Throwback Thursday #TBT
Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy.
The Man Who Would be King
One of the treasures of the year 1975, was a film I experienced in early 1976. “The Man Who Would be King” opened in late December 1975, but it was not until my birthday in February that my father took me down to Hollywood to see it. I knew Michael Caine thru a few films I’d seen on television, “Zulu”, “The Ipcress File” and “The Wrong Box” to name a few. I’d seen “Sleuth” and “The Wilby Conspiracy” in theaters, but it was this film which cemented me as a lifelong fan. in part because he was so great but also in large part because he was playing opposite of one of my favorite actors, Sean Connery. This whole vibe of British adventurers in India and Afghanistan during the time period of colonial rule of the late 19th century just held a huge allure for me. I loved “Gunga Din” and this felt like an update of the kind of swashbuckling adventure story that made me a movie fan in the first place.
This highly praised film did get a little criticism for the performance of Michael Caine, in the Variety review in 1975, and on the “Lambcast”, this past week. The suggestion was that Caine was exaggerating his working class accent and doing a bit of a caricature in his performance. As I said on the show and will say here now, I think Caine was channeling the character of Peachy Carnahan, particularly in those spots. Peachy is a bit of a con man, given an outsized personality to gain trust, or present an image to the world of someone more in command than he actually was. To me, it was all set up in that opening sequence where Peachy steals the watch, and then noticing it belonged to a fellow Mason, tries to return it without getting caught. When the Kipling character reveals that he had missed the watch earlier and that Peachy’s mask has slipped, he smiles and becomes an even grander version of the larcenous character.
Sean Connery is clearly having the time of his life with his role as Caine’s partner Danny Dravot. His wink and nod to Kipling when he reveals their blackmail plans is just the start. When his character is disguised as a mad priest, in the caravan they travel through Afghanistan with, he gets to mug with his facial expressions and dance joyously on a hilltop. The character moment between the two when they are trapped by a collapsed snow bridge is also a meaty slice of acting, and the fact that these two good pals were getting to act together in the scene is just gravy.
The theme of the film is hubris on the part of the two leads. The mendacity of the two characters leads us to doubt their true intent, but then it turns out they really do have an audacious plan to conquer a nation. Their colonial superiority seems justified at first because their military skills are far superior to those of the tribes that they are gathering as followers. We know as observers however, that they are imperfect men with an outsized appetite for adventure and that it will lead them to trouble. When they latch upon the ruse that Daniel is the long lost son of Alexander and the tribal people treat him as a deity, it is not had to see the fall coming. Danny gets so caught up in playing the role, he gets taken in by their own deception. Peachy gives good counsel but still did not see where the downfall would be coming. John Huston, the director of this film, also made “the Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. That 1948 film , almost feels like it was the template for this movie. A trio of adventures, seeking wealth, battling natives and losing it all in the end from greed and exaggerated self importance.
The only other reservations I heard on the podcast had to do with the tone of the film. The light hearted adventure takes some dark turns and that seemed hard to accept. I’m not sure why anyone would have a hard time moving through those alternating tones, that has been a standard emotional wave from “The Adventures of Robin Hood’ and “Gunga Din”, all the way up to Indiana Jones. When you have monkeys giving a sieg heil in one scene and then implied torture in another scene, we know this is how adventure films work. Drama is interspersed with comedy throughout the adventure. Iron Man makes quips as worlds collapse and characters die. Maybe the fact that Peachy and Danny seem real, is the thing that made some people have a harder time with the tonal shifts.
Everywhere you look in this film, there are moments to relish. The incensed attitude of the two Brits when being offered the daughters and sons of their first manipulated tribal chief, is traded off by the two, each one getting a moment of indignity followed by a lesson from the other, the second one smugly mocking the first.
Billy Fish: Ootah say take your pick. He have twenty three daughters.
Danny: Those are his daughters? Why the dirty old beggar!
Peachy Carnehan: Now, now Danny. Different countries, different ways. He’s only being hospitable according to his lights. Billy, tell him one’s as pretty as the next and we cannot choose.
[Billy translates; Ootah replies in Kafiri]
Billy Fish: Ootah say he also have thirty-two sons if you are liking boys.
Peachy Carnehan: [angrily] Tell him he makes my gorge rise; tell him!
Danny: Now Peachy, different countries, different ways. Tell Ootah we have vowed not to take a woman until all his enemies are vanquished.
When they are holding up the gems in Alexander’s treasure room, and Peachy one ups Danny with a bigger ruby, you want to laugh. The military demeanor they take with the commissioner is funny and reveals Peachy’s character playing again. Connery tells Peachy and Billy to stay back, as they are mere mortals. Everywhere there are sly bits of humor.
To me, the key line that sets up the fact that this is an incredible story being told by one of the participants, who has learned a lesson the hard way, Rudyard Kipling:Carnehan.Peachy Carnehan:The same – and not the same, who sat besides you in the first class carriage, on the train to Marwar Junction, three summers and a thousand years ago.
That phrase, “Three summers and a thousand years ago” tells me I’m going to get a fantastic story. and we get just that.