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Film: The Man Who Would Be King

Billy Fish: He wants to know if you are gods.
Peachy Carnehan: Not gods - Englishmen. The next best thing.

A 1975 film directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer about the glorious and awful sides of European Imperialism. This film follows Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Caine), two former non-commissioned officers of the British Raj on a journey into the wilds beyond the Khyber Pass and into the lands of Kafiristan on a mission to become kings, or die trying.

Based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling (played by Plummer here).

This film contains examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Yorick: The end.
  • Alexander the Great: Known as "Sikander" to the Kafirs, and held in legend as a god since he passed through and helped advance the region millenia earlier. He said he would return one day, and the high priests have been waiting ever since.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: Peachy and Danny are members of the Freemasons. When this is found out, it marks them as the descendants of Alexander the Great to the Holy Men, as Alexander left behind Masonic symbols.
  • Audience Surrogate: Kipling.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Danny gets a very humble one.
  • Battle Interrupting Shout: Priests walk across the battle field and the War stops.
  • Book Ends
  • Brownface: Peachy and Danny use this in-universe to cross the border, posing as fakirs.
  • Celibate Hero: Inverted and ultimately subveted - Daniel and Peachy are doubtlessly as sly with women as they are with men's money and trust, but both make a pact not to dabble in matters of the opposite sex until their quest to become kings is achieved. Despite their unscrupulous nature, they stick to this surprisingly well. Until Danny lets godhood get to his head and he demands a wife...
  • Chased by Angry Natives: After the wedding.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: There are enough guns to fill an armoury.
    • The Freemasons' Eye medallion
    • The Badass Bandolier
    • The rope bridge
    • Peachy and Danny are smuggling enough rifles to field a few platoons - they might as well have had a literal armoury.
  • Crazy Homeless People: Peachy appears to be one at the start of the film.
  • Con Man: Both of the protagonists.
  • Con Men Hate Guns: Averted. While Peachy and Danny use their wits constantly, they are also former NCOs and don't shy from gunning down opposition.
  • Cunning Linguist: Billy Fish.
  • Defiant to the End.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Kipling, the author, heard the story from Peachy.
  • Dueling-Stars Movie: Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
  • Evil Colonialist: Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, who plan to use their British military training and a supply of smuggled arms to take over the tribes of Kafiristan (now a part of Afghanistan). They are openly racist and treat locals with (often undeserved) contempt.
  • Exact Words: The Contract is null and void when any of the men became a king...
  • Face Death with Dignity: Both of the leads. And Peachy survives.
  • Feud Episode: Brought on by the A God Am I trope.
  • Final Speech: At the end of the film, as they face death, the protagonists join together in singing a rousing Protestant hymn, "The Son of God Goes Forth to War", which is sung to the tune of "Minstrel Boy".
  • For Want of a Nail: Even if opposed, Danny still could use his God Guise and do as he please. If only Roxanne didn't bite him...
  • Fun with Foreign Languages: Kafiristan means "Land of Infidels".
    • It is an actual historical region in Afghanistan. It was called such by its Muslim neighbors because, like in the story, its inhabitants were not Muslims and it was largely inaccessible because of geography. It remained mysterious to outsiders for centuries until Afghans finally conquered the region and forcibly converted its people to Islam only in 1896, 8 years after the original story was published. The region is now called Nuristan.
  • A God Am I: Danny develops this attitude.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Danny.
  • God Guise: The basis of most of the plot.
  • Greed: The only motivation the protagonists have, at least at first.
  • Heroic Vow: The Contract.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Peachy and Danny.
    Daniel Dravot: Peachy, I'm heartily ashamed for getting you killed instead of going home rich like you deserved, on account of me being so bleeding high and bloody mighty. Can you forgive me?
    Peachy Taliaferro Carnehan: That I can and that I do, Danny. Free and full and without let or hindrance.
