In 1885, while working as a correspondent at the offices of the Northern Star newspaper in India, Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) is approached by a ragged, seemingly crazed derelict, who reveals himself to be his old acquaintance Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine). Peachy tells Kipling the story of how he and his comrade-in-arms Daniel "Danny" Dravot (Sean Connery) travelled to remote Kafiristan (in modern-day Afghanistan, the province is now known as Nuristan), became "gods", and ultimately lost everything.
Three years earlier, Dravot and Carnehan had met Kipling under less than auspicious circumstances; Carnehan, a former Colour sergeant of the Queen's Own Royal Loyal Light Infantry, pickpocketed Kiplings's pocketwatch but was forced to return it as he was a fellow Freemason. Carnehan claims to be an expert in "whiskey, women, waistcoats and bills of fare." Both Dravot and Carnehan are in the process of blackmailing a local Rajah by posing as newspaper correspondents of "The Northern Star" newspaper, which outrages the real correspondent (Kipling). To save their lives, Kipling has the local district commissioner detain both Dravot and Carnehan, who obliquely blackmail the commissioner himself.
Despite being accomplished gun smugglers, swindlers, fencers of stolen goods, conmen, and blackmailers, both of them are bitter that after fighting to make India part of the British Empire, they will have little to return home apart from dead-end jobs. Both Dravot and Carnehan turn up at Kipling's office and explain their biggest gamble yet: feeling that India is too small for men such as themselves, they intend to travel to Kafiristan, a small and remote country to help a local king overcome his enemies, overthrow him, and become "gods"/rulers themselves before stealing various riches and returning to England in triumph. After signing a contract pledging mutual loyalty and forswearing drink and women until they achieved their grandiose aims, Peachy and Danny (taking along twenty Martini Henry rifles) set off on an epic overland journey north beyond the Khyber Pass. Kipling, after attempting to dissuade the men, gives Dravot his masonic emblem as a token of brotherhood. Over the next few weeks, Dravot and Carnehan travel through Afghanistan, fighting off bandits, blizzards, and avalanches as they make their way into the unknown land of Kafiristan (literally "Land of the Infidels").
They chance upon a Gurkha soldier who goes by the name Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), the sole survivor of a missing mapping expedition sent several years earlier which had been lost in an avalanche. Billy speaks English as well as the local tongue. Acting as translator and interpreter of customs and manners, he smooths the path of Dravot and Carnehan as they begin their rise, offering their services as military advisors, trainers, and war leaders to the chief of the much-raided village of Er-Heb. Dravot and Carnehan muster a force to attack the villagers' most-hated enemy, the Bashkai. During the battle, Dravot is struck by an arrow, but is unharmed, leading the natives to believe that he is a god. In fact, the arrow was stopped by a bandolier hidden beneath his clothing. As victory follows victory, the defeated are recruited to join the swelling army.
Finally, nobody is left to stand in their way, and they are summoned to the holy city of Sikandergul, where the chief high priest, Kafu Selim, sets up a re-enactment of the arrow incident, to determine whether Dravot is a man or a god by seeing whether or not he bleeds. When Dravot flinches, the monks grab him and open his shirt to stab him, only to be stopped by Dravot's Masonic jewel. By coincidence, the symbol on the jewel matches one known only to the highest holy man, the symbol of "Sikander" (a linguistic corruption of Alexander the Great), who had conquered the country thousands of years before and promised to return. The holy men are convinced Dravot is the immortal son of Sikander. They hail him as king and lead the two men down to storerooms heaped with treasure (gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, among various jewels) that belonged to Sikander, which now belongs to Dravot.
As months pass, Carnehan is anxious to leave with the treasure before winter arrives and closes the mountain passes (and before the natives learn the truth about them). Dravot is against it, however, and develops delusions of grandeur. First, Dravot 'suggests' that Carnehan bow to him like the others, ostensibly to "keep up appearances" in front of the natives and continue the deception. He adjudicates disputes among local people and villages, and issues proclamations overseeing their administration. He begins making plans to turn the land into a modern country, to the extent that he envisages eventually meeting Queen Victoria "as an equal." Resigned that Dravot's mind is made up, Carnehan decides to take as much loot as he can carry on a small mule train and leave alone.
Meanwhile, Dravot decides to take a wife after seeing the beautiful Roxanne (Shakira Caine), despite Carnehan's strong warnings. Roxanne, having a superstitious fear that she will burst into flames if she consorts with a god, tries frantically to escape, biting Dravot during the wedding ceremony. The bite draws blood, and when everyone sees it, they realise that Dravot is not a god but a man after all.
