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Film / The Man Who Would be King

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

The Man Who Would Be King is 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. It 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 Novelette by Rudyard Kipling (played by Plummer here).

Not to be confused with The Man Born to Be King, Dorothy L. Sayers' set of radio plays about the life of Jesus.

This film contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Michael Caine wears a uniform similar to the one he wore in Zulu.
  • Adaptational Job Change: Billy Fish is an ex-Gurkha soldier, the sole survivor of an expedition, rather than a native chief loyal to the Englishmen.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film boils down an awful lot of stuff about Lodges and the Craft and secret handshakes into a single Masonic pendant.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original story is barely 20 pages long, while the adaptation is an epic film, greatly expanding on backstory, character traits and showing all the effort it took for both conmen to achieve their ends, rather than just rolling into Kafiristan one day and taking it over. The God Guise is greatly downplayed in the source material.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: Dravot is smitten by Roxanne's beauty, and then decides to marry her, rather than first seeing her at their wedding.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Peachy had to live through being crucified between two trees, then carry his dead friend's head (now little more than a skull) all the way back to India with him.
  • All-Natural Gem Polish: Averted. The rubies shown are rough and uncut.
  • Anti-Hero: Our protagonists are unscrupulous conmen and soldiers of fortune out for their own gain, but they remain sympathetic throughout the film.
  • Audience Surrogate: Kipling, who listens to Peachy's story and asks additional questions.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Danny gets a very humble one, despite being considered a god.
  • Back-to-Back Badasses: In the end, Peachy and Danny are surrounded by the angry natives, without any bullets left. They stand back-to-back ready to fight.
  • Badass Bandolier: Danny's plays a significant role in the plot, catching an arrow that might otherwise have killed him.
  • 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.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: During the meeting with the District Commissioner:
    District Commissioner: I have your records before me. There's everything in them, from smuggling to swindling to receiving stolen goods to bare-faced blackmail.
    Peachy: Sir, I resent the accusation of blackmail. It is blackmail to obtain money by threats of publishing information in a newspaper. But what blackmail is there in accepting a small retainer for keeping it out of a newspaper?
    District Commissioner: And how did you propose to keep it out?
    Peachy: By telling the editor what I know about his sister, and a certain government official in these parts.
    Daniel: [Referring to Kipling, the journalist present] Let him put that in his paper, if he has need of news.
  • Book Ends: An early scene has Danny and Peachy visiting the office of Kipling's newspaper. Peachy comes back at the end, with only Danny's head.
  • Brains and Brawn: Downplayed. Both protagonists are quick-witted battle-hardened veterans of the British Army, who can hold their own in a fight. But Peachy is smarter and more likely to solve a confrontation by means of his ingenuity and wit. Among other examples, he devises the ruse by which they manage to cross Afghanistan incognito and reach Kafiristan, he is the one to see that they can use the fact that the locals have mistaken Daniel for a god to their advantage and he is quick to understand that they cannot refuse the high priest’s summon to the holy city of Sikandergul under penalty of losing face with their followers. He has also enough good sense to advise Danny to get out of the country with their booty as soon as possible before their deception is discovered. Conversely, Danny is more quick-tempered and impulsive. He also has difficulties with basic math.
  • Brotherhood of Funny Hats: Freemasonry is depicted as a benign fraternal secret society that apparently goes back millennia, as Alexander the Great was somehow part of it and left Masonic imagery behind, and Peachy and Danny's lives are only saved because they are Masons too, with the priests hailing Danny as Alexander's heir. The oldest and head priest reveals an ancient secret carving Alexander had left that almost exactly matches Danny's Masonic pendant (really Kipling's watch fob), which until then was only known to him and his predecessors.
  • Brownface: Peachy and Danny use this in-universe to cross the border, posing as fakirs.
  • Catchphrase: "By God's Holy Trousers!"
  • 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.
    • Peachy steals a pocket watch from Kipling at a train station. Peachy sees the watch fob is a Masonic emblem and, being a Mason himself, "has" to return the watch. Later as they leave for this adventure, in an impulsive gesture Kipling gives the watch fob to Dravot, and it saves his life when the priests tear open his shirt to stab him as a God Test.
    • 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, until he properly introduces himself to Kipling.
  • Con Man: Both of the protagonists, who are remorseless thieves and cheats.
  • 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.
  • Cool Crown: The crown Danny is given after he is named king of Kafiristan and wears to his death.
  • Cool Guns: Danny and Peachy smuggled around twenty Martini-Henrys to arm their soldiers to take over Kafiristan.
  • Cunning Linguist: Billy Fish.
  • Death by Materialism: Subverted; if Danny and Peachy had just taken the loot and run, they would have survived and ended up filthy rich. It's Danny's desire to rise above mere criminality that sinks them.
