“The Man Who Would Be King” captures Kipling’s brilliance on screen


What happens when soldiers are no longer required for their services? In most cases today, they return home to their families, friends, houses. They carry their scars with them, visible or not, for a long time. In the Victorian British Empire, two men who fought in the Afghan wars set out to make their own fortune.

If this sounds intriguing enough and you haven’t already watched The Man Who Would Be King, you won’t regret discovering this film. I recently re-watched it with my partner, Adrian. We had this Cinema Paradiso DVD for ages, but, for various reasons, we just never got around to it.

One evening in lockdown we finally sat down and played it. The first detail which struck me, as I didn’t remember it at all: this movie was produced in 1975. It is older than me!

Michael Caine and Sean Connery – a pair to remember

Kipling movie 1975

I watched it for the first time years ago, on telly, with my grandmother. Was it in my teens or in my university years back in Romania? I couldn’t tell you. What I could is that it became my favourite film featuring Michael Caine. He enlivens the screen together another well-loved British actor, Sean Connery. The pair of them leaves a strong impact on the viewer, as they carry you from one emotion, one reaction to the next.

A character-based story, the film draws you in and keeps you there with the pragmatic wits, charms and tribulations of these two ex-soldiers, current adventurers, who wouldn’t shy away from stealing, blackmailing or other various methods of tricking people. But we’ll get back to their adventures later.

If you read some of my other movie reviews, you might know I’m always swayed by well-built, intriguing characters. I consider that good writing lets the characters drive the story and not the other way around. It never adjusts them to fit the action, a mutilating Cinderella’s sisters’ effect. In The Man Who Would Be King, the two chaps make the story happen, with a little bit of luck and even misfortune here and there.

How Kipling enters the scene

As we just talked about writing, The Man Who Would Be King is based on Rudyard Kipling’s novella with the same title. Again, it came as a surprise to me, as I didn’t recall this detail. The movie offered the chance to properly discover this huge British author.

I kept fond memories of Kipling from my childhood when I particularly loved his poem “If”. A few years ago, here in the UK, I bought the Wordsworth edition of his “Collected Poems”. Somehow, I never picked the book up until now.

Right after we watched the movie, I ordered a collection of Kipling’s short stories.  I now discover him as a great storyteller, who mixes wits with humour with dynamic, clever language. He melts together direct description with action revealing traits of his characters. I love the way he veils his characters just enough to keep the reader intrigued throughout the story.

The 1975 movie transposes on screen this quality of Kipling’s writing. I haven’t read the novella itself, but I found these elements in the short stories I’ve already delighted in.


The frame story in the film introduces the author as a character himself, a clever move. It seems that is one major difference from the novella, where Kipling himself appears rather in the background. On screen, we meet him, as the local British journalist in this Indian city, right at the beginning.

The journalist meets the former soldiers on a train. Through a series of circumstances which you will have the pleasure of discovering for yourselves, the three realise they share a strong bond. They are all members of a Masonic lodge. This moves the two chaps to entrust the journalist with their ambitious plans.

The bond between two soldiers withstands adversity

The two concoct to leave their purposeless existence in India and boldly take over a remote region, just by themselves. They figure out they can entice a tribe or village in Kafiristan, Pakistan, to follow them into battle. With their military knowledge and a dozen riffles, they set out to rule the impoverished region.

I don’t intend to spoil your pleasure of following the two rascals in their adventures. The Man Who Would Be King makes a great action movie, dotted with humour, surprise and peril. I will tell you thought about the deeper level I found under all the clever tactics the two chaps employed.

When all was done and dusted, the two mates shared a bond of brotherhood rarely seen outside the army. As a pacifist and a humanist, I struggle to find much to admire or appreciate in the military. This one aspect though resonates with me. I sought and yearned for solidarity throughout my life and learnt that soldiers share this because of their training and the fact they depend on each other with their lives. Having talked with somebody who worked in the British army, they told me they never developed such bonds and trust with anybody outside the military.

Beyond the fascinating historical background, the intoxicating madness of the hubbub on the streets of a city in India, the humour, the adventures, one thing never changed, even when challenged, between the two main characters. They stuck together through good and bad, and at the end of the day, bore no grudges, no matter what they won or lost. That is something many people hardly ever find in any human relation they experience through life.

Pragmatism, charm and fun facts

I could carry on and tell you how cleverly the story mixes two different historical times. I could also reveal how I enjoyed discovering the strongest traits of the characters.

Sean Connery 1975

Michael Caine plays the brains behind the adventure. Not a highly educated chap, he possesses natural wits and an eye for opportunities. But he also retains a pragmatic head on his shoulders, while Sean Connery’s character relies on his natural charm and intuition. He also keeps certain type of respect for humanity. Of the two, Connery plays the guy with his head in the clouds. He seems to drive the incredible adventure forward, on a path a pragmatic mind might hesitate to follow.

I see that I already told you how the main characters came across to me, which I hope isn’t too much of a spoiler.

If you are a movie trivia fan, The Man Who Would Be King offers a trove a fun facts. You might also be intrigued to discover it ranks 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. To me, it came as a great confirmation that I was not the peculiar one who really loved this film.


  • Martin James May 4, 2020 at 12:57 pm Reply

    Good stuff

    • CatalinaLGeorge May 4, 2020 at 1:21 pm Reply

      Thank you!
      I’ll review another re-watch next, from last night – Michael Winterbottom’s “Code 46”.

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