Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012

As a movie, this Empire gothic [The Man Who Would Be King] has elements of Gunga Din and of a cynical Lost Horizon, along with something that hasn't been a heroic attribute in other Empire-gothic movies: the desire to become the highest-ranking person that one can envision. The heroes are able to achieve their goal only because of the primitiveness of the people they conquer, and this is very likely the stumbling block that kept the movie from being financed for the twenty-odd years that Huston wanted to do it. Maybe he was able to, finally, on the assumption that enough time has passed for the heroes' attitude toward the native populations of India and Kafiristan—the benighted heathen—to seem quaint rather than racist. Huston's narrative is both an ironic parable about the motives and methods of imperialism and a series of gags about civilization and barbarism. (pp. 107-08)

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The script, by Huston and Gladys Hill, is a fine piece of craftsmanship, with every detail in place, and with some of Kipling's devices carried further, so that the whole mad, jinxed adventure is tied together. But The Man Who Would Be King isn't rousing, and it isn't a comedy, either. It's a genre movie made with full awareness of the campy pit into which it will sink if the laconic distancing ever lapses. Huston has to hold down the very emotions that most spectacles aim for…. The Man Who Would Be King is in subdued reds and browns, and the persistent dusty earth tones underscore the transiency of the heroes' victory. There are no soaring emotions. Huston tells his whopper in a matter-of-fact tone, and he doesn't play up the cast of thousands or the possibilities of portentous spectacle in the bizarre stone "sacred city" of Alexander the Great, built on a mountain.

The director's love of the material is palpable; it makes one smile. Yet the most audacious parts of the film don't reach for that special clarity which makes action memorably poetic…. Huston's is a perverse form of noblesse oblige—he doesn't want to push anything. He won't punch up the moments that are right there waiting, even though we might have enjoyed basking in them, and getting a lift from them. He sets up the most elaborate, berserk fairy-tale scenes and then just sits back; he seems to be watching the events happen instead of shaping them. Huston has said that Danny and Peachy are destroyed because of folie de grandeur, and that's what he risks, too. I admire his pride; he treats the audience with a sophisticated respect that's rare in genre films, and this movie is the best sustained work he's done in years…. But Huston's courtliness has its weakness. No doubt he believes in telling the story as simply as possible, but what that means in practice is that he shoots the script. It's exemplary, and he's a good storyteller. But he's not such a great movie storyteller here…. And so the ironies in The Man Who Would Be King go by fast—when we want them to vibrate a little.

Huston's even-tempered narrative approach doesn't quite release all that we suspect he feels about the material. It may be that he's so far into the kind of thinking that this story represents that he doesn't take us in far enough. If he had regressed to an earlier stage of movie history and presented Kipling's jingoism with emotional force, the film might have been a controversial, inflammatory epic. If he had rekindled the magical appeal of that jingoism and made us understand our tragic vulnerability to it, it might have been a true modern epic. The way he's done it, the story works only on the level of a yarn. But it's a wonderful yarn…. Huston is cynical without a shade of contempt—that's why the film is likable. Yet when you play fascinated anthropologist, equally amused by the British and the natives, you may have licked the problem of how to do Kipling now without an outcry, but you're being false to why you wanted to film the story in the first place. (pp. 108-09)

The theme of The Man Who Would Be King gets at the essence of the attitudes underlying John Huston's work. Huston might be the man without illusions on a quest. Here, as in The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, his characters are after money. But when Danny and Peachy are battling mountain snowstorms, risking blindness and death to get to the backward country they mean to pillage, one knows that it isn't just for gold—it's because conquering and looting a country are the highest score they can imagine. And when they view Alexander the Great's treasure, the jewels and gold pieces seem a little ridiculous; the treasure will be scattered, like the gold dust in The Treasure of Sierra Madre….

Huston finds a grisly humor in the self-deceptions of ruthless people chasing rainbows; that might almost be his comic notion of man's life on earth. He earns esteem by not sentimentalizing that quest. (Yet his inability to show affection for characters who live on different terms shows how much the rogues mean to him.) Huston isn't too comfortable about any direct show of emotion; he's in his element (and peerlessly) with men who are boyishly brusque, putting down their own tender feelings shamefacedly. (p. 110)

In the story [on which the film is based], Kipling was able to satirize his own gnomic vision of fraternity, and at times Huston and [co-screenwriter] Gladys Hill, ringing changes on the mystic-fraternity theme—"rejuvenating" it—might almost be borrowing from Edgar Rice Burroughs. Huston seems to be enjoying himself in this film in the way he hasn't for a long time. It communicates the feeling of a consummated dream. (p. 111)

Pauline Kael, "Brotherhood Is Powerful" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. LI, No. 46, January 5, 1976), in her When the Lights Go Down (copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1980, pp. 107-12.∗

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