“The Man Who Would Be King” (1975)

Directed by John Huston
Devon Company/Allied Artists Pictures Corporation
US, 129 minutes
Starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer

In John Huston’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, The Man Who Would Be King, two British adventurers decide to take advantage of a leader-less society by taking advantage of their questionable past experiences. Sure, these men, played pitch-perfectly by Michael Caine and Sean Connery, were sergeants in the army, but they forget whatever they learned about honor to take advantage of these people. Their plan is to become kings, get rich and flee back to England, but the plans go awry once Connery is crowned king only because the people believe he is a god.

This highlights the problems with the Eastern people portrayed in the film. Huston – and I’d assume Kipling as well, although I haven’t read the story – is sympathetic to neither Western society nor Eastern society. His script, co-written by Gladys Hill and nominated for an Oscar, shows the downsides of both. Westerners seek to take advantage of ‘uncivilized’ people, but Eastern people keep themselves without leaders because of their devotion to a belief in higher powers. This mythical society can only be lead by a god and because they can never find anyone who lives to such a high standard, they can never be happy with a mortal leader even if he does bring peace and stability.

Huston’s film is an homage to the classic Hollywood adventure films that brought him fame, considering this had been a project he had wanted realized for decades, envisioning Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the main roles. His adventure film shows one full adventure without silly, episodic set-piece battle scenes, unbearable speeches and annoying action clichés. It is a sweeping story from start to finish that highlights how power can change a person and the discrepancies between societies.

Warner plans on releasing it on BluRay on June 7th, but until then, we have a DVD that was first issued in 1997. Despite being only 129 minutes, the disc is actually a flipper, meaning that the first 74 minutes is on one single-layered side and the final 55 minutes are on the other. Even if this was some attempt to save it from being compressed, the transfer is still almost unforgivably bad. A film this good and this epic needs to be seen on a big screen and I’m embarrassed to know that my first viewing was thanks to this horrific disc.

Still, the second side includes a fascinating, 12-minute promo-piece called Call it Magic that includes some magnificent footage of Huston directing the two stars. The most interesting part is easily how the final climactic scene was filmed. No word on whether or not this will be included on the BluRay, since the bluray.com announcement doesn’t list it. It would be unfortunate if this was missed because it is pretty neat. Also included on the second side are some pretty uninformative text screens and trailers for other Huston films. (EDIT: I just realized that Warner actually put all these features on BOTH sides of the disc!)

The Verdict: This is a fantastic, fine film. If you haven’t seen it but want to, wait for the BluRay. The DVD is a pretty pathetic presentation, even for a 14 year-old disc.

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