A Perfect Film, and the Perfect Masonic Parable
"The Man Who Would Be King is not just an adventure yarn... It is High Adventure, an adventure of the spirit."- John HustonMost directors have one last great movie in their blood, one last statement that’s been building in them for years; embodying their world view, their style, their attitude. Usually, it’s not the last film, but somewhere around fourth or fifth from the end; that last great burst of energy and genius before the inspiration and skills begin to fade, and the soul gets a little bitter, a little brittle. Sometimes, though not very often, it’s their best work, their masterpiece. For the immortal John Huston, that film was The Man Who Would be King.
While it arguably is not ‘better’, than, say, The Maltese Falcon (Huston may be the only Master Filmmaker whose best film was his first), Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, or The Misfits, it certainly stands proudly at their side, and it is his most fully, and broadly realized. It's an expansive and warm film--an enduring audience favorite. Gorgeously filmed, superbly acted and romantically exotic, it is also perhaps one of the last of the great ‘movie movies’; even watching it today, you can almost smell the popcorn and imagine yourself in the plush red seat of your local neighborhood movie palace. Accounting for this richly imagined and impeccably realized tapestry may be the fact that Huston carried the film around in his heart for 25 years.
Originally conceived as a vehicle for Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, Huston was not able to get the project underway before Bogart’s death. Though he retained the rights, the project lay dormant until 1975 when, with producer John Foreman and the star power of Michael Caine and Sean Connery behind him, Huston was finally able to realize his dream.
With all due respect to Gable and Bogart, it is hard to imagine the film without Caine and Connery; in career-defining roles as Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, the two lovable rogues who aim for the stars and end up in the dust, with only their courage and indomitable spirit as consolation. Dravot and Carnehan are veterans of the Indian campaigns, who, as veterans often are, have been left behind in the prosperity of peace. “They called us heroes then, but times are different now,” says Carnehan “it’s the bureaucrats what done it.” Resentful but plucky, and tired of surviving on scams, they decide to set out for the mythical land of “Kafiristan”, and use their soldiering talents to become kings in their own right, plunder their new subjects “four ways to Sunday”, and retire as English gentlemen. For a time, they succeed beyond their wildest dreams, until overreaching, greed, and hubris bring them down.
Much has been made of the supposed racial and cultural insensitivity of the film, but a fairer reading of the film as a whole suggests that Huston is simply presenting his characters honestly, and without apology, as they would have been in their era; unflinchingly making it clear that the condescension, ignorance, and disrespect they show for the very people they seek to exploit is the source of their undoing. The fact that our heroes are so irresistibly engaging and, for all their faults, sympathetic, makes it easy to suppose that Huston (and by extension Kipling) are endorsing their casual indifference to the value of the native population they are have come to plunder.
But while the Kafiristanis are, with the exception of the oafish chieftain Ootah and the centenarian high priest Kafu, largely faceless extras, the witty, courageous and oddly noble central character of Carnehan and Dravot’s local guide and partner Billy Fish (played with abundant humor, intelligence, and humanity by the great Indian character actor Saeed Jaffrey) pretty convincingly puts aside the idea that The Man Who Would Be King is a racist film. Billy Fish is Gunga Din, only smarter, and without the patronizing aftertaste. In fact, it is easy to read The Man Who Would Be King as a wickedly satirical metaphor for the rise and fall of the British Empire in particular, and colonialism in general (and it almost most certainly is), but that is hardly the end of the story.
“Brother to a Prince, and Fellow to a Beggar, if he be Worthy...”The first line of Rudyard Kipling’s short story is not only one of the most oft-quoted lines in modern western literature, but it is also a nearly perfect one-sentence summary of the philosophical heart of Freemasonry. The Man Who Would Be King was among the first popular films to paint a picture of Masonry for the general public (far earlier than such more recent, enjoyable, but decidedly inferior efforts as National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code), and it would be impossible to overestimate the importance of Freemasonry to the essential intent of The Man Who Would Be King.
Along with the politically incorrect misassumption that The Man Who Would Be King shares in the racism and prejudice it portrays, is the equally facile notion that Masonry is simply a gimmick, an exotic plot device in the structure of the story. Some of the Masonic elements of the plot are, in fact, obvious and clearly stated. From the start, the plot hinges on a fateful meeting, as Peachy pickpockets a watch from Rudyard Kipling. (In Kipling’s story the narrator is unnamed; Kipling was only locally known as a newspaper writer and editor in colonial India when The Man Who Would Be King was written, but the structure of the story is the same.) The pair see the Square and Compasses on the watch and, since a Mason is sworn not to cheat a Brother Mason, they return the watch and the three become friends.
