Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

"And now the woman's of Er-Heb will cut his bollocks off. Ha ha!"

Let's deal with the elephant in the room first: is this film racist?

First, let's consider that this is an adaptation of a story written in 1888 by Rudyard Kipling, and we can therefore expect a bit of raving imperialism which can't fail to be transferred to any adaptation.

Secondly, let's consider that there are two stupid answers to the question: "yes" and "no". These answers betray the mindset that thinks there are only two types of people in the world- outright Nazis and people "without a racist bone on their bodies". That's what's implied by any question that asks us to rule on whether something is either racist or "not racist" whereas, in fact, 99.99% of us fall between these poles. Personally, I'm a Guardian-reading liberal type who abhors racism, but I wouldn't dream of claiming that I "haven't got a racist none in my body". How could I possibly know that? There could be all sorts of unexamined racist assumptions hidden somewhere in my subconscious. They're unexamined. That's the point.

So let's just briefly note that the original source text, given the author, the subject matter and the setting, can hardly fail to display both racist attitudes and a voyeuristic othering of people from other cultures. Let's also briefly note that, being integral to the plot, these things are inevitably transferred to this film adaptation. Also, 1975 is an age ago in terms of attitudes to race- a film like this would never be made today- and both India and Kafiristan are presented as an exotic "other", not on their own terms. But let us also remember the context. Past attitudes are what they are. This film was less racist in the context of 1975 than it would be if made today.

So let's talk about things that are more interesting. Such a show unusual it is for John Ford to direct a film like this, how amazing the location filming looks, or how Sean Connery's Scottish accent jars somewhat with dialogue clearly written with a voice from south of the border in mind.

Also interesting is that Kafiristan was a real place, called this by its Muslim neighbours as it was the only pagan part of Afghanistan, and thus mysterious and unique, at the time Kipling wrote his original story. Sadly, though, it was converted en masse during the 1890s and is now called Nuristan. Isn't the onward march of conformity a depressing thing?

But what of the film? Well, it's superb: gripping, great to look at and full of incident and deeply charismatic performances, not least from its stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine but also from Saeed Jaffrey, whose superb comic timing helps to partly hide the vaguely racist undertones of the character he's playing.

The emphasis on freemasonry is... odd, and doesn't give us an entirely sympathetic portrayal of Kipling. Interesting. But this is ultimately a classic tragedy, where Danny is brought down utterly by his hubris and Peachy brought down low by his own relative hubris. As a tale, and as a film, it is superb. 

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