The Man Who Would Be King: Review
The Man Who Would Be King is a compelling tale following the hopes and dreams of two men who, having experienced the harshness of war for England in the Middle East, venture off to take their talents for battle to rule the country of Kafiristan. The original Rudyard Kipling adventure tale was written in 1888 and appropriately adapted to film in 1975 by one of the most colorful directors of the twentieth century, John Huston.
Huston’s film stays true to Kipling’s story by placing emphasis on the authenticity and charming nature of the characters played by Michael Caine and Sean Connery (two incredibly charismatic actors who automatically induce audiences into becoming engaged with any adventure they may become involved). This faithful adaptation to the overall original content and plot line does a fine job of conveying the deeper thoughts and concepts presented in Kipling’s story, transcending time and mediums, hitting upon a truth about life to which people from all eras and generations can understand and relate.
Kipling’s short story begins with the perspective of the narrator through whom the audience experiences the story. Because of the perspective being through the eyes of the narrator, a journalist, throughout the entire short story the audience is able to literally read into his thoughts because of the various descriptions that Kipling makes. A great example of this is the first paragraph of the first page of his short story:
THE LAW, as quoted, lays down a fair conduct of life, and one not easy to follow. I have been fellow to a beggar again and again under circumstances, which prevented either of us finding out whether the other was worthy. I have still to be brother to a Prince, though I once came near to kinship with what might have been a veritable King, and was promised the reversion of a Kingdom—army, law-courts, revenue, and policy all complete. But, today, I greatly fear that my King is dead, and if I want a crown I must go hunt it for myself.
Kipling’s insight sets a tone that will be followed through his story. This is the most significant difference between Kipling’s short story and Huston’s film. The insight that a writer can give by allowing the audience access into a characters mind through descriptions and thoughts is extremely difficult to mimic in film. The short story is quite different from the film in this respect because it becomes a story more about larger issues that are examined, with the characters of Danny (Connery) and Peachy (Caine) being the instruments in which the audience can learn from. Many of the story’s elements are based on factual stories of various English adventurers of the period. Kipling’s background of growing up in India certainly played a role in the deeper meaning of the story, particularly the perspective taken on colonialism.
Huston’s method of presenting the material outlined in Kipling’s narrative greatly differs from that of Kipling’s presentation. The greatest difference between Huston’s telling and Kipling’s original presentation is the shifting of the storyteller from that of the narrator, the newspaperman, to that of Peachy and Danny themselves. Because the audience is experiencing the story through the characters of Danny and Peachy the viewer grows more attached to them and therefore gains a vested interest in the outcome of these two particular characters.
What the film lacks in insight and description from the narrator it makes up for in compelling performances Sean Connery and Michael Caine. (SPOILER) The ending scene of the film, where Peachy pulls out Danny’s head and sets it on the table for the newspaper man to see, has a much greater impact on the viewer than it does as described in the story. Instead of having to paint a picture of the image in the readers mind, the gold crown that Danny wore is evident upon the severed head that sits upon the table. The reaction of the newspaperman, played by Christopher Plummer, does more than words ever could.
Kipling’s short story does a better job of keeping the reader distant from the characters so that the larger issues are easier to be seen. The reaction of the villagers seems natural to their characters and Danny and Peachy almost seem as if they deserve what they get. The reader is perhaps more sympathetic towards the indigenous people, and a reflection on the deeper meaning of the story is easier to comprehend. Whereas in the film, because of the interest generated in the characters of Danny and Peachy, viewers are more likely to only care about the horrible outcome of these charming characters that they have grown to love and forget about the larger issues that are behind the storyline itself. It is easy for the viewer to seem resentful of the indigenous people; if this is what the writer intended it is most definitely effective.
In conclusion, both Huston’s film and Kipling’s story are effective in portraying the material The Man Who Would Be King, and the differences seen don’t make the method of one medium better than the other, just different. To some, it may be easier to feel unattached to the characters so that their ultimate demise is not as impactful. To others, such as myself, the material is more memorable because of the deep visuals that it creates because of my attachment towards the characters. In either case, it’s important to step back and reflect upon the words and images shown.