    Daniel: Everything's all right then.
  • I Choose to Stay: Subverted.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder:
    Billy Fish: (after refusing his chance to escape in a horse) Gurkha is foot soldier, not cavalry.
  • In Medias Res: Of the How We Got Here variety.
  • It Has Been an Honor:
    • Peachy and Danny stuck in the Hindu Kush, where they think they will freeze to death.
    • And Billy Fish, refusing his chance to escape.
      "Gurkha foot soldier, not cavalry. Rifleman Majendra Bahadur Gurung wishing you many good lucks." (draws kukri and charges the mob) "Ayo Gurkhali!"note 
  • Karma Houdini: The High Priest of Kafiristan.
  • Kick the Dog: Peachy throws an friendly, eager-to-please Indian out of a moving train at the start of the film, establishing himself as a Villain Protagonist.
  • Lean and Mean: The High Priest of Kafiristan.
  • Loveable Rogue: The protagonists.
  • Mentors: Kipling.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Nubile Savage: Roxanne and a woman who attempts to seduce Peachy at one point in the film.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Danny masquerades as a 'poor, harmless priest' in order to gain safe passage through Afghanistan.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Not quite, but omnious tribal music during the wedding sequence lets the audience know something is up...
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Peachy and Daniel dub their Gurkha sidekick "Billy Fish" because he reminds him of an Army friend of the same name.
  • Only the Knowledgable May Pass: When the straight-laced Kipling first meets the roguish Peachy, the atmosphere is awkward. But then they identify each other as Freemasons by a exchange of ritual phrases, and Kipling is compelled to help Peachy as a fellow Freemason.
    Peachy: ...Suppose I was to ask you, as a stranger going to the West, to seek for that which was lost - what would you say then?
    Kipling: ...I should answer, where do you come from?
    Peachy: From the East, and I am hoping that you will give my message on the square for the sake of the widow’s son.
    Kipling: ...Which lodge do you hail from?
  • Pocket Protector: Used to stop an arrow with a bandolier.
  • Prophetic Names: Roxanne, who shares the name of one of the wives of Alexander the Great.
  • Race Lift: In the short story, Billy Fish is one of the chiefs of the region instead of a Gurkha.
  • The Raj
  • Scenery Porn: The remote region of Kafiristan.
  • Severed Head Sports: People in Kaffiristan are shown playing polo with the head in a bag of a chieftain who was deposed. Part of the reason the narrator takes his friend's severed head with him, is so that he avoids his dishonor.
    • This is based on real life polo-like game called Buzkashi popular in Afghanistan. The modern version of the game is played with the carcass of a goat or a calf, but earlier versions were reputed to involve corpses of vanquished enemies.
  • Sinister Minister: The High Priest of Kafiristan.
  • Sole Survivor: Billy Fish of a mapping expedition years before Danny and Peachy set out. Peachy becomes this when all their troops are wiped down and Danny is killed.
  • Tempting Fate: Danny. This is invoked three times by Peachy.
  • Thwarted Escape: The end of the film.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: Peachy and Danny do a lot of it in order to build up their Kingdom.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Averted at the end, when Peachy proves the tale was true by taking Danny's head out of a bag with the crown still on it.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film is based partly on the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan and James Brooke, the English "white Raja" of Sarawak in Borneo.
  • Villain Protagonist: Danny and Peachy qualify as this in many ways - though grudgingly likeable characters you can't help but root for during most of the film, they're also bigoted, remorseless con men seeking to plunder a small nation by taking advantage of it's primitive culture and deeply held religious beliefs. Not to mention casual racism, many imperialistic undertones and open contempt to anything not English.
  • What Could Have Been: During the 1950s, John Huston tried unsuccessfully to make a version of the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable but he was never able to do so. Both of them were long dead by 1975.
  • White Man's Burden: One of the main themes. Danny gets high on in after being crowned.
PapillonCreator/Allied ArtistsMitchell
The Man in the Glass BoothFilms of the 1970sMaster of the Flying Guillotine
'Manos" The Hands of FateImageSource/Live-Action FilmsMatte Shot

alternative title(s): The Man Who Would Be King
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