It is a blessing to have children who like movies. We watched this classic John Huston film last night with my daughter, a movie I saw with my father in the theaters in the 70s. Based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, Michael Caine and Sean Connery are old vets in British India, cynical, loyal to each other and avarice. They make a compact to traverse Afghanistan to its upper northwest, into the wilds of Kafiristan, with provisions and weaponry to lend their talents as mercenaries. In doing so, they brave avalanches and the warring locals, and after allying with one in particular, Connery is deemed a god by virtue of an arrow that failed to pierce his heart and a Mason’s necklace. It all goes to his head.
The sweep of the film is broadly romantic, though, visually, it suffers in comparison to today’s epics due mainly to technical advancement. Caine and Connery are very well-matched, and though Connery’s seduction and their estrangement is a bit rushed, their bond at the end is actually quite moving. This is a throwback adventure film, deliciously retrograde in attitude; the Brits are charming rogues and everyone around them is a cowardly or fundamentalist savage. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time, “Gloriously old-fashioned in its approach – right down to the characters’ politically incorrect attitudes toward anyone who isn’t one hundred per cent British – The Man Who Would Be King is pure entertainment in the grand tradition of Gunga Din.” The film would never be screened on an American campus today, but oh what fun if it were.