We continue our look back at the 1970s films of Michael Caine – this time, we examine The Man Who Would Be King.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for The Man Who Would Be King lay ahead…
Directed by: John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Escape To Victory)
Tagline: Adventure in all its glory!
Other Featured Geezers: Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling, Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish, Karroom Ben Bouih as High Priest Kafu Selim, Shakira Caine as Roxanne.
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
What’s it all about, Alfie?:
Based on the 1888 novella by Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King sees roguish British ex-soldiers, now full-time thieves and conmen, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Caine) embark on a misguided adventure to the remote Asian region of Kafiristan, an area untouched by Europeans for centuries. Once there they intend to offer local rulers their soldierly services to overthrow neighbouring clans before ultimately betraying them and looting their kingdoms (in case you hadn’t guessed, these guys are kind of jerks).
During battle an unfazed Dravot is struck by an arrow in his bandolier, which prevents it breaking the skin. The local warriors, not knowing this, believe that he must be a god who doesn’t bleed. Although initially sceptical, the head priests soon also come to believe when they spot Dravot’s masonic necklace which signals that he may be the second coming of Alexander the Great.
However, being treated as a god can really go to your head, and Dravot (who has become his very own Judge Rinder, presiding over people’s cow-based disputes), soon decides it’s time to take a bride and fully embrace being ruler of his new kingdom, against Peachy’s advice, and it’s not long before this hubris leads to Dravot’s downfall.
With Peachy Carnehan Caine is gifted one of his best ever character names (closely followed by Hoagie Newcombe in Jaws: The Revenge and with an honourable mention also due to Finn McMissile in Cars 2) and he’s clearly having a blast hanging out with his bestie Sean Connery.
This film is very much a two-hander between the equally billed megastars (although Caine gets sole voiceover duty, ramping up his rough cockney vocal stylings for it). The main delight for me was getting to see these iconic actors having so much fun playing off each other. Their playfulness, and joy, is infectious. It’s no surprise that they both since cited this as among their favourite films.
Their chemistry is believable throughout, and it’s the heart of the film. Caine’s Peachy seems, in spite of his many varied character defects, to genuinely care about his buddy and is as good a friend as possible for someone so self-centred.
Caine first comes stumbling onscreen about four minutes in, his voice recognisable even before we see his face which, at this point in the film, looks very much the worse for wear. He’s got a scraggly beard, a face lined with scars, and is enveloped in dirty rags. He’s very sweaty and a touch pirate–y but we soon get back to the Caine that we know (although he’s still a tad scruffy) when the film flashes back in time to where the bulk of the movie takes place.
Peachy is a bitter and entitled man, complaining to Kipling about the government and his place in the world in one of his earliest scenes, and seems to have a short temper. We later see him frustratedly teaching his new recruits and trying, and failing, to get them to say “one, two, three” in unison which leads to some good old-fashioned Caine shouty, pointy and saying “bloody” acting.
Peachy has delusions of grandeur (“We’re not little men, so we’re going away to be Kings”) and a self-proclaimed “educated taste in whiskey, women, waistcoats and bills of fare.” He’s a scoundrel through and through; a thief, a liar and a general all round good for nothing but somehow, like he previously managed with Alfie and Jack Carter, Caine makes Peachy a charming screen presence. However, I certainly would not want to hang around with anyone like Peachy and Dravot in real life and, in the hands of less likable leads, this pair could have been insufferable.
Some critics at the time thought Caine overplayed the part, but I think he plays it perfectly and judges the tone spot on throughout. He goes from light and frothy to restrained and sombre when needed and, most importantly, it’s his vital rapport with Connery that enables the film to work.
This was Caine and Connery’s first cinematic on-screen appearance together. They had previously both appeared in a TV Movie about boxers called Blood Money (1957) and then in separate episodes of the ITV anthology series Male Of The Species (1969). They would go on to star together once more in A Bridge Too Far (1976) just a few years later.
