Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Kingdom for the Con

What kind of man would be capable of, and have a desire to, strike out into unknown territory to rule over a people he's never seen or heard of? Not just scoundrels but a very particular kind as demonstrated in 1975's The Man Who Would be King and in the Rudyard Kipling novella it's based on. John Huston directs Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer--each perfectly cast in this beautifully and excitingly filmed adventure.

The Wikipedia entry for the novella quotes Kingsley Amis as calling Kipling's story "grossly overrated," calling it a story where a "silly prank ends in predictable and thoroughly deserved disaster." Amis is ahead of his time with this criticism as to-day internet critics often express dislike for stories without "sympathetic" characters, by which they typically mean morally pure characters. But John Huston, director of Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Asphalt Jungle, would not have needed persuading that a story about people motivated entirely by greed and a lust for adventure would be one worthy of attention.

Though it's not quite accurate to say the men portrayed in this film are thoroughly selfish. At the beginning of the film, in a bit of business invented by the filmmakers, Peachy (Caine) lifts a pocket watch belonging to Kipling (Plummer) at a train station. When he discovers a fob attached bearing a Freemason symbol, Peachy's irritated but goes to a lot of trouble to board the train and get to the same car as Kipling to return it. This is a more cinematic way of getting across what Kipling, the author, does with more dialogue and backstory in the book with similar results--the narrator, Kipling, finds Peachy to be a charming, oddly innocent rogue and the two men are excited to meet fellow Masons in India.

This isn't the last time we see Freemasonry in the film or the novella and it functions in a very interesting way. On one level, we have the British in India where they are culturally isolated, and then there's the even smaller circle of the Freemasons. Plummer's Kipling tries to explain to someone that the appeal of Freemasonry is that it represents a philosophy of brotherly love. Yet by it's nature it's exclusive and through it Peachy and his collaborator, Dravot (Connery), gain the valuable assistance of Kipling in their quest to subjugate the population of Kifiristan. I was reminded of something Margaret Atwood wrote recently in an article about recent circumventions of due process--"The Cosa Nostra, for instance, began as a resistance to political tyranny." Something that came from noble intentions can be misused to destructive results without the participates even being fully aware of it. But in talking about ruling gangsters, I was reminded of Vladimir Putin and to a lesser extent Donald Trump. In an interview with The Atlantic recently, Masha Gessen described Putin as a man who "set out to build a mafia state. He didn’t set out to build a totalitarian regime. But he was building his mafia state on the ruins of a totalitarian regime. And so we end up with a mafia state and a totalitarian society."

But I suspect Putin and Trump are more conscious of their own selfishness than Dravot. Huston elaborates a bit on the councils Kipling mentions Dravot holding once he becomes king. When one villager asks permission to raid another village because his own village has a deficit of grain, Dravot instead sets up a system for a common granary to provide for everyone, sounding probably not coincidentally like Joseph in Genesis. Despite Peachy's urging that the two of them make off with the great treasure while the getting's good, Dravot starts to be seduced by his own PR. And it's easy enough for him to flatter his vanity with magnanimity when his kingship was delivered to him so easily. It's not like he and Peachy made the dangerous trek and conned the local leaders because they really wanted to save anyone. But the natural impulse is there so long as he doesn't have to make any sacrifices. Which unfortunately he's called upon to do when the priests forbid him from marrying a beautiful peasant woman named Roxanne, played by Michael Caine's wife Shakira.

Connery and Caine are perfect in this film, as good a pair of rogues as any to adventure with, and Huston shows he's lost none of his mastery of the medium at this point. The film's budget is well on display with fantastic location shots in Morocco substituting for Kafiristan.

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