By Wayne Allensworth
Movieland… In my boyhood years, it was music and books and movies, always the movies, that entertained and shaped me in so many ways. Movie for a Sunday Afternoon, The Early Show. Sunday Night at the Movies, Jungle Theater. Late nights when my mother brought us blankets and pillows and we would stay up to watch the Late Show and the Late, Late Show, and fall asleep in a peaceful slumber, to awake later and watch more, then fade again, the night ending with Perry Como singing The Lord’s Prayer.
John Wayne, Erroll Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and on and on. Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valence. Ethan Edwards and Scar. The deadly innocence of Sargeant York. The jaded man of principle who was Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. And Robin Hood! Basil Rathbone and that meerschaum pipe. Professor Moriarty. And the movie themes ringing in our consciousness, little symphonies that fired the imagination…
From one of my favorite movies, based on Rudyard Kipling’s short story, The Man Who Would be King, the great Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot is about to meet his end and goes to it singing a glorious Christian hymn, “The Son of God goes forth to war” written by Reginald Heber in 1812. The tune (borrowed from an Irish song, “The Moreen,” to which Thomas More wrote the lyric for “The Minstrel Boy to the War is Gone”) of which provided a theme for the movie’s soundtrack, scored by Maurice Jarre (Spoiler alert!):
And these are the full lyrics to that glorious hymn:
The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain;
His blood red banner streams afar: Who follows in His train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe, triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below, he follows in His train.
That martyr first, whose eagle eye could pierce beyond the grave;
Who saw his Master in the sky, and called on Him to save.
Like Him, with pardon on His tongue, in midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong: Who follows in His train?
A glorious band, the chosen few on whom the Spirit came;
Twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew, and mocked the cross and flame.
They met the tyrant’s brandished steel, the lion’s gory mane;
They bowed their heads the death to feel: Who follows in their train?
A noble army, men and boys, the matron and the maid,
Around the Savior’s throne rejoice, in robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven, through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given, to follow in their train.
Keeping the lyrics in mind, you’ll see how Danny, who became the wise and benevolent king of Kafiristan, saw his role—and how the best people in Britain saw themselves as carriers of civilization and Christianity. The story as fleshed out by the screenwriters, director John Huston and Gladys Hill, with a few exceptions closely follows Kipling’s story. Danny and his friend and comrade-in-arms Peachy Carnehan (wonderfully played by Michael Caine in the film) meet up with a newspaper man (Kipling himself in the movie, played by Christopher Plummer) and ask for help in planning a great expedition to the all-but-unknown territory of Kafiristan, high in the Himalayas. The two are veterans of Queen Victoria’s army during the era of the British Raj, and now plan to make their fortunes as kings of Kafiristan.
The story ends in tragedy, following Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West (Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat), as Danny, crowned king, begins to take his throne—and its responsibilities—seriously, until he attempts to break a taboo that proves to be his and Peachy’s undoing. Their faithful Indian companion, “Billy Fish,” stands by them and shares their tragic fate (Saeed Jaffrey as Billy nearly steals the movie).
The back story on the movie is that Huston had wanted to make a film version of Kipling’s tale for decades. In the 1950s, he had planned to cast Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as the roguish pair (later thinking of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, then, Paul Newman and Robert Reford), but methinks that it was better that the film was not produced then, as Caine and Connery are perfect (as well as being English and Scottish, respectively) for the roles of Peachy and Danny. It was Paul Newman who is said to have recommended Caine and Connery. Thanks, Mr. Newman!
The Man Who Would be King, released in 1975, is a wonderful movie—a comic and tragic adventure, a throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Era, and an appropriate historical bookend to films like George Stevens’ Gunga Din. John Huston, something of an adventurer himself, was the ideal director for this movie. It’s funny, moving, and unforgettable. It’s what movies are supposed to be.
The 1975 movie trailer:
The opening credits:
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.