Pardon Judge Clark Douglas while he falls down and laughs.
Live long adventure…and adventurers!
"We're going to teach you soldiering. The world's noblest profession. When we're done with you, you'll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men."
Facts of the Case
Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine, Batman Begins) and Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery, You Only Live Twice) have resigned from the British army and taken on careers as soldiers of fortune. Their plan? To travel to the dangerous region of Kafiristan, establish themselves as kings of the land and make a fortune. Journalist Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music) finds the idea incredibly foolish and advises the men against visiting Kafiristan, but nothing will deter Peachy and Daniel from their goal.
Remarkably, the two men are able to survive the journey to Kafiristan. Astonishingly, they are able to establish themselves as kings. Bewilderingly, the villagers soon begin to believe that Daniel is a god walking the earth in human form. Amusingly, Daniel slowly begins to accept the idea. And that's what things get complicated.
Save for a few brief moments (a quick glimpse of nudity here; an explicit reference to homosexuality there), John Huston's 1975 adventure The Man Who Would Be King feels like one of the most entertaining films of the '40s or '50s. There's an old-fashioned, full-blooded sense of drama fused with a generous dose of playful humor; one could easily imagine Clark Gable in the Daniel Dravot role. In fact, that's precisely what Huston originally intended: the director had initially planned to make the film with Gable and Humphrey Bogart. After Bogart passed away, other actors were considered: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford. They were considered, yes, but Huston didn't actually get around to making the film until he had landed on Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
It's just as well, because it's hard to imagine The Man Who Would Be King turning out much better than it did. This is such a richly enjoyable film, "the return of the great adventure" a few years before Raiders of the Lost Ark claimed that tagline. Huston's '70s output was generally below the director's usual standard, but The Man Who Would Be King can be counted as one of the best of his career. This is a sprawling cinematic adventure worthy of the man who gave us The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen.
The Man Who Would Be King is based on a well-regarded tale by Rudyard Kipling (played in the film by an enjoyably gobsmacked Christopher Plummer) and was given a rich screen adaptation by John Huston and Gladys Hill, but Caine and Connery are a huge part of why the film works as well as it does. There's a level of boyish energy in their performances; they're clearly relishing the opportunity to sink their teeth into material like this. It might have been just another job for Gable and Bogart, but for Caine and Connery it was a chance to make the sort of film that had fallen out of fashion by 1975 (Connery would later go on to proclaim his role in the film as his personal favorite).
There's a childlike stubbornness and naiveté in many of Caine and Connery's scenes; "danger" translates into "excitement" as far as they're concerned. Early on, they sign a contract declaring that they will not sleep with any women until they've completed their mission. After Connery interrupts a young woman's attempt to seduce Caine, the latter makes a suggestion: "Danny, let us seek safety on the battlefield." It's that kind of juvenile spirit that courses through the film's veins; we're able to feel immense affection for these shameless opportunists simply because they don't seem to have any idea of the very real consequences they're so eagerly flirting with.
And yet, for all of its youthful joy, Huston has some thoughtful social commentary percolating in the background. As we watch Daniel slowly overtaken by his lust for power, we're reminded of the madness that overtook Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In this case, Huston tones down the feverish drama and instead uses the scenario as an opportunity for some immensely enjoyable comedy (watching Caine's increasingly pissed-off reaction to Connery's increasingly self-righteous pompousness is hilarious). Still, the message is there and it manages to retain a great deal of weight despite the film's frivolous tone (few directors would have been fearless enough to follow this story to its natural conclusion in the manner Huston does).
The Man Who Would Be King arrives on Blu-ray sporting a sturdy 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that provides a massive leap in quality from the DVD but is unable to solve some of the problems built into the original source. The image is quite soft on occasion, but detail remains about as sharp as one could expect otherwise. This is a good-looking film, but it also has a slightly worn quality that I find adds to its charm. Daytime scenes are generally top-notch, while nighttime scenes only suffer from a moderate amount of black crush. The audio is similarly respectable, though I was surprised to discover that we're only given a lossless mono track rather than a new 5.1 mix. Still, dialogue is clean and clear, Maurice Jarre's score sounds very crisp and the action scenes never become too messy. There were a few moments of dialogue which seemed awfully quiet; balance between the assorted elements could be a little better. Supplements are a disappointment though: a vintage 12-minute featurette entitled "Call it Magic: The Making of The Man Who Would Be King," a trailer, and digibook packaging containing some full-color pages of cast and crew bios, photos and tidbits of behind-the-scenes info.
It's hard to imagine many viewers failing to respond to the considerable charms of The Man Who Would Be King. It's not just a terrific action-adventure; it's a movie you fall in love with. While I wish the supplemental package were beefier, I'm thrilled to finally have the opportunity to enjoy this film in hi-def.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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