Empire’s End: John Huston’s ‘The Man
Who Would Be King’


By Tim Pelan

On the occasion of John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2010 to mark star Sean Connery’s 80th birthday (he plays the eponymous “king”, ex-British soldier Daniel Dravot, alongside Michael Caine as mate and fellow Tommy, Peachy Carnahan), co-star Saeed Jaffrey, their Gurkha guide Billy Fish, remarked that Huston had first wanted to make the film in 1956. If that had been the case, he would have cast Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, pretending to be two chancers on the make beyond the arse end of the Victorian empire, settling on a plan to set themselves up as lords of misrule in isolated Hindu Kush kingdom Kafiristan, with Jaffrey’s part likely played by “some Mexican.” “There’s a lovely Persian expression: ‘It is better that it is late, because it is better correct,’ Jaffrey told the crowd. ‘Twenty years later, he got it exactly right: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and me!’ Based on Rudyard Kipling’s short story, The Man Who Would Be King had long been a desired project of Huston’s, going through multiple drafts with his long-term writing partner Gladys Hill, and dogged by bad luck when it came to approaching his then-favored leading men: he intended to begin after completing Moby Dick in 1956, when Bogart died. The next attempt was after filming The Misfits (1961) when Gable turned up his toes. As it was, it was indeed better to wait until 1975—authentic British accents with regional comic bluster and sly guile, Morocco in color, and the exotically glamourous Shakira Caine, Michael’s wife, playing Dravot’s Kafiristan wife in the film. Peachy indeed.

This was the only time Caine and Connery acted alongside each other (they appeared separately on screen amongst a cavalcade of stars in A Bridge Too Far two years later) and they are perfectly cast as former soldiers of Empire, now of fortune, grifting in India, always on the make. Chippy, too, when local Northern Star correspondent Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer), a fellow Freemason, saves them from the consequences of an ill-advised blackmail attempt and they are dressed down by the local Commissioner: “Detriments you call us? Detriments?” Peachy bristles. “Well, I want to remind you that it was detriments like us that built this bloody Empire AND the Izzat of the bloody Raj. Hats on!”

Danny and Peachy are masters of their own destiny, stylish, chameleon-like (Kipling is tricked into stumbling across them disguised as a mad holy man and his manservant, clowning in the dusty, crowded market for the crowds—their means to travel amongst the trading caravans through dangerous territory where “No white man has ever gone in… and come out alive.” In a lovely little moment, when thieves steal upon their campsite, Peachy pops a cartridge case in his mouth as he chews some food, then spits it into the campfire to explode in distraction as the duo turn the tables, nabbing a trio of mules into the bargain.) The pleasure of the film is the old-fashioned exotic-seeming sensibility of the setting, harking back to classic old adventures like Lives of the Bengal Lancers and Gunga Din, but with the acerbic undercutting of white colonial arrogance. In an early scene, Peachy purloins Kipling’s pocket watch, but seeing the Freemason symbol on the fob, he tracks him down to a railway carriage to subtly replace it. He sees his chance by throwing an Indian traveler out (plus his enormous watermelon!) as the train is moving. Kipling is aghast at this ruffian behavior until his outrage is assuaged by Peachy’s smooth insistence of the “culprit’s” guilt, producing the watch with a flourish.


Kipling appears in the story as a framing device, in which Peachy comes to him later as a crippled, withered apparition from some frontier nightmare, recounting the duos extraordinary adventure and his own incredible escape, after they jauntily have him earlier witness a contract between the two to forswear liquor and women, in their attempt to replicate in microcosm what the British Empire has done down the years. Two “minstrel boys” on a boy’s own adventure to seek out hidden, (fictional) Kafiristan, home of the isolated descendants of Sikander (Alexander the Great) via the treacherous Khyber Pass, and conquer, unite, and carve up the territory for themselves. “In any place where they fight,” says Danny to Kipling, “a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find—‘D’you want to vanquish your foes?’ and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dynasty.” Amongst the first tribe they come across is Billy Fish, the last survivor of a mapping expedition a few years previously, who acts as interpreter:

Billy Fish: “He wants to know if you are gods.”

