Seldom does the medium of film manage to surpass its literary sources, but John Huston’s 1975 The Man Who Would Be King is a strong candidate for a film that does just that. It is a story of colonial adventure carried by the tremendous personalities of the main stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. The setting is one of immense inspiration, conjuring up dreams for any true student of Hellenistic history and Central Asian mysticism. Indeed, the film was my introduction to Central Asia, and perhaps the catalyst for my own adventures in Afghanistan.
But it’s not the heroic acting, dreamy setting, or my own experiences that bring me back to this movie again and again. It’s the call to adventure this story tells that brings me back. The story of life under oppression, brotherhood, the allure of the wilderness, adventure, and inspiration despite failure — it’s these things that tug at my heartstrings in a way that rouses mad energy. This movie makes me get up and pace. It made me, as a child, take up my BB-gun and trek to the summit of the nearest hill in search of screaming Nuristani heathens! The Man Who Would Be King shows how those with an adventurous and noble spirit might make our mark on the world and fulfill our innate purpose.
The character Daniel Dravot explains it best to the Rudyard Kipling character when he says: “We are not little men.” Despite being unable to hold a job, making their living by scamming and identity theft, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan see themselves as winners. To men such as they, the petty life of work, politics, and newspapers was beneath them. They instead choose an almost ridiculous life of simple crime, living by no laws or respect for authority. Only their fellowship as brother soldiers and Freemasons was worthy of their respect.
It was men such as this who built the British Raj, even if they were no longer in control of it, and Dravot and Carnehan knew in their hearts they deserved more than their own civilization could ever offer them. A life of peace and quiet business would never suit them. They knew in their blood they were meant for so much more. All their civilization served to do was oppress their natural-born powers, dooming them to a life ill-spent, sharpening their claws but never putting them to use. So, despite the words of their detractors, Kipling and the authorities, Peachy and Danny were not little men. Their dreams soared higher than any dead-eyed administrator of the empire could ever concoct in his wildest night at the local opium den.
Armed with only their brotherhood, both men set off on the adventure of a lifetime, to become the kings of Kafiristan. A mad idea to go beyond the Kyber Pass: deep into the barbarous realm of Afghanistan. This story could never happen in London, nor New York, but only in a true wilderness beyond the frontiers of any of the world’s great empires. There they found a place of true freedom, where the law of the jungle prevails. Only the strong survive, and only the strongest thrive.
With their modern firearms, Peachy and Danny easily shoot their way to the summit of the local heathen’s caste system. Their military drilling and personal heroics win them an empire where they could live under an order that suited them. This order was the order of the contract they made with each other to swear off women and drink until they succeeded. Neither was an anarchist, nor did either hate their beloved British Empire, yet they embarked on their wild and illegal endeavor for the simple reason that it was what they were meant to be. Kingship was the life they knew they deserved, and they were winners at heart.
Dravot would become more than a mere king in their adventure, ascending into the role of a living god in the minds of their heathen followers. He was the returning son of their god Sakandar… Alexander the Great. It is here, at their highest point, where all begins to go wrong. The only order between the men, their fellowship and contract, is threatened when Danny, at the height of his immense glory, demands a wife to bear him a son. This violates the order between not just Danny and Peachy, but between the high priests of Kafiristan and their god-king. The mixture of a mortal’s blood with that of a god would damn the girl to death in their religious minds. Yet Danny goes through with the idea anyways, and in the wedding ceremony he is shown to be a fraud, a false god who could bleed. The heathens revolt in rage, and Peachy and Danny make a last stand before being captured. The last words between the men are Danny asking for Peachy’s forgiveness, which is given without any hesitation. Danny is then thrown into a chasm while Peachy is crucified between two trees.
Some might look at this failure as proof of the men’s folly: proof that living such a life will only lead to your doom. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Yet all our lives will lead to doom. Death is a certainty. Is it not better, then, to die having reached your full potential and purpose, becoming a god among men in Danny’s case, than to die in bed never once having even tried to be who you really are? This question is for you to decide, or perhaps for your biology, but I suspect that there are some of you who hear the same call to adventure and destiny that called Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan to Kafiristan. Little men think it a failure when big men “fail,” never asking if their own goals and achievements are worthy of living for.
To conclude, I would highly recommend you watch The Man Who Would Be King and see for yourself just how fun and inspiring it really is. Read the Kipling short story as well; although the two are not very different from each other.
And when you’ve watched the film and read the book, ask yourself: Are you a little man, or are you a different beast? How would you know?