The Man Who Would Be King (film)

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The Man Who Would Be King
Theatrical release poster by Tom Jung
Directed byJohn Huston
Written byJohn Huston
Gladys Hill
Based onThe Man Who Would Be King
by Rudyard Kipling
Produced byJohn Foreman
CinematographyOswald Morris
Edited byRussell Lloyd
Music byMaurice Jarre
Distributed by
  • Allied Artists (North America)
  • Columbia Pictures (International)
Release dates
  • 26 November 1975 (1975-11-26) (Premiere)
  • 19 December 1975 (1975-12-19)
Running time
129 minutes
CountriesUnited States
United Kingdom
Budget$8.5 million[2]
Box office$11 million[3]

The Man Who Would Be King is a 1975 adventure film adapted from the 1888 Rudyard Kipling novella of the same name. It was adapted and directed by John Huston and starred Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Saeed Jaffrey and Christopher Plummer as Kipling (giving a name to the novella's anonymous narrator). The film follows two rogue ex-soldiers, former non-commissioned officers in the British Army, who set off from late 19th century British India in search of adventure and end up in faraway Kafiristan, where one is taken for a god and made their king.


In 1885 in India, while working late at night in his newspaper office, the journalist Rudyard Kipling is approached by a ragged, seemingly crazed derelict who reveals himself to be Peachy Carnehan, an old acquaintance. Carnehan tells Kipling the story of how he and his comrade-in-arms Danny Dravot, ex-sergeants of the British Army who had become adventurers, travelled far beyond India into the remote land of Kafiristan.

Three years earlier, Dravot and Carnehan had met Kipling under less than auspicious circumstances. After stealing Kipling's pocket-watch, Carnehan found a masonic tag on the chain, and realising he had robbed a fellow Freemason, felt he had to return it. At the time, he and Dravot were working on a plot to blackmail a local raja, which Kipling foiled by getting the British district commissioner to intervene. In a comic relief turn, Carnehan obliquely blackmails the commissioner in order to avoid deportation.

Frustrated at the lack of opportunities for lucrative criminal mischief, in an India becoming more civilised and regulated—partly through their own hard efforts as soldiers—and with little to look forward to in the United Kingdom except dreary, poorly paid jobs, the two turn up at Kipling's office with an audacious plan. Forsaking India, they will head with twenty rifles and ammunition to Kafiristan, a country virtually unknown to Europeans since its conquest by Alexander the Great. There they will offer their services to a ruler and then help him to conquer his neighbours, but proceed to overthrow him and loot the country. Kipling, after first trying to dissuade them, gives Dravot his masonic tag as a token of brotherhood.

After signing a contract pledging mutual loyalty and forswearing women and drink, the two set off on an epic overland journey north beyond the Khyber Pass. Over the next few weeks, they travel through Afghanistan, fighting off bandits, blizzards, and avalanches, as they make their way into the unknown land of Kafiristan. They chance upon a Gurkha soldier, Billy Fish, the sole survivor of a years past British expedition. Speaking English and the local language, Billy smooths their way as they begin their rise, first offering their services to the chief of a much-raided village. When a force has been trained in modern weapons and tactics, they lead it out against some hated neighbours. During the battle, an arrow pierces Dravot's jacket but he is unharmed.

Both sides take him to be a god, though in fact the arrowhead was stopped by his leather bandolier. Victory follows victory, with the defeated adding to the ranks of the swelling army. With their enemies vanquished, nobody is left to stand in their way, as they are summoned to the holy city of Sikandergul by the high priest of the region. He sets up a re-enactment of the arrow incident, to determine whether Dravot is a man or a god by seeing whether or not he bleeds. When his shirt is torn open, they are amazed to see the masonic tag around his neck. It contains the sacred symbol left by Sikander, their name for Alexander the Great, who had promised to send a son to rule over them.

Hailing Dravot as king as well as god, they show him the royal treasury, which is full of unimaginable amounts of gold and jewels that are now all his. Carnehan suggests that they leave with as much loot as they can carry as soon as the snow has melted on the mountain passes. Dravot, however, is beginning to enjoy the adulation of the locals, settling their disputes and issuing laws, and even dreams of visiting Queen Victoria as an equal. He is also struck by the beauty of a girl called Roxane, the name of Alexander's wife, and cancels their pact to avoid women, saying he will marry her in order to leave the people an heir. When she is reluctantly brought to him, he tries to kiss her, but she, terrified that the touch of a god means death to a mortal, bites his cheek. Seeing him bleed, the people realise he is only human and try to grab the British impostors.

