The Man Who Would Be King, released originally in 1975, is one of those films that I find that no one seems to remember. It starred Sean Connery and Michael Caine as a pair of British colonialists who resign from their army with their own goals in mind. They’re convinced they’re going to make the faraway land of Kafiristan their own kingdom. Christopher Plummer plays the part of Rudyard Kipling, the real-life author and poet who provided the source material for the film. It was also directed by a powerhouse of cinema, John Huston, whom we’ve spoken of in this column before, taking a look at his film Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The DNA of Rudyard Kipling’s influence runs deep in the Star Wars universe. We’ve already done a column on Gunga Din, another movie based on a Kipling story and The Man Who Would be King is no different. This film has Sean Connery’s character, Danny Dravot, deep in the territory of people who he finds backwoods and uncivilized. He seeks to make himself king of them, with the help of his associate Peachy Carnahan, played by a blustering hyper-British Michael Caine. During one of their major engagements, Dravot is shot with an arrow, but the arrow pierces a leather belt beneath his uniform and he’s unaffected by it. The people of Kafiristan, however, take this to mean that he is a god.
When their translator, Billy Fish, explains to him what has happened, he initially refuses to accept himself as a god to these people, finding the whole enterprise distasteful, but his associate explains to him that this might be an easier ruse. There’s no mistaking the similarities between this story and Threepio’s treatment by the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.
Our favorite golden droid initially refuses the honor, explaining that it’s against his programming to impersonate a deity, but Luke convinces him that his maintaining the ruse is the quickest way to get them out of the clutches of the Ewoks. And indeed that plan works. If only Sean Connery’s Danny Dravot were able to use the Force, it would have saved him quite a bit of trouble.
There are many hallmarks in this film that found their way into Indiana Jones movies as well, which, in turn, inspired other pieces of Star Wars. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Sean Connery himself made his way into the fabric of Indiana Jones.
The Man Who Would be King is a little bit more unique in the role it played in the history of Star Wars, though, than just a brief inspiration to Return of the Jedi. Sure, it shares some visual similarities to Tatooine and it’s cut from the same cloth of stories, but, by far, the most fascinating connection between Star Wars and The Man Who Would be King is that both of these films were shot on the same Panaflex camera.
A number of motion pictures were shot using this very same camera, but when you watch A New Hope and The Man Who Would Be King closely and back-to-back, you can see many similarities in the look of the film that go beyond the way films were shot in the 1970s. During scenes where the backgrounds are similar, specifically the deserts, they have similar qualities in how the film looks and how the grain feels.
The Man Who Would be King was dismissed by the critics at the time as being “escapist entertainment,” but this film is absolutely dense with ideas of right and wrong and about the nature of power and greed. It tackles some of the same themes as Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, in turn, Revenge of the Sith, as well. It’s a fascinating exploration of the topic, lampoons the idea of the superiority of British colonialism, and offers Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer a chance to shine. It’s a film that’s more complicated the deeper you dive into it, has some incredibly subtle performances (and not-so-subtle, as well), and is just fun, even when it’s leading you toward the inevitable heartbreak the opening of the film promises.
It was rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America and is suitable for viewing with any family even mildly interested in history and/or Kipling. It’s a great film, forgotten by many, overshadowed by many more films by John Huston, Sean Connery, and Michael Caine, but it’s worth checking out, and not just for its unique ties to Star Wars.
Availability: The Man Who Would be King is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray and is available to stream for a modest fee from online services that offer rentals.