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.
  • Becoming the Mask: Danny is only interested in imitating a god to facilitate robbing the villagers blind. Quickly, however, he takes an interest in governing "his" people and ultimately decides to stay and rule rather than return to Britain.
  • Book Ends
  • Brownface: Peachy and Danny use this in-universe to cross the border, posing as fakirs.
  • Celibate Hero: Inverted and ultimately subverted - 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...
  • A God Am I: Danny develops this attitude.
  • Go Out with a Smile:
    • The epitome of Stiff Upper Lip, Danny and Peachy are like this each time they believe their death is imminent. They're even saved when their laughing causes an avalanche. In the end Danny sings his marching song to the end.
    • Billy Fish is all smiles as he charges to his pointless death.
  • 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 
  • 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.
  • Kukris Are Kool: Billy Fish, an actual Gurkha soldier, has one and uses it in his final stand.
  • Lean and Mean: The High Priest of Kafiristan.
  • Loveable Rogue: The protagonists.
  • Mentors: Kipling.
  • Mighty Whitey: Exploited. The two conmen are comfortable that, as Britons with some rifles, they'll have no trouble becoming kings of the Nuristani people. They're not wrong.
  • Mugging the Monster: Five bandits cross paths with the two conmen and decide to help themselves to the conmen's possessions. Unfortunately for them, their victims are battle-hardened soldiers.
  • 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: Danny's bandolier beneath his coat stops an arrow. All the villagers who see it assume that he's impervious to harm and worship him as a god.
  • 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. He's stern and imperious, but he's also completely justified in his doubt over Danny's legitimacy.
  • Sole Survivor: Billy Fish of a mapping expedition years before Danny and Peachy set out. Peachy becomes this when all their troops are wiped out and Danny is killed.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Peachy is the main character and the narrator of the story, but it's ultimately Danny's story, as the title suggests.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Villainy-Free Villain: The High Priest is the greatest threat to Danny and Peachy's plan, but they're con-men trying to exploit his religion to steal his temple's riches. He's totally justified in rooting out their lies.
  • War Is Glorious: Danny and Peachy enjoy combat and seem to have nothing but good memories of war, even the gory parts. Their big battle is accompanied by happy, almost comical music. During the fighting, Danny is so excited to join the fray that that he leads a premature cavalry charge.
  • White Man's Burden: One of the main themes. Danny gets high on it after being crowned.