Sunday, April 6, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: The Man Who Would Be King

I'm about to start a new job on Monday, and the rigamorole and falderol that usually goes with that always puts me in mind of this scene where an enterprise is agreed to and signed and witnessed with very little fanfare and one piece of paperwork.

The Set-up: We have Paul Newman to thank for John Huston's exquisite version of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King (it shares many aspects with Huston's classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Huston had been wanting to make it for decades—his first attempt was to have starred Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, the two soldiers-in-search-of-fortune in Afghanistan. But arrangements were tough, and then Bogart died, then Gable. The Man Who Would Be King languished on the shelf for many years, but Huston still yearned to make it. After working with Paul Newman on two movies (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and The MacKintosh Man), Huston brought up the idea to Newman of him starring in it, and suggested he and Robert Redford could make a go of it.

Newman, to his credit, read the script and suggested, instead, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Those two had been old friends since their scuffling days trying to find work as actors and had wanted to work together for years. When this long-in-the-works script came along and the suggestion, they jumped at the chance.

Huston afterwards remarked that it was the easiest "shoot" of his life. He was old and frail, and starting to take oxygen by the time he and crew travelled to Morocco to film his dream-story. Connery and Caine would stay up half the night, with the next day's pages, planning, improvising, preparing bits of business and blocking, and present their ideas to Huston, who was immensely pleased with their in-synch performances. They'd just roll film.

When Huston was subsequently hospitalized with emphysema, Connery and Caine flew out to his bed-side to visit the old war-horse, and waking, finding them at his bed-side, Huston reportedly gaped a wolfish grin and declared "Danny! Peachey!"

The Man Who Would Be King remains a classic entertainment of the old school, and its lesson of imperial plundering and exploitation of territory (especially in Afghanistan) only grows deeper with time, and more familiar every day. Our governments are filled with con-men, adept and inept, as Danny and Peachey.

The Story: In India, newspaper-man Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) has several encounters will two ne'er-do-well con-men and petty blackmailers, Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachey Carnehan (Michael Caine). They share a bond as Freemason's, and so Kipling feels compelled to help his lodge-brothers out of several scrapes they get into. Amused by their exploits, charmed by their stories, he is still a bit wary of them when they show up at his offices at The Evening Star.


Rudyard Kipling pulls out a story from his type-writer and calls for a copy-boy to retrieve it.
Kipling: Copy!
Kipling: My God! You two! What do you want this time?
Peachey: We want to ask you a favor…
Kipling: Another favor?
Daniel: Calm yourself, brother Kipling. We’ve never taken advantage of a fellow in the craft.

Peachey: We don’t want any money...just a little of your time, a look at a book or two, a study or your maps...
Peachey: We’ll take a drink if one is offered, and we won’t be put out if one isn’t.
Daniel: Peachy here is as sober as I am. It’s important that you have no doubts on that score.
Daniel: So...we will take one of your cigars apiece...and you will watch us...light up.
Danny and Peachey stand at arms-length from each other, and hold out a match between them. They strike the two together and deftly light each other's cigars. Enrapt, Kipling has poured them both a drink.
Daniel: And now, sir, let me introduce you to Brother Peachey Carnahan, which is him.
Daniel: And Brother Daniel Dravot, which is I.
Daniel: The less said about our professions the better, for we have been most things in our time. We’ve been all over India.
Daniel: We know her cities, her jungles, her jails, and her palaces, and we’ve decided that she is not big enough for ones such as we.
Kipling: Yes. That’s what I understood the Commissioner to say...
Peachey: Therefore we are going to another place...
Kipling: Oh.
Peachey: ...where a man isn’t crowded and he can come into his own. We are not little men. So we’re going away to be kings. Kings of Kafriristan.
Kipling: Oh! Kafiristan.
Daniel: We hear they have two and thirty idols there. So we shall be the thirty-third and the thirty-fourth.
Peachey: It is a place of warring tribes, which is to say a land of opportunity for such as we, who know how to train men and lead them into battle.
Daniel: We’ll go there. We say to any chief we can find “Do you want to vanquish your foes?”

Daniel: “Of course!" he’ll say "Go to it!" We’ll fight for him, make him King and then we’ll subvert that king.
Daniel: We’ll seize his throne, and then loot the country four ways from Sunday.

Peachey: How’s that for a plan?
Kipling: (Laughs) You’re both out of your minds.
Kipling: To start with: the only way to get through there is through Afghanistan. Kafiristan? No no no no. Two white men on their own would be cut to pieces before they went five miles into the Khybur Pass.
Daniel: Just suppose we managed it. Just suppose. And suppose we got across the Afghan Plains. Then what?
Kipling: Ah, then there’s the Hindu Khush, a frozen sea of peaks and glaciers. No, a party of geographers and mapping expedition tried several years ago and vanished into thin air.
Kipling: No white man has ever been there and come out since Alexander.
Peachey: Alexander who?
Kipling: Alexander the Great. King of Greece. About 300 years before Christ.
Peachey: Well, if a Greek can do it, we can do it.

Daniel: Right.
Kipling: (Laughs) I can only repeat: You’re a pair of lunatics.
Peachey: Would a pair of lunatics draw up a "contrack" like this:

Peachey: This "contrack" between me and you pursuing of witness here in the name of God, Amen, so forth. 1. That you and me will settle this matter together, ie. to be Kings of Kafiristan. 2. That you and me will not, while this matter is being settled, look at any liquor nor any woman, black, white or brown, so as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.
Peachey: 3. That we conduct ourselves with dignity and discretion and if one of us gets into trouble, the other one will stay by him, signed by you and me this day.
Daniel: There’s no need for the last article, but,’s got a ring to it.
Kipling: Ah!
Peachey: Daniel?
Daniel takes a pen, and seeing his drink half-full (or is it half-empty?) and knowing this is his last, ceremoniously finishes it in one pour, his eyes rolling back in his head. Then having finished, he signs, followed by Peachey.

Peachey: witness it and it’s legal.
Kipling: Well, gentlemen, it’s four in the morning...
Daniel: Don’t you stand on politeness, Brother Kipling. If you want to go to bed, we won’t steal anything.

Kipling: Oh, well, THANK you.
Peachey: We’ll send word when we’re ready to push off if case you want to bid us a fond good-bye.

Kipling: Yes, well...try not to burn the place down? (Kipling exits)
Peachey: Here we are...Kafiristan.
Peachey (reading): 10,000 square miles. Mountainous terrain. Religion: Unknown. Population: Unknown. Conquered by Alexander in 328 B.C. According to Heriodotus, he defeated King Oxyartes, whose daughter, Roxanne, he subsequently took to wife…

The Man Who Would be King

Words by Rudyard Kipling, Gladys Hill and John Huston

Pictures by Oswald Morris and John Huston

The Man Who Would Be King is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.

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