30 May 2008

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (Dir. John Huston, 1975, US) - Imperialist Adventures

Adapted from Rudyard Kipling's short story, John Huston's clever and deeply intelligent film is best viewed as a political satire but the genre that we associate with this kind of film making is that of the epic adventure, and though this is how the studio marketed the film so they could target an audience, it is both misleading and a problematic way of trying to categorise the film.

Made in 1975, the film brought together two of Britain's biggest stars and best actors - Michael Caine and Sean Connery, and together they bring a charm and ease to the characters of two misfit ex-British soldiers who are seeking the typical male aspirations of adventure, wealth and power. The universal quest for fortune and glory has defined male heroism in contemporary American cinema for a long time and Huston's biggest asset was his ability to secure the commitment of Connery and Caine who are given equal screen time and are especially likable in roles that may have been rejected by audiences if faced with the possibility of relatively unknown actors.

This is a film in which star power and recognition really does matter and affects our relationship with the film, particularly in light of today's elevation of Connery and Caine as icons of British cinema and two of the most respected actors working anywhere in the world today. The magic of Caine and Connery's on screen pairing is equivalent to that of De Niro and Pacino in Heat because their careers run parallel with each other and both of them come from working class origins that make the implausible and escapist nature of the characters altogether more convincing. Both Connery and Caine made their names from the espionage genre, producing classics like 'Dr No' and 'The Ipcress File' which were both incidentally produced by Harry Saltzman.

I don't think this film could have been made without Connery and Caine's presence and Huston's imperialist adventure uses their working class humour to undermine any attempts of seriousness affecting the overall satirical tone of the film. Caine plays Peachy Carnahan, a cocky and arrogant British soldier, who recollects the adventures of himself and that of Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) to Rudyard Kipling, detailing their journey and conquest of Kafiristan and their reverence as Gods by an indigenous tribe made up of idol worshippers.

Peachy and Daniel's story is the story of the British imperialist adventure in India, and it is difficult not to interpret this as a biting satire on colonialist attitudes, foreign occupation and the brutal war like conquest of culture. Daniel's speech on the dubious and contradictory nature of the British empire is not only an indirect criticism of the failure of foreign occupation and the use of direct force as a means of exercising control over the population, but instructs us that even though Daniel acknowledges such an arrogant policy is flawed, he is still adamant in pursuing the goal of implementing such a policy because he knows ultimately it is the only way of attaining wealth, fame, fortune, and power.

Gods are not born, they are made by people so that they have a deity to worship and to use as a social tool for controlling the collective attitudes of society. Later when Daniel is elevated to the status of a God, and designated the auspicious title of 'The Son of Sikander' (known to the West as Alexander the Great) he is seduced by the power of his own propaganda and lies, revealing the beguiling and consuming nature of hegemonic cultural assimilation.

Beautifully shot, great storytelling and a wonderful use of locations (shot in Morocco) makes this a joyous cinematic experience and extends the oeuvre of John Huston. It is a film that shares many similarities with Huston's classic 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre' especially in it's exploration of how greed and arrogance can destroy the ambitions of those who desire too much.


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