John Huston's 'The Man Who Would Be King' is a rousing tale for armchair adventurers, an epic film reminiscent of Sir David Lean's work, like 'The Bridge on the River Kwai.' Based on Rudyard Kipling's short story of the same name, which first appeared in The Phantom 'Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (1888), Huston had wanted to make the film as far back as 1950, though it's hard to imagine his intended cast of Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.
Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine) are two British ex-soldiers in India. They cross paths with a British journalist, an unnamed narrator in Kipling's story who Huston and co-writer Gladys Hill identify in the film as Kipling (Christopher Plummer). When he dissuades them from committing a crime, they determine the country has become too small for them, so they head off to Kafiristan ("Land of the Infidels") in the Hindu Kush, which is now an area in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to seek their fortune.
After making their way through the Khyber Pass, they come to a village where Daniel and Peachy offer their services as soldiers to the local chieftain to train his people in order to defeat his rival. Through a series of coincidences, the Kafirs mistake Daniel for the reincarnation of Alexander the Great. Rather than come clean, Peachy sees this as a pathway to the fortune they sought. Daniel does at first, but being treated like a god also has its benefits.
Huston's direction is traditional. He sits back and lets the camera capture the performances. Connery and Caine appear to be having a grand time, and it's easy to imagine they themselves taking part in such an adventure. It is unfortunate producers didn't bring them together for similar projects over the years. One of the film's strengths is the realism that is on display in the wide shots filled with large numbers of people, which today would be cheated with obvious CGI.
'The Man Who Would Be King' offers not just adventure but it also covers familiar themes that play out in many stories, making for a more satisfying experience. The protagonists suffer from the hubris of colonialism, thinking that they are superior to the natives. Their pride, while it helps them achieve great heights, also leads to their downfall as the gods punish them for acting like gods.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Man Would Be King' is a 25GB Region A Blu-ray disc housed in a digibook with profiles of the film, Connery, Caine, Plummer, Huston, and Kipling. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.40:1. The source is clean and lacks grain, so it's likely a light bit of DNR has been applied. Plummer's face looks too smooth in a few close-ups which seems support that suspicion, though later in the film I was surprised by the facial detail of deep wrinkles of the withered faces of the elder Kafirs.
Colors come across in very strong hues, from the clothing, particularly the vividness of the red British uniforms, to the natural surroundings made up of browns and greens. Whites are bright and solid. Examples are Kipling's suit, the snow-covered mountains, and the monks' robes. Blacks are stable though there is some occasional crush at night. Good contrast appears throughout.
Although softness creeps in during establishing shots and into some backgrounds, details look sharp. Textures can be seen in the wood on the train and in the terrain of exterior shots, such as when they travel through the Khyber Pass. I didn't notice any digital artifacts, but there is a source flaw. After the opening credits as the camera zooms in on The Northern Star building newspaper, the image ripples like the film moved in the gate while the print was being made.
The audio is DTS-HD Master Audio Mono and sounds clean and free of defects.
The dialogue is clear, though ADR work is noticeable. Though limited in dynamics, there's a good mix of elements as effects can be heard while the music plays, such as in the opening sequence at the marketplace where the sounds of manual woodworking can be heard among the street musicians, and later, the soft sound of a rushing river can be heard under Maurice Jarre's score. The gunfire comes across as authentic. The subwoofer offers little support.
This is an all around average track.
For those seeking adventure set at a time when parts of the world used to be mysterious and exotic, 'The Man Who Would Be King' is just the ticket. The fun pairing of Connery and Caine pays off, as the two actor are clearly having a ball. It's a shame they never reteamed. The Blu-ray extras prove to be a greater disappointment because the powers that be didn't reunite the two for an interview or commentary. The Blu-ray has a very good picture and offers sound that some may find disappointing seeing as this epic film is presented in mono. Based on the film itself, this one comes highly recommended.