Monday, February 27, 2012

Classic Pick of the Week: The Man Who Would be King

The Man Who Would be King, Tuesday night on TCM.

This fun epic adventure, set in colonial India and based on Rudyard Kipling’s writing, is the ultimate buddy movie. John Huston originally planned it for Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, then Gable and Michael Caine, and finally ended up with Caine and Sean Connery, a fantastic combination.

They play Peachy and Danny, British soldiers with reputations as fraudsters, who embark on an audacious scheme, going to a fabled ancient kingdom in Afghanistan where they plan to bamboozle the natives, rule as kings and revel in untold riches and power.

If the film has a lesson, it may be that colonial ambition is folly and failure, or that it’s futile to impose strict order and discipline on a tribal people, certainly that it’s always wrong to believe your own hype. No matter what moral (if any) you take away, you can’t help but admire the arrogant but charming and amusingly clever con men who tragically overestimate how easily their plan will unfold. They gain trust by acting as military “consultants” and help the people of Kafiristan defeat an enemy. Due to the tribe’s limited understanding of modern weaponry and the protection of armor, they are awestruck when an unscathed Connery seems immortal; he seals the deal and seems God-like when his medallion suggests he is the reincarnation of Alexander the Great.

While Connery lets the worship go to his head and becomes the image of hubris, Caine stays true to his cynical self, and is totally focused on the original goal of making off with gold. Predictably, Connery takes things too far and ignores warnings against getting involved with a woman; Michael Caine’s real wife Shakira plays the beautiful object of Connery’s affection and the occasion of his exposure as a mere mortal.

The Man Who Would be King was nominated for four Oscars, but none for acting, which is a shame because the key to the movie, besides the amazing scenery, exciting nonstop pace, appropriately spare Maurice Jarre score, funny lines, and recent Oscar winner Christopher Plummer as narrator/Kipling, the best thing apart from all that is the completely believable bond of friendship grounded in the special chemistry between Caine and Connery. It’s a fun, entertaining throwback to early Hollywood adventure films, neither shallow nor preachy, and like another John Huston classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, shows how a lust for gold and the grandest of plans fall apart because of human stupidity.

This is cross posted from Speakeasy, where you can find further classic entertainment geekery.