Outnumbered in the ensuing battle, Dravot is captured and is made to walk onto a rope bridge, where he lustily sings the hymn "The Son of God Goes Forth to War". When the ropes are cut, he falls thousands of feet to his death. Carnehan is crucified between two pine trees but freed upon being found still alive the next morning. Crippled in body and unhinged in mind from his ordeal, he eventually makes his way back to India as a beggar. Finishing his story, he leaves Kipling's office after putting a bundle on the desk. When Kipling opens it, he finds Dravot's skull, still wearing a golden crown.



The Man Who Would Be King had been a pet project of John Huston's for decades after he had read the book as a child.[4] Huston had planned to make the film since the 1950s, originally with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the roles of Daniel and Peachy.[5] He was unable to get the project off the ground before Bogart died in 1957; Gable followed in 1960. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were then approached to play the leads, followed by Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. In the 1970s, Huston approached Robert Redford and Paul Newman for the roles. Newman advised Huston that British actors should play the roles, and it was he who recommended Connery and Caine.[6] Caine was very keen to appear, especially after he was told that his part had originally been written for Humphrey Bogart, his favourite actor as a young man.[7]

The role of Roxanne (the only listed female character in the movie) was originally slated for Tessa Dahl, the daughter of Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal.[8] Dahl, excited to take the role, had prepared for the part by losing weight and capping her teeth.[9] However, at the last minute, director Huston had decided to cast someone whose appearance was more in keeping with natives of Kafiristan. "We've got to find an Arab princess somewhere", he is recounted as saying over dinner with Caine. At that same dinner, Caine's Indian-descended wife Shakira was present, so Huston and Caine persuaded her to take on the role.[10]

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios[11] and at locations in France and Morocco.[12]

While on location, Caine strongly objected to an assistant director's racist treatment of Saeed Jaffrey, who played the Gurkha guide Billy Fish.[13]

The stuntman Joe Powell doubled for Sean Connery and it was he who performed the fall from the rope bridge at the film's climax. Execution involved a potentially fatal fall of 80 feet onto a pile of cardboard boxes and mattresses. Huston was so impressed with Powell's performance he said, "That's the darndest stunt I've ever seen!"[14] Caine said that Connery did not like heights and was not fond of the final scene in which he had to walk to the middle of the bridge.[15] Caine recalled, "There was a day when we were shooting on the rope bridge and Sean turned to John and said "Do you think the bridge looks safe?" John lowered his eyes and said, "Sean, the bridge looks the way it always has. The only difference is that today, you're going to be standing in the middle of it."[15]


Maurice Jarre scored the film and invited classical Indian musicians to participate in the recording sessions with a traditional European symphony orchestra. A key song, which figures within the plot of the movie, is a fusion of the music of the Irish song "The Minstrel Boy" with the lyrics of Reginald Heber's "The Son of God Goes Forth to War". This song is heard at key moments in the score, notably being sung by Dravot as he is being executed and as he tumbles to his death. The film's performance of "The Minstrel Boy" is by William Lang, late of the Black Dyke Band and the London Symphony Orchestra.[citation needed]


The film premiered on 26 November 1975 at the Tehran Film Festival. It had a Royal premiere attended by Princess Anne at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on 18 December 1975 before opening to the public on the following day.[1][16]

Home media[edit]

The Man Who Would Be King was released by Warner Home Video on DVD in Region 1 on 19 November 1997, and was re-issued on 9 November 2010, followed by a Region A Blu-ray release on 7 June 2011. In Region 2, the film was released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on 27 August 2007, with a re-issue on 17 May 2010.


Critical reaction[edit]

John Simon of New York magazine considered the film to be Huston's best work since The African Queen, twenty-three years earlier.[12] Jay Cocks of Time magazine wrote, "John Huston has been wanting to make this movie for more than twenty years. It was worth the wait. A mellow, brassy, vigorous movie, rich in adventure and melancholy, The Man Who Would Be King represents the best work Huston has done in a decade. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947), The Man Who Would Be King is also a meditation on the excesses of ambition and avarice."[17] Vincent Canby of The New York Times felt the film "manages to be great fun in itself while being most faithful to Kipling, whose story, written in the 1890's, is a kind of raffish metaphor for the British colonial experience that did not end for another half century."[18]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four complete stars, writing the film is a "swashbuckling adventure, pure and simple, and in the hands of a master. It's been a long time since there's been an escapist entertainment quite this unabashed and thrilling and fun ...We get strong characterizations, we get excitement and, best of all, we get to laugh every once in a while."[19] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, who also gave the film four complete stars, praised the film as "a genuinely witty and literate adventure story ...that should appeal to the whole family. Kids over the age of 10 will enjoy being transported into another world of casbahs and camels; adults will be hooked by the witty dialog, much of it taken from its source, a Rudyard Kipling story."[20] A review in Variety was critical of the film mostly because of Caine's performance, stating "Whether it was the intention of the director-adapter John Huston or not, the tale of action and adventure became a too-broad comedy, mostly due to the poor performance of Michael Caine".[21]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 97% based on 31 reviews, with an average score of 8.5/10.[22] Another review aggregator, Metacritic, calculated a score of 91 based on 15 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[23] In 2019, in a ranking of Caine's filmography, Andrew Pulver of The Guardian selected the film as Caine's best-ever role.[24] Both Connery and Caine have considered the movie their favorite of all they had worked on.[25][15]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients Result
Academy Awards[26] 29 March 1976 Best Screenplay Adapted from Other Material John Huston, Gladys Hill Nominated
Best Art Direction Alexandre Trauner, Tony Inglis, Peter James
Best Costume Design Edith Head
Best Film Editing Russell Lloyd
Golden Globe Awards[27] 24 January 1976 Best Original Score Maurice Jarre Nominated
BAFTA Awards 1976 Best Cinematography[28] Oswald Morris Nominated
Best Costume Design[29] Edith Head