When the duo set off for their promised land, Kipling gives Dravot the fob of the stolen watch as a good luck charm, and, for the second time in the film that the Square and Compasses produce a revelatory moment, it saves both men's lives: as the priests of Imbra are about to test Dravot's godliness by shooting him with bow-and-arrow, they see the fob with the Square and Compasses around Dravot's neck and take him to be a descendant of Alexander the Great, who, the film asserts, left behind such a symbol, and whom they revere as divine. (Masonic legend traces its roots much further back than the Templar Knights, through Ancient Greece to the building of King Solomon’s temple.)
These elements are straightforward and clear, but elements of Masonic philosophy run much deeper here and, in less obvious ways,. Indeed, at the heart of Dravot and Carnahan’s downfall are a number of violations of the fundamental precepts of Masonry. Masonry respects and accepts members of all religions and faiths; the only requirement being a belief, and responsibility to, a Higher Power. The high priest makes it clear that Imbra is such a God, and the one-eyed statue of Imbra that peers sternly down at our heroes' fall from grace can easily be read as the all-seeing eye of Masonry.
Likewise, Dravot's assumption that Kafiristan is a land without God, simply because they are ignorant of the local religion, and his assertion that his pretense to divinity is not blasphemous because he is not pretending to be the Christian god, are in clear contradiction to the traditions of religious tolerance and inclusion that date back to Masonry’s medieval Templar roots. Dravot’s breaking of his vow to Peachy (a fellow Mason), and his lusting after the Star and Garter (the 'Badge of a Mason' being considered to be the highest honor a Mason can ever receive) are also both violations of Masonic tradition and values. Some of the roguish pair’s most admirable traits also, however, hark back to ‘The Craft’.
When Dravot starts to take his kingship seriously, he chooses to rule in a benevolent and surprisingly egalitarian manner, choosing to put into practice the ‘relief of the distressed and soothing of the afflicted’, and Peachy’s easy and wholehearted forgiveness of Dravot’s fatal hubris as they are about to die is as simple and eloquent an expression of the notion of Masonic loyalty and Brotherhood as could possibly be.
Danny (at the point of death): Do you forgive me then?
Peachy: I do, that...
Danny: Everything’s all right, then...
At the heart of all of Huston’s greatest films is what might be called a humanistic fatalism; skepticism about the emptiness of human aspiration for material wealth and power that nonetheless respects the deeper and more valuable human qualities that remain when these are stripped away. The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits and The Man Who Would Be King, all concern themselves with greed and ultimately empty obsessive quests, and all end with haunting visual and emotional metaphors for the destruction and loss of empty dreams: the almost manic laughter of Humphrey Bogart as the Falcon is revealed to be a fake; Tim Holt’s haunted laughter at the climax of Treasure, as the gold slips through his fingers; the release of Gable’s coveted wild horses in Misfits; and the almost identical shots of the booty rolling down the hill in The Man Who Would Be King and the gold dust blowing away in the wind in Treasure. These elements speak starkly and eloquently of the ultimate emptiness of human material longing.
What makes The Man Who Would Be King unique among these works is the affection Kipling, Huston, and we, their audience, have for Peachy Carnahan and Daniel Dravot. Peachy and Danny are Fred C. Dobbs without the meanness, Sam Spade without the cynicism, Kaspar Gutman without the cruelty, Brigid O’Shaughnessy without the selfishness and deceit. As Daniel and Peachy are alone, stripped of their treasure, and facing certain death, they are left with only their friendship, loyalty, and Brotherly Love, and it is their finest moment; a moment of admirable dignity and strength. It is as if an older and wiser Huston is saying that, when all the 'superfluities': the trivia, ephemera, and self-importance of human beings, fall away, there remains something noble and valuable and true at the core of even the most flawed and imperfect humans that is worthy of note and respect, and it is this generosity of spirit that makes The Man Who Would Be King Huston's most special, and perhaps even his best, film.
Brother Tronerud is a past (2006-2007) and present (2019-2020) Worshipful Master of Montgomery Lodge in Milford, MA. He is a past Secretary of Mt. Lebanon Royal Arch Chapter, Milford. He is the son-in-law of the late Worshipful Winston Gouzoules of North Star Lodge in Ashland MA, and the brother-in-law of Winston Gouzoules, twice Past Master of St. Andrew's Lodge in Portsmouth, NH. He is a Graphic Designer, a full-time Grandfather, and the author of the film/cinema blog The Magic Window (http://nitratewindow.blogspot.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.