Thoughts on the Movie
In the classic 1975 film adaptation of the book, Sean Connery plays Danny and Michael Caine is Peachy. They both probably give some of the best performances in their long careers in the movie. Friends in real life, they’re convincing as both buddies and as charming, amoral adventurers.
I was pleasantly surprised, though, by the tone of the movie. I honestly just expected it to be a fairly generic historical buddy adventure movie, but the movie is a lot darker, funnier, and more thought-provoking than the initial synopsis of the plot sounds. Another plus is that the supporting cast is also excellent. Christopher Plummer is great as Rudyard Kipling, and Saeed Jaffrey is superb as Billy Fish, a Gurkha the two befriend on their quest.
The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation, but there are some changes. I think the changes were necessary and an improvement from the original book. One that works especially well is replacing the nameless narrator in the book with Rudyard Kipling himself. I usually don’t like when movies do that–I often find it a gimmick to convince readers that the filmmakers read and care about the book–but it’s a change that just works really well in the movie.
Another important change is that they make the characters’ Freemasonry more clear and also explain things nicely for viewers who otherwise would not understand what they are talking about. But it is presented in a natural way that doesn’t feel like boring exposition. On a related note, the way the narrator/Kipling is drawn into the story initially is tweaked a bit, but it helps emphasize and foreshadow character traits and plot points, so it also is a change that works especially well.
Yet another change that works well is the two main characters are more equal than in the book. In some ways, Peachy may be the smarter of the two, which is a role reversal, but even then, he’s not fathoms ahead of Danny. One way this is emphasized is in the book Danny seems to have a natural affinity for languages and easily picks up the local languages in India and Kafiristan while Peachy never is able to learn any of them. In the movie, Peachy is the one who can converse in the local languages in India while Danny cannot, though neither of them ever seem to learn the language of the Kafiri. They just rely on Billy Fish to be their translator. This helps emphasize Billy as a character but also explains another change. In the original, Billy is a local, but in the movie he is a Gurkha who had served in the British army. This change makes the immediate rapport that Danny and Peachy establish with him make more sense for both him and them.
As with the original story, the ending of the movie is freaky and unsettling. It makes for an extremely intense final fifteen minutes. In fact, I’d rank it as one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a movie.
The verdict: I liked the book and the movie both, but I preferred the movie. It’s a great example of a film that knows what to keep from the original story and also what to change. It’s also just a fun, interesting movie to watch on its own merits.
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Are you familiar with this story? What do you think the message of The Man Who Would Be King is? Does your retirement plan involve destabilizing foreign governments? (Actually, don’t answer that last one.)