  1. ^ a b "Kipling to Iran". Variety. 12 November 1975. p. 28. Retrieved 27 June 2022 – via Internet Archive.
  2. ^ Mills, Bart (9 October 1975). "On the far side of the Khyber with Connery and Caine". Chicago Tribune Magazine. pp. 58–59, 62–65. Retrieved 31 August 2022 – via open access.
  3. ^ "Top 20 Films of 1975 by Domestic Revenue". Box Office Report. Archived from the original on 5 June 2008. Retrieved 18 September 2013.
  4. ^ "The Man Who Would be King director: John Huston". Cliomuse.
  5. ^ TimesTalks: Michael Caine: Five Favorite Films | The New York Times on YouTube
  6. ^ Call It Magic: The Making of The Man Who Would be King (Documentary featurette). Allied Artists Pictures. 1975. Archived from the original on 31 August 2022. Retrieved 31 August 2022 – via YouTube.
  7. ^ "Timestalks Michael Caine Five Favorite Films The New York Times". Vibrant Buzz. Archived from the original on 16 June 2018.
  8. ^ Hauptfuhrer, Fred (1 March 1976). "What's It All About, Alfie?". People.
  9. ^ Shearer, Stephen Michael (2006). Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life. University Press of Kentucky. p. 313. ISBN 978-0-813-12391-2.
  10. ^ Whipp, Glenn. "Michael Caine Remembers Nearly 40 Years in Film". Los Angeles Daily News.
  11. ^ "Pinewood Studios: Filmography and history". Simply Networking Solutions. Archived from the original on 5 October 2012. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
  12. ^ a b Simon, John (12 January 1976). "Over the Mountains, Across the Oceans, Beyond the Pale". New York. p. 58.
  13. ^ "Saeed Jaffrey interview: New kid on the Street". The Independent. 11 January 1999. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022.
  14. ^ "Joe Powell, stuntman – obituary". The Telegraph. 27 July 2016 – via
  15. ^ a b c Luck, Richard (19 February 2011). "Michael Caine: 'People forget I know a few gangsters'". Sabotage Times. Archived from the original on 26 February 2011. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
  16. ^ "Court Circular". The Times. 18 December 1975. p. 14.
  17. ^ Cocks, Jay (29 December 1975). "Cinema: Rogues' Regiment". Time. Archived from the original on 31 October 2007. Retrieved 7 January 2012.
  18. ^ Canby, Vincent (18 December 1975). "Connery and Caine Flee Kipling India". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (23 February 1976). "The Man Who Would Be King". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 25 January 2010 – via
  20. ^ Siskel, Gene (23 February 1976). "'King' a witty, literate adventure". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 18. Retrieved 31 August 2022 – via open access
  21. ^ "The Man Who Would Be King". Variety. 10 December 1975. Retrieved 8 January 2013.
  22. ^ "The Man Who Would Be King (1975)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 6 October 2021. Edit this at Wikidata
  23. ^ "The Man Who Would Be King Reviews". Metacritic. Red Ventures. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  24. ^ Pulver, Andrew (14 June 2019). "Michael Caine's best films – ranked!". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  25. ^ "Sean Connery still has special Bond with movie fans". The Sunday Post. 17 June 2015. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
  26. ^ "The 48th Academy Awards (1976) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  27. ^ "Man Who Would Be King, The (1975)". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  28. ^ "Film – Cinematography in 1976". BAFTA. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  29. ^ "Film – Costume Design in 1976". BAFTA. Retrieved 31 August 2022.


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