The angry natives pursue Dravot and Carnehan. When it becomes clear that the battle is lost, Dravot and Carnehan offer Billy a horse to escape, but Billy refuses and wishes them luck before courageously charging into the mob with a kukri single-handedly. Billy is killed amidst the mob and Dravot and Carnehan are soon captured. Dravot apologises to Carnehan for spoiling their plans, and Carnehan forgives him. Now resigned to his fate, Dravot is forced to walk to the middle of a rope bridge over a deep gorge as the ropes are cut. Carnehan is crucified between two pine trees, but he is cut down the next day when he survives the ordeal. Eventually, he makes his way back to India, but his mind has become unhinged by his sufferings. As Carnehan finishes his story, he presents Kipling with Dravot's severed head, still wearing its crown, thereby confirming the tale.Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot
Michael Caine as Peachy Carnehan
Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling
Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish
Doghmi Larbi as Ootah
Jack May as District Commissioner
Karroom Ben Bouih as Kafu Selim
Mohammad Shamsi as Babu
Albert Moses as Ghulam
Paul Antrim as Mulvaney
Graham Acres as Officer
The Blue Dancers of Goulamine as Dancers
Shakira Caine as Roxanne
Huston had planned to make the film since the 1950s, originally with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the roles of Daniel and Peachy. He was unable to get the project off the ground before Bogart died in 1957; Gable followed in 1960. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were then approached to play the leads, followed by Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. In the 1970s, Huston approached Robert Redford and Paul Newman for the roles. Newman advised Huston that British actors should play the roles, and it was he who recommended Connery and Caine.
The role of Roxanne (the only listed female character in the movie) was originally slated for Tessa Dahl, the daughter of Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal. Dahl, excited to take the role, had prepared for the part by losing weight and capping her teeth. However, at the last minute, director Huston had decided to cast someone whose appearance was more in keeping with natives of Kafiristan. "We've got to find an Arab princess somewhere", he is recounted as saying over dinner with Caine. At that same dinner, Caine's Guyanian born wife Shakira was present, so Huston and Caine persuaded her to take on the role.
The film was shot at Pinewood Studios and at locations in France and Morocco.
The cinematic version of The Man Who Would be King (1975) is a generally faithful adaptation of the novella The Man Who Would Be King (1888), by Rudyard Kipling, yet there are narrative differences:The movie presents the journalist Kipling as the principal narrator, which is implied in the novella.
The cinematic Danny Dravot and Peachy Carnehan are shown the treasures of Alexander, not in the novella.
Billy Fish is an ex-Gurkha soldier, the sole survivor of an expedition; in the novella, Billy Fish is a native chief loyal to Dravot and Carnehan.
The cinematic Billy Fish is interpreter for the anti-heroes; in the novella, Dravot is multi-lingual, and speaks the local, native languages.
The cinematic Dravot is smitten by the beauty of Roxanne, and then decides to marry her; the literary Dravot first sees his bride at their wedding.
John Simon of New York magazine considered the film to be Huston's best work since The African Queen, 23 years earlier. Jay Cocks of Time commented "John Huston has been wanting to make this movie for more than 20 years. It was worth the wait."
Roger Ebert gave the film 4 stars and wrote: "It's been a long time since there's been an escapist entertainment quite this unabashed and thrilling and fun."
Some critics felt that the film was too long and that Caine had overplayed his part. A review in Variety was critical of the film mostly because of Caine's performance, stating "Whether it was the intention of John Huston or not, the tale of action and adventure is a too-broad comedy, mostly due to the poor performance of Michael Caine."
This film has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards:Best Art Direction – Alexander Trauner, Tony Inglis, Peter James
Best Writing – John Huston, Gladys Hill
Best Costume Design – Edith Head
Best Editing – Russell Lloyd
Maurice Jarre was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.
Head was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design, and Oswald Morris for the BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography.
Maurice Jarre scored the film and invited classical Indian musicians to participate in the recording sessions with a traditional European symphony orchestra. A key song, which figures within the plot of the movie, is a fusion of the music of the Irish song "The Minstrel Boy" with the lyrics of Reginald Heber's "The Son of God Goes Forth to War". This song is heard at key moments in the score, notably being sung by Dravot as he is being executed and as he tumbles to his death. The film's performance of The Minstrel Boy is by William Lang, late of the Black Dyke Band and the London Symphony Orchestra.
The Man Who Would Be King was released by Warner Home Video on DVD in Region 1 on 19 November 1997, and was re-issued on 9 November 2010, followed by a Region A Blu-ray release on 7 June 2011. In Region 2, the film was released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on 27 August 2007, with a re-issue on 17 May 2010.