Released the same year, Saeed Jaffrey gave a similarly enjoyable supporting turn alongside Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) as a dentist involved in diamond smuggling.
Christopher Plummer also appeared alongside Caine in 1969’s Battle Of Britain (and was a bit dull in both films).
Composer Maurice Jarre also did the music for Caine’s 1966 crime caper Gambit.
This is the fifth time that Caine has played a career criminal after Gambit, Deadfall, The Italian Job and Get Carter and the sixth time that he has played a soldier after Zulu, Play Dirty, Too Late The Hero, The Last Valley and Kidnapped.
*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie.
Alternate Title Suggestion:
“Peachy’s Gone South for the Week”; the message that Peachy asks Kipling to give to Dravot could easily have worked as an alternate title if they had opted for a saucier, more “Carry On”, take on the material.
What would Sean Connery look like if he was part man/part tortoise and hypnotised Michael Caine with his earhole? Also, he should be using a gun wrong. That seems to be the direction given to the designer of the poster artwork;
Best Non-Caine Actor:
As mentioned, it’s the interplay between Caine and Connery where the film shines brightest.
Before we see Connery’s Daniel Dravot, we get Peachy’s description of him; “A big man with long grey sideboards” which, to be fair, does sum him up nicely especially when combined with the extra character info Peachy provides much later in the film; “He can break wind at both ends simultaneously, which I’m willing to bet is more than any god can do.” All you need to know about Daniel Dravot is there in those two quotes.
Caine and Connery are surely two of the most vocally impersonated actors and just like Caine’s entrance, we hear Connery’s iconic voice before we see his face (obscured by a hat whilst he’s dozing in a train carriage). One of his first lines is “God’s holy trousers!” which is a delightful enough phrase in its own right, but is doubly so when Connery is saying it in his instantly recognisable brogue. Hearing him say “You may kiss my royal arse” is also a joy. On top of all this he treats us to a lovely spot of singing in his tense final scene.
Connery gets a fair few costume changes and somehow manages to look good in all of them; mad Afghan priest carrying a windmill for some reason, the classic Victorian soldier look, white ceremonial smock and finally dressed to the nines as the second coming of Alexander the Great with a purple robe and crown. He also flashes a fair share of flesh; you get a prominent shot of his aforementioned royal arse and also a long glimpse of his manly thatch of prime 1970s chest hair (initially in this scene it’s unclear if the priests are bowing down because of the masonic pendant on his chest or if they are just scared that there’s some sort of wild animal on there).
Saeed Jaffrey is a lot of fun as Billy Fish, giving an exuberant and highly energetic performance as our roguish leads’ local confidant who happily goes along with their plan.
Christopher Plummer is restrained as Rudyard Kipling, playing the straight man against the others’ hijinks. With his luscious moustache, little glasses and somewhat sad wig I initially didn’t recognise him. It’s a very unthankful performance, as he really only gets to sit there looking occasionally shocked and occasionally amused by Connery and Caine.
Caine’s wife Shakira (to be clear, not the Hips Don’t Lie singer; the truthfulness or not of Caine’s wife’s hips is not public knowledge), who he had married a few years earlier in 1973, features as the only named female character Roxanne. She was an actor and model but this was her last credited role (to date) and also her most high profile (her other credits on IMDB include “Scrubba” in Carry On Again Doctor and “Exotic Robot Observer” in Some Girls Do).
It’s not a taxing role. She doesn’t have to say anything other than her name at one point and her only bit of action is getting to bite Connery on the cheek (which she does well). She clearly learnt a lot from her former role as “Exotic Robot Observer” and brings it to this performance where she’s mostly required to look exotic and observe things. Her role in Carry On Again Doctor was perhaps less useful. However, in spite of it being an underwritten role, she does bring an air of something interesting to it and certainly has a beguiling screen presence.
The reason that she appeared in the film is that Huston still hadn’t cast the part of Roxanne after filming had commenced and, during a dinner party for cast and crew (in which Shakira Caine was present), she was cast on the spot when the role came up in conversation, with Huston deeming her a good fit for it.
