It’s interesting that John Huston’s long-gestating project to film Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King finally came to fruition in 1975 (the project dated back to plans for a Clark Gable-Humphrey Bogart picture). The year the film was released was the same year that the outburst of the 1960s sensibility in film had its last glorious stand at the box office—the end of the era where art film, cult film and mainstream movies were on a truly even footing with the studios. In its own way, Huston’s film is part of that last stand, even though it’s an old-fashioned adventure yarn of the Gunga Din (1939) school. There’s no denying that Huston brings a Hollywood sensibility to the material—a “ripping yarn” about a couple of opportunistic British soldiers (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) in India who opt to establish themselves as kings in Kafiristan—but it’s a sensibility shot through with a distinctly modern take. It’s a Hollywood epic infused with the same kind of anti-imperialist tone found in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)—minus the stylistic flourishes.
Make no mistake, Huston’s film is first and foremost a solid action picture where the viewer is meant to find its scoundrel leads likeable and want them to succeed. The film is supposed to be fun—despite its ending—and even that is an interesting departure from the über-serious tone of most epics of the time. But the fun is slyly undercut by the knowledge of the larger context of imperialist bullying in “backward” countries—as when Connery tells the Kafirs that the two are going to teach them to kill their enemies “like civilized men.” Indeed, one wonders if the film Huston planned those many years earlier could have been quite the film he made in 1975.