Watching The Man Who Would Be King (dir. John Huston, 1975) some forty years after its making was uncomfortable. When I first saw the film, in the 1970s, it was an exciting tall-tale adventure about two down-and-out British army veterans who find a remote corner of Afghanistan and set themselves up as kings. They go there intending to take advantage of the unsophisticated natives, to become wealthy, to achieve power and prominence when they can find it nowhere else. Kipling’s story, written in 1888, the basis for the film, portrays the two men as far more ragged and scrofulous than they appear in the film, where Sean Connery and Michael Caine play the lead roles.
What has happened since 1976? Thirty-five years of western involvement in Afghani wars that shows no sign of ending. The rise of terrorism on a global scale. A gradual shift in how westerners view their place in the middle and far east, and in the world in general. A developing awareness on the part of westerners of their position in other parts of the world as outsiders, intruders, imperialists.
What we didn’t see clearly in this film in the 1970s is the fundamental presence of western imperialism and colonialism. Watching the film in 2016, that perspective is inescapable. It renders the film almost impossible to sit through. Dravot and Carnehan can aspire to take over the small kingdom of Kafiristan because of their belief in the ignorance of the easily misled natives. They can spin lies and tell tales and be easily believed. They have rifles when the natives do not. As they mount their campaign, they can shoot down Kafiristanis, in large numbers, without any hesitation or compunction or regret afterward. It’s a story told entirely from the western perspective, crafted entirely for a western audience. We’re not asked to think about the victims of this enterprise. We’re not asked to sympathize with the Kafiristanis or to consider the wrongheadedness of these two venal British adventurers.
Do the story and film express any awareness of the impact of the events they relate on the native Kafiristanis, who are bilked and tricked and murdered? Not much. The story and film work only because they expect the readers and audience to experience the story from the western, British, imperialist perspective. Yes, as a reader of literature and viewer of films I am supposed to suspend my disbelief, my moral and political attitudes, and engage the work on its own terms—but that’s hardly possible. The discomfort I felt with this film also likely explains why Kipling is a writer of diminishing relevance.
At least Dravot goes to his death with a firm, imperturbable British resolve. He’s not sorry for what he and Carnehan did. He’s just sorry they got caught.