Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King has been acclaimed by W. Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and James Joyce as the British author's masterpiece and one of the best short stories ever written. The fact that the work has now been translated to the screen is to the sole credit of director John Huston. He has wanted to make it into a movie for over twenty years: "I think it's one of the greatest adventure stories ever written, and it has excitement, color, spectacle, and humor. It also has some spiritual meaning which becomes clear toward the end of the story."
The time is the 1880's. Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer), a young English journalist working in Lahore, India, meets two ex-British Army Sergeants Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) who have decided to seek fame and fortune in the exotic land of Kafiristan. Carnehan tells Kipling, "We're not little men and there's nothing we're afraid of." The writer gives them some information they need and bids them farewell.
The rigorous journey through Afghanistan and the rugged country beyond is testimony to the will-power and determination of the two soldiers of fortune. And, thanks to a miraculous snowslide, they finally do make it to Kafiristan. With their guns and sheer bravado, Dravot and Carnehan win the respect of its primitive people. They are greatly assisted by an ex-Burkha soldier name Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey) who serves as their interpreter and friend. An odd series of events involving an arrow, a woman who calls herself Roxanne (Shakira Caine), and a freemasonry medal result in Dravot being hailed as King and God by a powerful priest cult. (They are the descendants of Alexander the Great who once ruled Kafiristan.) In the holy city Sikandergul, the two men find riches beyond their wildest dreams. However, the same luck which brought them good fortune turns sour in the end.
Director Huston has done a magnificent job capturing the exotic quality, excitement, and morality of Kipling's tale. Caine and Connery are perfectly matched as the comrades whose wit, courage, and ambition carries them into the fulfillment of their dream. The cinematography by Oswald Morris is suitably lush, and the musical soundtrack or Maurice Jarre is a romantic counterpoint to the action.
The Man Who Would Be King should prove to be very popular with audiences especially since the viewer can read anything s/he wants into the cinema experience. The movie is a multifaceted success as a spectacular entertainment (with plenty of memorable and vivid sequences about a faraway time and place), as an adventure story (two men do battle against convention, nature, and an alien culture), as a curious study of religion (particularly the large role it plays in primitive cultures), as a commentary on the evils of colonialism (Dravot and Carnehan represent the worst sides of white ethnocentrism), and finally as a pyschological parable about greed and ambition. The Man Who Would Be King can be enjoyed and appreciated on any or all of these levels.