Man Who Would Be King

A Review by James Platt

In 1975, Director John Huston and Producer John Foreman gloriously adapted Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” to film. Huston had slated the film to be made in the 1950’s with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable as the stars, but Bogart died before that plan could be realized. It would be thirty years before Huston would again seriously try to make the film, and we are grateful he did, for he found two actors almost perfectly suited to play the two heroes. The film stars Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot and Michael Cain as Peachy Carnehan as the brave British undesirable and former soldiers who, as Peachy puts it ,“built this bloody empire”. Christopher Plummer stars as Rudyard Kipling, who bears witness to the story as relayed by Peachy, and Saeed Jaffrey stars as Billy Fish, the unabashedly loyal translator and Gurkha foot soldier. The film is a grand example of the adventure genre, as the intrepid heroes seek to elevate their position in life and become kings of Kafiristan. Overall, the film and story are a work of fiction, but more pointedly the film takes a satirical look at British colonialism in the late 1800’s.


Though shot mostly in Morocco, the film is set in India during the height of British imperialism. The story follows Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, two soldiers whose services in the military were no longer necessary because the British government had successfully gained control of India and implemented their system of indirect rule. Indirect rule is a system in which the indigenous people would be trained by the British as clerks and minor officials to perform the majority of the tasks necessary to the operation of the area. Danny and Peachy’s predicament is similar to that of many British soldiers at the time who, being sent off to expand and preserve the empire, would usually return to England and home, but for Danny and Peachy the trip back home would be a useless venture. They are apparently of a lower class in the British society and would find little chance to profit or elevate their station in the world by returning to their mother country. Britain in their mind had done little more for them than place them in dangerous and deadly situations where Afghan soldiers would run screaming at them in battle from the hills, such as in the Khyber Pass. While in the battle they were forced to take command of the situation in a battle where their commanding officers had “copped out”. No, home was not for Danny and Peachy: they clearly could find better profit in India than at home. They set out to blackmail the local Raj by posing as correspondents of the Northern Star, a newspaper. They are foiled by a real correspondent of the Northern Star, Rudyard Kipling, and are then chided by a philandering British administrator who threatens them with jail. Having been befriended by Kipling, who happened to be a fellow mason, they visit him in his office one evening to have him witness a contract between the two of them to set off and become kings of Kafiristan, an unexplored and untamed area that was once part of the empire of Alexander the Great. The two men swear off dallying with women and strong drink until their goals had been reached. With their contract signed and witnessed in an official manner they set off in search of fortune and a better life.

Their sentiment is similar to that of many real historical figures of the time though a bit stereotypical and clichéd. One such real personage for comparison is that of George Goldie whose business savvy helped lead to the success of British colonialism in northern Nigeria. Goldie was considered an eccentric misfit by many who knew him. He had been kicked out of the army and had subsequently squandered his family fortune, so seeing no sign of hope in England, he found himself a chance in Africa. He arrived in West Africa and established a monopoly in the palm oil business. Palm oil was a West African staple, export, and raw material prized by European powers in the area. Palm oil could be used for a number of things including lubricants, fuels, cooking, and even detergents, hence the name of the current popular brand of detergent and soap, Palmolive. In his time there he managed to band together all other British palm oil traders and drive out any and all French and German competition in the area. Goldie and other members of his company would pass off as government officials and get local chiefs to enter into trade agreements for palm oil and eventually other materials as well, while in reality he was only a private businessman. He took in hundreds of chiefs and other indigenous leaders with this ploy. Goldie was even successful in securing company dispatches within the Muslim controlled northern area of Nigeria, an area the British government eventually had to take by force. In the end however, Goldie’s expansion and capitalization had to be halted by the British government, administrators, and officials, largely over fears concerning the frontier line or border with the French in the north. Danny and Peachy bear only a few similarities to George Goldie, but overall they are the typical British eccentrics and down-on-their-luck colonialists seeking their fortune in the foreign areas that are weaker and with less sophisticated people than they are.

Posing as a mad priest and his interpreter to avoid conflict with Afghans and other local threats, they set off towards Kafiristan with a cache of rifles and ammunition to aid in their endeavor. They thwart attacks from Afghans and cross wide torrent-laden rivers while remaining focused on Kafiristan. (An interesting note is that Kafiristan is a real place, and is now known as Nuristan. It is located in the northeastern section of Afghanistan, south of the Hindu Kush.) To reach this destination Daniel and Peachy must endure hardship and cross tremendous ice capped mountain ranges. There, Danny goes snow blind and must hold onto the tail of one of their donkeys. They come to a dead end, but by their sheer luck, and amidst laughter, an avalanche provides a path for them to enter the uncharted land. Eventually Danny and Peachy come to a river where they gaze upon a group of Kafiri people peacefully going about their washing. These people are suddenly attacked by a group of masked men whom Danny and Peachy fight off handily, capturing one of them. They then proceed to the nearest Kafiri city, that of the Bashkai. There they meet Billy Fish, an Indian man trained as a soldier by the British.

