On September 26, 2008, Paul Newman
passed away -- but he’ll always be with
us. One of my favorite stories about Newman’s
bigheartedness has nothing to do with his legendary
generosity to charity; it has to do with movies.
In the early 1970’s John Huston sent his
adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The
Man Who Would Be King to Paul Newman and
Robert Redford. Huston had been trying unsuccessfully
to get the film made for years. He first approached
Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable to play Kipling’s
two lovable rogues, Danny and Peachy. But Bogart’s
death sidetracked the project until Huston directed
Gable in The Misfits,
where enthusiasm for the Kipling story returned.
Tragically, Gable then died shortly after shooting
Huston’s idea of approaching
Paul Newman and Robert Redford for the two adventure-loving
best friends was certainly not unreasonable at
the time. They had just starred together in two
classics -- Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid and The
Sting. Newman read the script and immediately
called the famous filmmaker to say he loved it
-- but that the film would be better with two
British actors. He suggested Huston call Sean
Connery and Michael Caine.
Danny Dravot and Peachy Carnahan
are two soldiers turned fortune hunters who leave
India for remote Kafiristan (Country of no Gods)
with hopes to conquer and become kings. But when
the natives of Kafiristan declare Danny to be
the son of Alexander the Great, the role of God
proves more perilous than any of the friends’
Many describe the film as a parable of Colonialism’s
crimes. The film, however, is bigger than a political
statement; it’s a philosophical observation
on life. Danny and Peachy witness miraculous twisting
of fates as they charge deeper into the unknown;
all the while, wisdom remains elusive.
Between the frames, there is some
interrogating of humanity and questions linger
long after the closing credits -- questions about
religion, patriotism, leadership and royalty.
Huston contextualizes many of these moments with
absurdity but never goes so far as to tell audiences
what to think. He also adds little miracles, spread
throughout the story, creating mystery and a feeling
of unending possibility.
Huston clearly sympathizes with
Danny and Peachy’s plight. At one point,
early in the film, the two characters are faced
with impending death and Peachy asks Danny if
their lives have been misspent. They acknowledge
no good deeds between them, but console themselves
with their fantastic experiences.
John Huston was a famously restless
traveler his entire life (even directing some
films solely for the opportunity to go on location).
In The Man Who Would
Be King, he delivers audiences into an
exotic world as soon as the film opens with shots
of overcrowded streets, snake charmers and musicians.
One wrinkly man lifts two large scorpions off
his face and gently lays them into his mouth.
as the Son of
Alexander the Great.
With this montage, a spell is cast
and opening credits follow. Rudyard Kipling (played
by Christopher Plummer) is then seen writing at
his desk. Kipling seems to replace Huston here
as our storyteller. But suddenly a dark figure
enters from behind Kipling -- Peachy Carnahan.
Peachy begins to recite a story to Kipling, essentially
becoming the tale’s third narrator.
It’s an old storytelling device: the author
offers an introduction then claims to have met
some surprising character under the most unusual
of circumstances, which then leads into the character’s
narrative. Many films of the ‘30’s
and ‘40’s appropriated this idea from
books. Huston was an extremely well read man and
knew exactly how to coax his audience into believing
Sean Connery and Michael Caine are
both exceptional. The dialogue, often dripping
with irony, written by Huston and Gladys Hill,
could easily have been overplayed. At one point,
while training an army of tribesmen, Sean Connery’s
Danny says, “When we’re done with
you, you’ll be able to stand up and slaughter
your enemies like civilized men.” Such moments
could easily break the film’s partition,
causing audiences to feel they are in on a clever
joke, but Connery’s performance remains
so thoroughly believable that he succeeds handily
at holding viewers into the story. Michael Caine’s
Peachy is the more intelligent of the two, and
yet he maintains a sense of wide-eyed wonder throughout
this latest (and greatest) episode in what has
clearly been a series of adventures for he and
his best friend.
Danny and Peachy.
Who Would Be King has become one of the
most entertaining and sophisticated adventures
ever made. Of all the great films John Huston
directed (The Maltese
Falcon, Key Largo,
of the Sierra Madre), this film is possibly
the most articulate expression of Huston’s
own beliefs, enthusiasms and charms. If Huston
was a painter, The Man
Who Would Be King could, in many ways,
be viewed as a self-portrait.
In John Huston’s autobiography,
An Open Book,
he recalls shooting The
Man Who Would Be King. He tells of an old
man -- over a hundred years old -- whom he met
and cast as the High Priest, Kafu Selim. Toward
the end of shooting, Huston knew the locals he
used in Morocco had never seen a motion picture.
He decided to run some of the film for them. After
the film played, the locals reacted to seeing
themselves on screen with much excitement. They
talked rapidly amongst themselves then seemed
to come to an agreement. Huston asked his translator
what they had said. “We will never die.”