Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The man who would be king

John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King is a darn good movie. There are some pretty interesting things it teaches about history, ancient, recent and modern. And there's some kinda wacky stuff about the Freemasons in there to boot. (This reviewer has given up developing a compelling opening paragraph, but hopes you will read on nonetheless.)

The movie stars Michael Caine as Peachy Carnehan and Sean Connery as David Dravot, two British ne'er do wells, former soldiers in the Afghan campaigns of the late 19th century who seek wealth and fortune wherever it can be found in the subcontinent. The story is based on a work by Rudyard Kipling. The structure of the story has some post-modern features. Peachy calls on Rudyard Kipling in his Indian newspaper offices. Kipling doesn't recognize him at first; Peachy is ragged, abused and seems to have misplaced some marbles since their last encounter. Because yes, the two have met before. Their previous history is recaptiulated and then Peachy goes on to describe what happened next. Voiceover narration is by Peachy, who talks about himself in the third person -- Peachy did this, Peachy did that.

I've always thought Michael Caine looked like a very distinguished gentleman, one who had probably been a dashing young man. Well, here he is as that dashing young man, or a lot closer to it anyway. His performance does seem distractingly theatrical at moments -- stage whispering elaborate arguments to his pal David (Connery) while potentially-hostile-but -non-English-speaking crowds wait at the side of the stage. Connery's performance was wonderful. This is not the only movie in which he plays a king, but it might be the only one in which he plays someone playing a king. I was reminded at moments of his performance in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, where he plays the Mycaenean King Minos.

So what's the story? These two guys, they fought the Afghanis for the Queen, had an absolutely fabulous time, they don't want the party to end, don't want to go back to England "to be doormen" as Connery puts it. They're bumming around India, playing the short con on the locals and exploiting the well-mannered kindness of their fellow ex-pats. They cross Kipling after they purport to hold his occupation, editor/publisher of a newspaper, as a part of a blackmail scheme. They are roundly chastised by the authorities for impersonating a journalist (still a very popular transgression today, only now it's not called a crime, it's called the news), but when it comes to punishment, Kipling urges restraint because he has come to know that the pair are his Masonic brothers. As far as conspiricies involving the Masons, I think this story might be Kipling's Foucault's Pendulum; I don't think Eco's would work as well on the screen. But everyone must agree that Rudyard Kipling and Umberto Eco are in a dead heat in the cool name department.

The pair later call on Kipling, asking him to witness a contract between them. They plan to travel to Kafiristan and set themselves up as kings, amass what wealth they can with this power, and return from their adventure wealthy men. The contract stipulates not only that they will not give up until the goal is achieved, but that in order to best retain their focus upon it, they will abstain from both liquor and women.

I will forgo any descriptions of the outcomes of this scheme except to say that it traces the Hero's journey in all of it's triumph and tragedy, and the storytelling is so well done that the hero is the only one who does not see that his hubris is leading him from the dizzy heights of the former to the dark depths of the latter. As for the Mason thing, there is quite a bit of fodder for Templar afficianados. Kipling's act to spare the two miscreants, having recognized them as members of the ancient order, is echoed through the story. And at one point, Connery succumbs a bit to that paranoia which seems to descend upon all contemplators of things Masonic, wondering whether shadowy figures have not been somehow responsible for setting the pair upon their adventure and for everything that happened them along the way. When he credits agents of the Masons for having caused the fortuitous avalanche that kept them from becoming popsicles in the Hindu-Kush, it's obvious that we're supposed to think that he's "gone a bit balmy".

One thing that was interesting to learn was that the history presented in the story was legit. Kafiristan, the land over which our pith-helmeted heros would be king, is a real place, or was at least, and a lot of interesting shit was going down there at the time. In the film, Kafiristan is described as being on the other side of Afghanistan from India, in the Hindu-Kush mountains. Today it would straddle the Afghani-Pakistani border to the east and a bit north of Kabul, a city we know from the evening news. The area is (or was) ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct from those around it. Alexander the Great spent some time there and some think that the people of Kafiristan are descended from his soldiers. The region was spared the domination of Islam which began conquering Afghanistan in the 7th century -- Kafiristan means Land of the Infidels. It was also left alone by the British Raj in it's rule of the region -- perhaps because the Kafiristanis looked strikingly more European than other groups in the area. However, the mapmakers and the Holy See were able to accomplish (with the muscle of the Brits) what these armies were not. The region was divided in 1893 when a border, the Durand Line, was drawn between Afghanistan and India through the Hindu-Kush. Those on the Indian side were basically left alone, as they were used to. Those on the Afghani side were slaughtered or forcibly converted to Islam. The region was renamed Nuristan, translating to Land of Light.

David and Peachy's adventure transpires in this climate. I'm thinking that at the time of the story the lines on the map have been drawn, but the Afghani's have not begun their ethnic cleansing of Kafiristan. To me, this pair of soldiers represents the imperialist urge, at a time when Britain's empire was reaching the limits of it's expansion. Without Queen's conquering to be done, David and Peachy determine to do a bit of their own rather than face the alternatives of becoming bureaucrats in the imperial administration or returning to England where they would no longer be white-skinned nigh-gods, but ordinary men. In many ways, I see their whole adventure as a metaphor for the imperial/colonial experience. At the beginning their project sounds like something of a lark, or a dare; some might say the Empire's beginnings were not dissimilar. However, as it reaches fruition, the game becomes more and more serious. Once they achieve, and exceed, the goal of political domination, possessing and controlling the riches of the subjegated peoples, they are torn. In the film there are, conveniently, two characters, each representing one horn of this dilemna. Peachy advocates taking the loot and heading for the border as soon as the climate (here literally -- they need to wait for spring) permits. David, however, takes his position as ruler and caretaker to heart, feeling he can improve these people over which God or Fortune, in their ineffable wisdom, has ordained him to be Lord and ruler. He holds court, bidding and forbidding among men with the flavor of Solomon if not all of the wisdom (King David, father of Solomon -- or is it son of Alexander?) Peachy, however, recognizes that is only a matter of time before the local yokels realize that him who survived piercing by arrow speakum not straight arrow, but with forked tongue.

I close now, lest I make myself a spoiler for those who have not seen the film. See it, or see it again.