Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Man Who Would Be King.

The most common question an author gets asked is, "Where do you get your ideas"?  Part of what makes it so difficult to answer is that the ideas could just as well come from anywhere, at least to a certain extent.  J.K. Rowling has claimed that Harry Potter just stepped into her head one day while riding on a train.  Tolkien found himself faced with a blank sheet of paper and all at once wrote, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit", without any clue as to the meaning of the word.  Both cases are examples of what might be called sudden inspiration, or a story idea that occurs more or less of its own accord.  This is perhaps as close as anyone can get to a standard operating procedure in the creative arts.  However it's not the only way that a work of fiction is created.  It's also possible for writers to draw inspiration from the world around them.  Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" is one of those cases where sometimes real life encounters lead to the creation of a totally made-up situation.

Kipling scholar Richard Jaffa is able to provide a glimpse at the events that set everything in motion.  "The origins of the story can be found in Kipling's correspondence.  In a lengthy letter to his cousin...He goes on to experience he had...on a train on the other side of India.  He describes how he met a man who was also a Mason.  "Ships upon the sea' are nothing compared to our meetings in India."  The man told Kipling that he had a friend coming across the Empire by train from the East, (that) he could not meet him but that Kipling's route meant his train, if on time, would cross this man's route.  He asked Kipling to take a message which he would not write, to give to this man.  The message was unintelligible to Kipling.  "My brother gave me this message...." continues Kipling.  He goes on to describe how at 5:00 a.m., on a cold winter's morning the Calcutta train drew up alongside his and he sleepily put his head out the window.

"Kipling relates, "I didn't want to go threshing all down the train - there were three Englishmen on it - in my search for the unknown, so I went towards the window and behold, it was the man I was told to find; for he also (doesn't this sound mad?) was a brother of mine."  The man thanked Kipling and said he knew what the message meant.  Kipling comments that he didn't know the name of the man who gave him the message or the man who received it.  The description in this letter confirms the great enthusiasm that Kipling felt for Freemasonry and the concept of universal brotherhood.  It also demonstrates the contemporary significance of Masonry among its adherents in British India at that time (99-100)".

I'll have more to say on the topic of this symbolism later in the review.  At the moment it's enough to note that for a simple short work of fiction, it's amazing how many layers of depth there are to explore if you take a closer look.  It's one of those old curiosities that somehow stand as a kind of sentinel, or testament to the staying power of a well told story.  Perhaps just a handful of authors are able to keep the heads of their popular reputations above the tide of time in such a fashion.  Dickens was one, and Lewis Carroll seems to be another from the time when Kipling first wrote.   In what follows, I'd like to examine both the original story, and it's film adaptation in order to unpack the materials hidden in this simple tale.

This review will be a bit different as I've decided to see if I can't review both Kipling's original story, and its later movie adaptation all in one go.  I'm at least sort of confident in this approach because John Huston's film is an example of that rare beast where the adapter seems to understand his source material on an almost fundamental level.  The result is one of those cases where the text and the picture can be placed alongside without either doing harm to the other.  Huston's respectful approach to the material also has the added bonus that both versions share a thematic overlap.  This makes the critic's job a lot easier, as the underlying concepts of the text inform the movie in a way that is near beat-for-beat.

There are at least three levels that I'm able to unpack in Kipling's narrative.  The first is the lingering question of Imperialism, and how the story tackles this difficult subject.  The second revolves around Jaffa's recognition the presence of Masonic themes in the tale.  An examination of this symbolic aspect of the work leads to a further inspection of the story's third and final theme: the idea of antiquity, and the uses and abuses that this concept is subject to in an ill-informed modern age.

The Story.

I've never known the real India before the Raj.  Back then, English soldiers of fortune were probably about as rare as the proverbial moon.  Now the whole countryside is dotted with men like Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, you know?  You get them every now and then, like moths in a killing jar.  Heaven knows the reason why they're so drawn to this place.  Their not native.  They look upon the locals with perhaps a deal more vitriol than any of the ruling classes.  And they'll steal your pocket watch as soon as shake your hand if you're not careful.  Yet still they come.  To hear either fool tell it, the reason they stick around is because England, and even the Raj is too big for men such as themselves.

After giving it some thought (and perhaps not as much consideration as they should have) they took it in their heads one day to become a pair of kings.  Genuine royalty, with crowns, scepters, and everything.  In order to be a king, however, you need a land all your own to conquer and rule.  The good news for both chaps is they were of a time when there were still quite a few blank spots left on the map.  The closest blank in their case was an area known as Kafiristan (in what is now the modern Afghan region).  It's a great expanse of relatively unexplored country (the last poor group of blighters who tried it vanished off the face of the Earth), and as such, it remains unconquered by any great Western power.  That's where the two soldiers of fortune come into the picture.

The way Danny figures it, all he and Peachy need to do is to set up shop in the region, and find a way to establish themselves as gods.  Kafiristan is home to whole mountains of idols.  Therefore all Danny and Peachy have to do is convince the locals they're just the next two in line.  Once they've pulled that feat off, they'll establish themselves first as maybe the leaders of a neighboring tribe somewhere.  From there the goal is to turn the tribe into an empire if they can.  They plan to set about a campaign of expansion which will see them slowly conquer or conglomerate all the towns, cites, and people's next to them until the both of them reign supreme over the entire region.

That was the plan on paper, anyway.  What can't be denied is that those two rogues were dead serious in their scheme.  Carnehan and Dravot even went so far as to draw up a "Contrack" as they put it, and signed their names to it, perhaps in the hopes that something good would come of such a rash vow.  After that, all they did was what they said.  They stocked up on supplies, arms, and clothing, and then away they went.  The last anyone saw of them was as they crossed the border into Afghanistan.  After that, nothing.  Two men made a vow to become kings, or die trying.  Two men disappeared into the desert roughly two years ago, never to be seen again.  On an unremarkable night, one the those men returned, alone, with a story to tell.