Peachy: “Not gods—Englishmen. The next best thing!”


When a stray arrow strikes Danny’s bandolier as he charges headlong in their first, purloined infantry rifled tooled up the internecine skirmish, seemingly leaving him pierced but unharmed, the locals indeed proclaim him a God. As victory upon victory leads the knaves to the holy city of Sikandergul and the long-hidden treasures therein, the power and appeal of running a kingdom go to Danny’s head, and the two steadfast chums bond is sorely tested. Peachy is set to leave as planned when the spring arrives, along with Billy, and their share of the loot, but is persuaded to stay for Danny’s wedding to the exotic Roxanne, who has caught Danny’s eye—a King must have a legacy, after all—and not just that rope bridge he had his subjects build to bridge the gulf outside the mountainous holy city. (That rope bridge and the severing of it thereof, Danny tumbling to his doom, must surely have inspired the similar sequence in Indiana Jones’ second adventure). The abjectly terrified and drugged Roxanne bites his cheek, drawing blood—the gig is up, and the trio are chased out of the city. Surrounded and out of ammunition (the brave and loyal Billy has charged to his doom, rather than ride off on the last remaining mule—almost a satirical swipe at Empirical subjects dog-like devotion in British periodicals), Peachy and Danny make up:

Danny: “Peachy, I’m heartily ashamed for gettin’ you killed instead of going home rich like you deserved to, on account of me bein’ so bleedin’ high and bloody mighty. Can you forgive me?”

Peachy: “That I can and that I do, Danny, free and full and without let or hindrance.”

Danny: “Everything’s all right then.”


Recalling the film in his autobiography An Open Book, Huston praises his assistant director Bert Bratt for capturing the wide shots of camel trains and mountainous passes. Art direction by Alexander Tauner is spot on as well. In an interview with American Heritage the director spoke of a necessary basic grammar to film:

“Grammar in its broadest application is the adherence to form, not changing the style. I’ve known directors who lay out a scene—here’s the camera, you stand here, and you stand there. Sometimes they even light the set in advance to save time. Then the actors step in and they shoot. Of course this is possible, but it’s highly limiting. As a rule, I bring people on, don’t tell them much, bring them into the camera lens, and let them say their lines to one another until I’ve found my way into the scene. Once you have found the right shot to introduce the scene—written your first declarative sentence—then the rest flows. You’ve found the key to the whole scene. That’s grammar. Also, the spatial relationships of the images on the screen should be what they are in life. If you are shooting people a few feet apart, then the upper part of the body should fill the screen. That’s what we would see looking at someone from that distance in life. If the characters are inches apart, you shoot a big head close-up. Again, that’s what the eye sees in life. And that is grammar.”

The same interview went on to remark upon the memorable scene towards the end of Huston’s earlier The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “in which the wind is blowing the gold dust away. And Old Howard, played by your father, is laughing a mad, gleeful laugh. What is that laugh saying?”

Huston: “The point is he gets the young character, played by Tim Holt, to laugh, too. They laugh at the absurdity of the venture. My father could inspire that kind of awareness and laughter in others. He would laugh and get me laughing—not necessarily at a joke. Usually it was a shared weakness he spotted or made me see that brought on that marvelous laughter. I haven’t laughed like that since he died.”


Gary Giddins in his appreciation of Huston for DGA Quarterly remarks upon a passage in The Man Who Would Be King that harks back nicely to that laughing at the vagaries of fate: “Midway in the film, his two characters Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot have reached an apparent endgame, backed by snowy cliffs and facing an uncrossable chasm. Accepting the absurdity of their imminent death with bravado, they laugh uproariously—thereby triggering an avalanche that fills in the chasm. As Huston often did, they shrug and move on.”

