"Now listen to me, you benighted muckers: We're going to teach you soldiering, the world's noblest profession. When we're done with you, you'll be able to stand up and slaughter your enemies like civilized men."
--Sean Connery, "The Man Who Would Be King"
During a directorial career that spanned five decades and forty-seven films, John Huston made a ton of great dramas, mysteries, adventures, even a musical, from 1941's "The Maltese Falcon" to 1987's "The Dead," with movies like "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Key Largo," "The African Queen," "Moulin Rouge," "Moby Dick," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Unforgiven," "The Misfits," "Fat City," "Annie," and "Prizzi's Honor" in between. His 1975 adventure film, "The Man Who Would Be King," based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling, stands high on the list of his better work.
Actually, "The Man Who Would Be King" is something of a contradiction. On the one hand, it's a rollicking tall tale, a light, comical, swashbuckling yarn in the tradition of RKO's "Gunga Din." On the other hand, it can be depressing and heavy-handed, a cautionary note rather spoiling the mood. I suppose we have Kipling to thank for that; even so, it makes for a somewhat schizophrenic motion picture.
What makes the movie stand out, though, are its two stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. They couldn't be bettered as a pair of former gunnery sergeants, having served Queen and Country in late nineteenth-century India. Since their discharge, however, they've remained in India as petty thieves and con artists. Now, they've lighted upon a new scheme: To train the followers of a regional chieftain to be real soldiers in the far-off northern province of Kafiristan, help the chieftain defeat neighboring chieftains, and then, when the chieftain is king, "subvert him and loot the country." A goofy plan, to be sure, but it's part of the fun, especially when the local tribesmen mistake Connery's character for a god, the reincarnation of Alexander the Great.
Huston wanted to make the movie as far back as 1950, and he envisioned Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as the stars. Wouldn't that have been a dream team. Later, it was to be Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, even Paul Newman and Robert Redford. By 1975 Huston got the next best thing: Connery as Daniel Dravat and Caine as Peachy Carnehan. The actors' happy-go-lucky camaraderie as soldiers of fortune is infectious. What impressed me the first time I saw the movie, though, was Connery's bald pate. This was the first time I'd ever seen Connery without a hairpiece, and with a greying mustache and sideburns to boot, it was something of a shock to me after all those Bond films. Yet the fuzzy, bald head plays an important part in the film as it goes on, so who am I to argue?
In addition to the lighthearted rapport of the leads, Huston's direction keeps the narrative moving forward at a reasonably lively pace; Oswald Morris's cinematography is often stunning; Maurice Jarre's musical track, utilizing any number of British tunes, is a delight; Christopher Plummer's role as Rudyard Kipling is dead on; and the location shooting in Morocco, France, and Utah adds immensely to the truthfulness of the storytelling.
"The Man Who Would Be King" contains humor, romance, danger, avalanches, pageantry, journeys to unknown lands, coincidences involving Freemasonry, and much derring-do, a little something for everyone who enjoys a good rousing adventure tale.
Trivia notes, from "Retakes" by John Eastman, Ballantine, 1989: "In order to film in Morocco, a locale that duplicated the Indian scenario of Kipling's original story, the film company had to deal with pervasive official corruption, handing out constant bribes in order to function. Berber tribespeople from the hills joined the company as extras, loaning their tents and other equipment for certain sequences. For the Khyber Pass scenes, since Berber women could not be photographed, women from Marrakech brothels were recruited. The three old men playing the high priests were local tribesmen discovered by Huston, who could only make them understand what the scene was about, then let them act it out naturally; astonished to see themselves on film, they concluded through a translator to Huston that 'we will never die.'"
For a movie with so much spectacular scenery, it's a shame the video is so underwhelming. Although Warners transfer the film to Blu-ray disc in its theatrical aspect ratio, 2.40:1, employing an MPEG-4/AVC encode, they do so using a single-layer BD25, with the resultant PQ only so-so at best. Personally, I would have preferred WB spend their money on the highest-possible bit rates rather than fancy Blu-ray Book packaging.
The image displays good colors, most of them fairly natural, like the stars' bright red uniforms, but faces come off a little too dark. Definition, however, suffers most, with detail and delineation somewhat vague, particularly in darker, murkier scenes. Interestingly, too, there is very little noticeable grain involved, even in wide expanses of sky and earth, which, combined with the general softness of the picture leads me to suspect the engineers may have applied a degree of filtering in the transfer process. (Or maybe it was just a very spruce, very soft print; I dunno.) When the screen lights up, things do improve considerably, yet this isn't often. And there is also an odd series of diagonal serrations in a few shots of blue sky. It's the least of the transfer's issues.
The audio engineers do what they can with the movie's original monaural soundtrack, reproducing it in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. However, there isn't a lot to reproduce as the sound has a limited frequency response and a limited dynamic range. Worse, voices appear slightly pinched and nasal. On the plus side, the sound is clean and clear, although the output is rather low so you'll have to turn the volume up more than usual.
The only real bonus items on the disc are a vintage featurette, "Call It Magic: The Making of The Man Who Would Be King," in standard screen and standard definition and a theatrical trailer in a 1.78:1 ratio and standard definition.
The extras wrap up with a generous thirty-six scene selections; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Book, the disc comes packaged in a handsome hardbound book containing thirty-six pages of pictures and text.
Thanks largely to the charisma of its two stars, "The Man Who Would Be King" remains an enjoyable, if rather old-fashioned, adventure yarn. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the Blu-ray's picture and sound because certainly this is a movie filled with wonderful sights and sounds that cry out for the best possible high-definition treatment. Unfortunately, the BD's audiovisual qualities look and sound only ordinary. Oh, well.... At least the hardcover Blu-ray Book packaging is a nice touch.
"God's holy trousers!"