Having watched Zulu recently, I decided to watch another film with red coats in it, The Man Who Would Be King. I’d never seen it before and I was interested — especially because it was directed by John Huston. And I can see why he wanted to make the film: it is epic. And it was a chance to make his generation’s Gunga Din. Just the same, I don’t really think the film works very well.
There are things to like about the film. The main thing is that it is a gorgeous film. That isn’t just because of all the beautiful locations. It is also despite all the beautiful locations. When movies started moving out to location shooting, it caused a problem. Movies began to present places like Egypt as they were instead of how they ought to have been. The Man Who Would Be King gets the best of both worlds with actual locations and wonderful sets. The designs by Alexandre Trauner and their implementation by Tony Inglis are stunning. The costumes by Edith Head are also great — simple but beautiful.
Also of note in the film is the vaudeville act that is Sean Connery and Michael Caine. They really are good as a couple of lovable rogues. And they are what give the film a feel of Gunga Din: Victor McLaglen and Cary Grant in color! The problem in this regard is that when they are not in the film, the entire experience seems hollow. And poor Christopher Plummer is so constrained in his part that he hardly leaves a mark. That’s saying something for one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. On the plus side, Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is really good in the Gunga Din part.
What most fails in the film is the script. It is entirely too dependent upon narration. This isn’t just a problem with drawing attention to the fact that Peachy is telling the story, and thus taking the viewer out of the narrative. Even more, the entire story telling is dependent upon the narration. It is as though Huston and co-writer Gladys Hill never figured out how to translate Kipling’s novella to a visual framework. There is far too much inexplicable action followed by Peachy’s voice-over explaining what had happened. And when it isn’t done with narration, it is done with dialog as when Preachy explains that the avalanche has created a bridge for them to pass or when Danny explains that the arrow was stopped by his bandolier.
The bigger problem with the film is in stark contrast to Zulu. This film is racist. This is entirely due to the filmmakers’ decision to follow the novella so closely. Whereas the Zulu are portrayed from the outside and as the enemy, they are always rational. But the local people here are not. And the entire plot is dependent upon them not being rational or loyal. For example, at one point Preachy tells Danny that they must go to see the religious leader Kafu Selim, or else their own men will turn on them. Ultimately, the local people were not given the dignity of being anything but a plot device.
Still, the film is marginally worth watching. If it shows up on television, it is worth a look. As I said, it is wonderful to look at. And much of it does work rather well. But there are so many films that are more worth watching. Like Gunga Din.