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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. 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 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:

  • 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.
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  • Alas, Poor Yorick: In the end Peachy presents Danny's skull to Kipling.
  • 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.
  • 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 bullet left. They stand back-to-back ready to fight.
  • Badass Bandolier: Danny's plays a significant role in the plot.
  • 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: 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 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.
  • 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, 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.
  • Cunning Linguist: Billy Fish.
  • 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 Face 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Guttural Growler: Peachy's voice is as rough as his manners.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder:
    Billy Fish: (after refusing his chance to escape in a horse) Gurkha is foot soldier, not cavalry.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Reality Ensues: 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, while taking over entire country.
  • 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.
  • 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: Dravot, being corrupted by his power, overthrows the chieftain, and claims Kafiristan his kingdom. Dravot even dares to begin a hereditary monarchy, but his bride inflicts a bleeding wound that exposes Dravot 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. Dravot's ascension and reign all transpire in one season, so less than one hundred days total. The film helps explains his bride cutting him, as she's exposing him as an impostor rather than Alexander the Great, which leads to his downfall.
  • 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 - 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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