Karroom Ben Bouih, who played High Priest Kafu Selim, was not a professional actor but was actually the nightwatchman at a nearby olive orchard whom Huston bumped into, liked the look of, and asked to join the film. He was allegedly over 100 years old when he appeared in the film, his only movie role. He does look very wrinkly, but I’m dubious of that claim. Apparently, he kept falling asleep during filming because he had kept his job as a nightwatchman until Huston explained that he would be paid enough for this film that he could leave that job (also if he was indeed over 100, of course he kept falling asleep, give him a break). Anyway, whatever the truth about this mysterious bloke, he’s great and turns in a very naturalistic and watchable performance.
My Bleedin’ Thoughts:
This is a film from the mid-1970s set in 19th century India and Afghanistan, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling, and directed by John Huston. It’s therefore not a surprise that there are elements that could be off-putting to 2022 audiences; the characterisation of most of the non-white characters is condescending and caricatured, Connery and Caine appear in brownface, there is only one named female character (who gets one line of dialogue), it looks like the mules were not treated entirely humanely during filming and, most offensive of all (to the ear), Caine sings.
However, if you are willing to look past all this, and accept the film as a product of its time then, for the most part, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a classic old style adventure film with real breathtaking locations (snowy vistas, hot barren deserts), scores of extras, dangerous stunts and with two genuinely iconic A-list stars at the top of their game. They don’t make them like this anymore and I’d love to see this on the big screen. There are scenes where the leads float down choppy rivers on inflated animal skins, tribesmen play polo with severed heads and a geezer puts some live scorpions in his gob within the first two minutes (which lets you know instantly that you’re in for a treat).
The stunt fall off the bridge, which acts as the film’s climax, is excellent. I really miss the days of good old fashioned, stupidly dangerous, practical stunts. There’s an interesting behind the scenes video which shows the filming of this stunt towards the end. This one, in fact…
That video makes it look like Connery performed the stunt but, according to Caine’s autobiography, the fall was actually done by stuntman Joe Powell, who fell approximately one hundred feet to land on a pile of cardboard boxes and mattresses at the bottom of the ravine. Connery still had to stand alone on a rickety wobbling bridge before being swapped out for Powell, so he’s much braver than I would have been whether he did the actual stunt or not!
This film was a passion project for John Huston. He’d been trying to make it for decades prior with various iterations of stars (including, originally, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, and later Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole) and you can tell it’s a film that the people making genuinely cared about.
Best Supporting Watermelon
Here are three choice picks from IMDb; the first interestingly nerdy, the second a bit odd (and of dubious veracity) and the last one completely irrelevant to absolutely everyone (yet 25 out of 35 people still found it interesting, so who am I to judge?);
-The words which Kipling pens in the opening scene are the opening lines to an actual Rudyard Kipling Poem; “The Ballad Of Boh Da Thone”. The poem contains several elements which feature in the movie.
-Between filming, Connery ate sheep’s eyes to appease a local sheikh, little realising it was his heavily disguised friend Eric Sykes playing a prank (perhaps in the greatest twist of all, “100 year old” Karroom Ben Bouih was also Eric Sykes?!?)
-In real life Michael Caine and Sean Connery both dated Jill St. John (who is not in this by the way, so why this trivia is on the IMDB page for this film I’m not entirely sure).
Overall Thoughts: Although dated in many ways, both negative and positive, The Man Who Would Be King features Connery and Caine having an absolute blast in each other’s company and their evident joy is contagious. If you’re a fan of either actor then you owe it to yourself to watch this old school adventure romp (if you haven’t already). For better and for worse, they really don’t make them like this anymore.
Rating: 4 Holy Trousers out of 5.
Where You Can Watch This: This is available to rent and buy on most streaming services as well as on DVD and Blu-ray.
Up Next: Next time I’ll be taking a peep at Peeper.
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