  • Defiant to the End: Once their ruse is no longer effective, Peachy, Danny and Billy try to fight their way through. When they end up surrounded and without any bullets left, they still are eager to attack anyone who even dares getting close. Danny eventually Faces Death with Dignity when he's put on the bridge he ordered to build and thrown into the ravine below.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Kipling, the author, heard the story from Peachy.
  • Dirty Coward: Ootah, a Kafiri chieftain. How he attained this leadership position in a tribal society is anyone's guess.
  • Due to the Dead: One of the Kafiri customs is to take the head of a defeated enemy or a fallen chieftain and use it as the ball in a game similar to polo. Peachy recovers Danny's crowned head after his death to spare it from this fate.
  • Dying as Yourself: Billy Fish addresses himself by his birth name, Majendra Bahadur Gurung, instead of his English nickname, right before he attacks the Kafiris by himself and dies.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome:
    • After his loyal subjects discover that he's not a god or a devil, but only a man, Daniel and Peachy are overwhelmed by an angry mob. Faced with certain death, Daniel asks for Peachy's forgiveness, then sets his crown upon his head and walks proudly to his doom, singing "The Son of God Goes Forth to War" and yelling mocking encouragement to his executioners.
    • Upon being offered a chance to flee on a donkey, Billy responds, "Gurkha foot soldier, not cavalry! Rifleman Majendra Bahadur Gurung wishing you many good lucks!" and charges into the crowd with his kukri, where he takes out one or two men before dying horribly.
  • 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...
  • Experienced Protagonist: Peachy and Daniel are both former noncommissioned officers of the British Army with years of experience in combat as well as in training soldiers. These skills come in handy as they begin conquering Kafiristan and forming small armies of loyal followers.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • Facing certain death through his own stupidity, Daniel Dravot asks for (and receives) forgiveness from his best friend, then walks proudly to his death, singing.
    • Billy Fish also qualifies, showing no fear, wishing his companions the best of luck before before charging head-on and being mobbed to death.
  • Fiction 500: Peachy and Danny were members, for a while.
    Peachy: Why, Danny, we only have to fill our pockets and walk out of here to be millionaires. And all of it, all would make us the two richest men in England.
    Danny: The empire.
    Peachy: The world.
  • 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...
  • Framing Device: Peachy enters Kipling's office and tells him his story in flash-backs.
  • Give Me Back My Wallet: Peachy steals a pocket watch from Kipling, only to realise he's a fellow Mason. He then boards the train and blames an Indian passenger for the loss of the watch so he can return it. Kipling points out that he noticed his watch was missing...back at the station.
  • God Guise: The villagers hail Daniel as a god after an arrow gets stuck in the bandolier under his jacket. Penny convinces him to roll with it because it will make conquering the country easier. When he arrives at a temple though, the priests want to see if he can duplicate the feat for them. They are convinced of his divinity after seeing the Masonic emblem he wears, which echoes Alexander the Great (who they believe was divine, and hail Daniel as his heir).
  • Guttural Growler: Peachy's voice is as rough as his manners.
  • Heroic Vow: The Contract, pledging mutual loyalty and forswearing women and drink.
  • 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.
  • Honor Before Reason: "Billy Fish" is a former member of the Gurkha regiments of the British Indian Army, a unit notorious for its uncompromising warrior ethos. True to form, at the end he prefers to charge into a lynching mob, instead of taking the chance to flee unscathed.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Peachy throws an innocent Indian off the train, blaming him for stealing the watch that he'd actually stolen himself.
    • Danny and Peachy incite a tribe to attack a rival village, who among other sins are accused of urinating upstream from their village. Once defeated they enlist this new tribe into their army as well, inciting them to attack the next village up the river, whose inhabitants have also been pissing upstream...
  • I Choose to Stay: Subverted. Danny becomes convinced he truly was meant to become the King of Kafiristan and plans to remain when Peachy leaves for India, but he's forced to attempt an escape when his God Guise finally collapses.
  • I Don't Pay You to Think:
    Danny: You are going to become soldiers. A soldier does not think. He only obeys. Do you really think that if a soldier thought twice he'd give his life for Queen and Country? Not bloody likely.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: Danny and Peachey's record has them guilty of everything from smuggling to swindling to receiving stolen goods to bare-faced blackmail. Peachey objects to the charge of blackmail.
  • 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 
  • Jabba Table Manners: The otherwise friendly Indian who Kipling and Peachy meet on the train eats a watermelon on his seat, then resorts to spitting the seeds out on the floor. Peachy escorts him over to the window so he can spit out of there instead- then throws him off the train.
  • Kick the Dog: Peachy throws an friendly, eager-to-please Indian out of a moving train at the start of the film, just to cover the theft of the pocket watch.
  • 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.
  • Lovable Rogue: The protagonists manage to be this despite being extremely racist and greedy conmen who don't see anything wrong with starting out a tribal conflict for their own profit.