Billy Fish, though fictional, is representative of many persons under colonial rule. His speech is overdone in the use of British idioms, such as “dear me” and “ by Jove”, and he is clearly in awe of British military men. When first coming to Danny and Peachy he offers himself as their servant and is clearly grateful to be in their presence, as is typical of many in India under British control. Billy himself is a Gurkha. The Gurkha were seen by the British as a race destined for fighting. The Gurkha were known to be loyal, resilient, and highly self sufficient fighters. There were often hired as mercenaries by the British army and colonial forces. The Gurkha and their service were so highly esteemed by the empire that a statue of a Gurkha soldier now stands outside the Ministry of Defence in London. Billy’s uniform is typical and accurate to that of a true Gurkha soldier in British employ right down to his kukri knife. Gurkha still exist today but serve mainly as a police force within Singapore.
After a brief attack, due to ignorance of the Bashkai and their false assumption that the two British men were devils, Peachy and Danny ask Billy to take them to the leader of the city so, as Peachy puts it “his education can begin”. The education as well as Christianization of persons under colonial rule was a predominant ideal to colonialists, especially the British. Rudyard Kipling himself actually referred to this idea as “the white man’s burden”. This idea is that all the best and brightest of the white race should be in duty bound to teach the rest of the world the proper way to exist. Kipling, in his poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, states that white men should open the “half-devil and half-child” persons as he calls them to speech, health care, and the idea of freedom. Pears’ Soap even used the idea and phrase in advertising in the 1890’s promoting the idea that it was the duty of white men to clean the rest of the world. In the end it is a fixed idea western ideas and culture should be brought to the rest of the world whether non-westerners want it or not. So Danny and Peachy set to educating the Bashkai people in the ways of British soldiering, so that they could lead them against all their enemies and unify the country under them. During their first skirmish Danny is struck by an arrow in a leather strap on his shoulder. He removes the arrow, without pain or blood, to the amazement of all the native people who bow down around him. Danny is believed to be Alexander the Great’s son sent back to these people as was promised. To the people of Kafiristan Danny is god.

In Danny’s treatment as a god there can be seen somewhat of a parallel to how the people under colonial rule saw the people lording over them. They were being led and ruled by people they believed had to be superior in almost every way. These people had huge armies that were well equipped and they had a great wealth of knowledge and technical know-how. They are people to be respected, feared, admired, and even emulated, just as Billy Fish emulates British soldiers.. Danny goes to the holy city of Sikandergul where he is given all the treasures of the city and is then allowed to rule over the whole of Kafiristan. The treasure of Sikandergul likely represents the raw materials produced by a nation there for Danny and Peachy, the colonialists, to take. In the end Danny starts to believe that he really is a god, that all that had happened to him was providence, and that he was destined to rule the country of Kafiristan. Danny decides to take a wife who fears death if she is loved by a god; she bites him on the cheek in the wedding ceremony, revealing that he bleeds like a man and therefore cannot be a god. Danny, Peachy, and Billy Fish are chased from the city, but Billy in a last desperate act of loyalty throws himself into the crowd, slashing with is kukri knife, and yelling “ayo gurkhali”, which means the Gurkhas are here. Danny is forced onto a rope bridge he had Peachy build for the Kafiri people. On the bridge Danny sings the hymn “the Son Goes Forth to War” and as the ropes are cut he falls to his death as Peachy looks on. Danny’s untimely death was clearly due to his arrogance and overconfidence and parallels the colonialist attitude. So, it seems that colonialism due to its arrogance and over confidence was doomed to fail just as Daniel Dravot failed in his undertaking.

Britain’s hold on its empire began to weaken following the two world wars. The economic strain was tremendous and armed forces were often unavailable in areas where there were violent uprisings. India gained independence in 1947 due largely to the opposition leadership of Gandhi who was a product of British colonialism and a staunch admirer of British prowess and ways. Gandhi was educated in England as a lawyer and even served in the British army for a while. Overall, independence was won through good political undertakings, non violent protest, and non violent non cooperation movements. In the end the nation’s own true growing pains could begin, and they began with violence between Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. At the end of the film Peachy has returned to Kipling’s office where he tells of the events; he tells that he was crucified between two pine trees and that on the way home he never let go of Danny’s head. The final scene of the film leaves the audience with the gory images of Daniel Dravot’s severed and rotting head still wearing the crown of Kafiristan as the hymn Danny sang throughout the film plays in the background.

Although it portrays no actual historical event, the film overall is a good depiction of the 1890’s India and its life and ways as well as prevailing colonial ideas. So, the film serves history well in this aspect. Another film that portrays colonialism well is “The Wind and The Lion”, also starring Sean Connery. This film follows American imperialism in Morocco. Another film is “Zulu”, which follows the British in Africa. The only real historical figure portrayed here is Rudyard Kipling, but his role in the film is not necessarily an authentic account of any episode in his life. The inclusion of Kipling in the film is perhaps unnecessary and serves no real story purpose, but his inclusion as a character does add a sense of “could this have really happened” wonderment. Some good further reading to help get a sense of the time would be Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Tiger and Sharpe’s Triumph. These fictional books portray the conquering of India by Britain. Also Rudyard Kipling’s Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings and the original story “The Man Who Would Be King” are of interest.

Now, in conclusion, “The Man Who Would Be King” is in general simply a great movie. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and it remains still a fond memory for both of the actors who starred in it. Its depiction of the time is fair and accurate and it is really a fun adventure with loveable and unforgettable characters. No doubt in the end Kipling would have been pleased with the film and perhaps oddly amused at his inclusion and portrayal in the story.