all the elements of a classic adventure movie: brave, likeable and mischevious heroes, a clear quest, an exotic land. But there's something about the pacing and the plotting that feels wrong. As soon as they two men begin assembling their little empire the whole thing feels more like heavy-handed allegory than an adventure. The beats come slowly and predictably, and the plot feels less driven by characters than by a godlike story-teller who wants the characters to learn an IMPORTANT LESSON. It's still a good movie, and is never less than watchable. But for me, it doesn't quite make it up into the top category.

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