  • Manly Facial Hair: Danny Dravot has magnificent mustache, combined with Hot Blooded Sideburns. He also has balls out of pure brass, fears nothing, laughs in the face of death and ends up commanding deity-level of following. Nobody questions his God Guise.
  • Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex: The reason why Roxane doesn't want to marry Daniel is she thinks this trope will happen. This causes her to lash out at him in fear during their wedding, biting his face and causing him to bleed, exposing Daniel as an imposter.
  • Mid-Battle Tea Break: Priests walk across the battle field and the war stops, with all combatants dropping on their faces.
  • 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.
  • Mr. Exposition:
    • Kipling explains about Freemasons, then Kafiristan and Alexander the Great, early in the movie.
    • Once arrived in Kafiristan, Billy Fish becomes this, due to being a Cunning Linguist.
  • 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.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Danny Dravot speaks with Sean Connery's natural Scottish accent despite being explicitly identified as an Englishman. This is per the norm for a Connery character, though.
  • 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...
  • One-Book Author: Karroom Ben Bouih, who played the high priest Kafu-Selim, was 103 years old when he made his first and only film appearance. When he saw some of the footage, he declared that now he would live on forever.
  • 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. This gives Peachy the idea of using the God Guise trick.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: Near the climax, Dravot's guise as the god-king Sikander is foiled by his would-be-bride, as she scratches him in front of the high priests during their wedding ceremony, making it evident he bleeds like a mortal man. Dravot and Peachy try to make their getaway, but the high priests soon whip up the entire city into a frenzy and go after the men- not even their loyal trained riflemen and their Gurkha manservant can stem the tide of angry zealots set to kill the men for masquerading as their 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.
  • Scenery Porn: The remote region of Kafiristan.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Gurung's attempt at You Shall Not Pass! was made purely out of Honor Before Reason and gets him torn apart by an angry crowd in three seconds, tops. Danny and Peachy don't even get any further in their escape even for just a few moments, since they just stand there speechless and watch him die.
  • 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.
  • Short-Lived Leadership: Danny Dravot, being corrupted by his power, claims Kafiristan his kingdom. He even dares to begin a hereditary monarchy, but his bride inflicts a bleeding wound that exposes him as mortal. Dravot is given a Disney Villain Death, while his partner is given a crucifixion, which he somehow survives, and lives to tell the tale. Danny's ascension and reign all transpire in one season, so less than one hundred days total.
  • 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.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Peachy dies after giving Danny's severed head to the author in the original book, but this is cut out of the film, so he's alive last time we see him.
  • 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.
  • That Man Is Dead: Peachy has come to think of his past self as this by the end of the film, as shown by his Third-Person Person tendencies.
  • There Are No Coincidences: After getting so many lucky breaks, Danny starts to think that he really was destined to become a god or at least a ruler.
  • This Is My Boomstick: Rifles, masonic talismans and a lucky hit with an arrow convince the Kushians that Daniel is the reincarnation of the demigod Iskander (Alexander the Great).
  • Thwarted Escape: The end of the film - their loyal troops get surrounded and killed by angry villagers, most of the treasure is lost and eventually both conmen are captured once they are out of ammo. All of this in a very quick succession.
  • Undead Author: The main characters are venturing into the unknown, following the records of a mapping expedition some years earlier. They come across a member of that mapping expedition, who says that he was stranded from civilization by a landslide that killed all of the others. This raises the question of how that map that got Daniel and Peachy that far made it back to civilization in the first place. Presumably either someone else did survive but was stranded on the other side of the landslide, or they'd sent back a courier with what they'd mapped already prior to the disaster. Or of course, there had been some earlier expedition, and/or a non-British one, that had survived, other than the rather more unfortunate one under Colonel Robertson.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Aside from the original short story, the film is also partly based on the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan and James Brooke, the English "white Raja" of Sarawak in Borneo.
  • Villain Protagonist: Both Danny and Peachy could be considered villainous people given that they are con men who are simply out to swindle a race of people who they feel are inferior. Never mind the fact that not only had they planned to steal from them, but they planned several Curb-Stomp Battle's in order to conquer the various tribes under one banner. Not very nice men.
  • 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.
  • War for Fun and Profit: Subverted. As Danny and Peachy find first-hand, a poor, desolated and remote region of Afganistan isn't exactly a place where war loot is going to be anything but worthless junk. If not for Alexander's treasure, Danny and Peachy would never even see a single golden item.
  • White Man's Burden: One of the main themes; the author of the original short story also coined the term in another of his works, and examining it was a big theme in Kipling's work generally. Danny gets high on it after being crowned.

Alternative Title(s): The Man Who Would Be King