That sequence in the snowy approaches to the isolated territory, and the rapscallions’ approach to the holy city later, features some nice matte shots. The matte shot blog spot has some interesting details on the film’s visual effects. The film was shot at Pinewood Studios as well as on location in France and Ouarzazate, Morocco. Most of the cast and crew were Brits, and visual effects were overseen by Wally Veevers, whose then-private effects company operated out of Shepperton Studios. At least five different British matte artists tried to realize Huston’s vision of Danny and Peachy’s discovery of the mountain kingdom of Sikandergul, none to his satisfaction. The task eventually fell to Albert Whitlock, a Brit based in America, working under Universal Studios. Whitlock’s cameraman elaborated on the problem with previous attempts: “The painting was not convincing and the city was way at the top of the frame to clear the foreground man—a very unnatural composition. Al’s composition moved his city down into the honor point of the frame, from which we rotoscoped the foreground man in front of the painting to allow that (crossover), which also added a little believability.” Doug Ferris did the remainder of the matte shots, including the rascals trek through the snowy pass, combined with Veevers’ optical effects work as the ice bridge collapses.

Caine regarded Huston as one of the greatest directors he’d worked with, although, “He never said anything. I sat there one day, I said, John, you never give me any directions. He said, the art of direction, Michael, is casting. If you’ve cast it right, you don’t have to say anything. Anyway, said, why do I have to tell you a lot of stuff? He said, you get paid a great deal of money to do this. You should know how to do it without me telling you.” (Interview with Caine, National Public Radio.)


When John Huston was ill in hospital years later, Connery and Caine got themselves red army tunics and turned up unannounced at his bedside—“Here we are–Peachy and Danny!” (as recalled by script supervisor Angela Allen).

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie considers The Man Who Would Be King to be “one of my touchstones.” Here he kindly elucidates for us that, to him, the film is:

“The deliciously unpretentious, unvarnished and amoral morality tale depicting the adventures of two unrepentant con men loyal to no one but each other. It features one of the all-time great on-screen friendships and reverberates with distant echoes from another John Huston masterpiece, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It is, quite simply, a great story brilliantly told. It is everything I love about movies.”

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


In the video above, Elwy Yost meets John Huston, director of such films as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and The Man Who Would Be King. Huston offers anecdotes about Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, and Truman Capote, with whom he has worked; describes his long career; and outlines the difficulties he encountered in the making of Moby Dick.

Usually I write in longhand first, and then dictate a later version. I use a standard script form: action on the left and dialogue on the right. When it’s finished it’s mimeographed and distributed to the people who need to see it. I often change again later. Sometimes I finish the final version on the set itself, or change again something I’ve written as a final version the day before. Mostly these changes come to me when I hear the words first spoken by an actor. It’s always different once it comes out of a living person’s mouth. By this I do not mean that I try to adjust to an actor’s personality—I try to do that as little as possible. When I write, I don’t have in mind an actor, but a character. I don’t conceive this character with a specific star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the liberty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage—which is me, my body, when I am alone and writing—and in this way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better service than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of the material. Then, when the character has been born out of this extended imagination, I have to look for someone to play the role, and this someone isn’t always necessarily the person who I thought could play it originally, because often it no longer is the same character. In fact, I’ve often—at least, sometimes—delayed the making of a film because I couldn’t find anybody to play the new and adjusted character that I had finally arrived at construing. Although in my experience you usually find someone; there are enough good actors if you are willing to wait a little.John Huston: How I Make Films, Film Quarterly Vol. 19, No. 1


Here’s a rarity: John Huston & Gladys Hill’s script for The Man Who Would Be King [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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A truly wonderful speech from 1983, director, actor and writer John Huston accepts the 11th AFI Life Achievement Award.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King. Photographed by Kathy Fields © Columbia Pictures Corporation (A John Huston—John Foreman Film), Devon/Persky-Bright, Allied Artists Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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