The Text and the Film.

Judging both the short story and it's film adaptation is sort of the easiest part of this article.  Part of it stems from the fact that the original source material is so short, and that the film is so darn faithful as to count as a kind of rara avis.  Kipling's original narration is a good place to start.  The whole thing is told in a blended format.  It features the traditional epic style mixed in with a modern voice of journalistic detachment.  Part of the reason for this blend of voices is to provide the narrative with a sense of realism.  This lends the unfolding plot an almost fragmented, off-the-cuff way of laying out all of Kipling's chess pieces and the moves they make.

When the pieces are set in motion, it sounds as if the author had just managed to catch up with his characters a few minutes before the curtain was raised on the opening action.  This devotion to realism is also the story's biggest drawback.  Kipling's commitment to making everything sound believable often results in a fragmented quality that sometimes makes the narrative hard to follow.  For instance, when the two main characters reach Kafiristan, they eventually decide to split up their efforts, with Dravot handling one area of the land, and Carnehan the other.  This splitting up just serves to divide the reader's attention, and it's sometimes difficult to keep up on what's happening in the narrative.  In addition, I found the way Dravot announces himself as a new god in country to be something of an anti-climatic introduction.  It's moments and elements like these that left me feeling the story could have used a bit more fine tuning.  What works in a newspaper report doesn't always fit well with the demands of a made up story.

This is not to say that a narrative that mixes the epic with the mundane can't work.  There are are a handful of books, such as The Hobbit which demonstrate an easy mixture of both.  The trouble is authors like Tolkien took the time to develop the necessary artistic skills required to pull off such stylistic feats.  Kipling's tenure as a journalist meant that most of his life was lived under a deadline which left little time for literary experimentation.  Therefore it's not to surprising if the finished work isn't as polished as it should be.  Another major reason for this could be the erratic nature of Kipling's imaginative inspiration.  He could only take a lot his ideas so far before he ran out of gas, and I think its a chronic flaw that crops up here and there in the short story. 

It is also these short-comings that John Huston manages to avoid in his movie adaptation.  What the director was able to do was find ways to streamline Kipling's plot without missing any of its major narrative beats.  The major deciding factor appears to be that Huston chose to forego Kipling's somewhat Modernist narrative fragmentation in favor of telling it all in a straightforward manner.  Huston is aware that Kipling was telling an old-fashioned adventure yarn.  It's this same level of genre awareness that makes it easy for him to highlight all these aspects from a storytelling point of view.  Rather than splitting up his cast, Huston has the audience follow Danny and Peachy as they stick together throughout the whole film.  This allows the narrative events to unfold in a more gradual and regular way, with each plot point and set piece making a smooth transition from one to the other.  Thus the whole story is able to unfold in a natural manner precisely because its not worried about being realistic.

In addition to this, Huston takes care to highlight certain aspects that were sometimes muted in Kipling's original story.  The most prominent of these is the presence of Masonry, or Masonic symbolism.  It plays an important part in the original tale, yet it is never emphasized very well, and hence the author runs the risk of making an important thematic plot point sound almost like a background decoration.  Even when it furthers the original plot, it doesn't get the kind of attention that would make us take the subject as seriously as we could.  Huston, on the other hand, makes what I believe is the wise choice of foregrounding the esoteric symbolism almost from the very beginning.  From there, he allows this element to weave itself throughout the narrative like a continuous thread in an elaborate tapestry.  It lingers as a constant background presence that can sometimes violently surge front and center before retreating, like a snake recoiling itself and waiting for it's next opportunity.

All of this is to say that I think Kipling's short story is an essential.  It's entertaining, and it can leave an attentive reader with something to think about.  This is not to say it's a perfect story, however.  A misplaced concern with believeability, combined with a few chronic authorial flaws leaves the reader with a sense that they've read the outlines or first draft sketches of a very ripping yarn.  It's just a shame that the writer couldn't give us the full dosage.  That's not the same case with Huston's film adaptation.  Here the reader can get the sense that the entire fossil has been dug up from the earth.  Here is the archetype in its full glory, after having been giving all the care an attention it deserves.  Because of this I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that I think Huston did Kipling a favor by helping to bring the story to its full conclusion.

I'm also willing to back up that statement by noting that this is not an isolated incident.  I think Huston might have performed this same feat of helping a flawed source text reach its full potential at least once before, when he and Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay for Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  It's a text that's grown a notorious reputation over the years.  Like the "The Man Who Would Be King", Melville's book has a promising kernel at its center that is in danger of getting buried under piles of stylistic flourishes, digressions, and, in Moby Dick's case at least, a ton of needless intertextual commentary.  When Bradbury got finished reading the book he called it, "A masterpiece of bits and pieces".  Together, Huston and Bradbury helped bring another story to its finished form.  It's for reasons like this that I'm almost willing to say that Huston can perhaps earn a credit as co-author to both Melville and Kipling.  The final thing to be said about Huston's assistance is that he respects the themes and ideas in Kipling's original text.  Those themes go as follows. 
The Imperial Theme.

The story itself seems to have been an outgrowth of the author's brief span of time spent "in India's sunny clime", working as a reporter for the Civil and Military Gazette.  Because of his job, Kipling found himself in a unique position when it came to gathering story material.  The best way to describe it is that he was singled out as a "permitted outsider", one who was allowed a certain mobility that was denied to regular British and Indian citizens, who otherwise wouldn't mingle in mixed company.  The writer, however, could move in and out of either of these two social spaces, "in the fourth dimension", as he once put it.  This allowed him a certain vantage point.

Because he was cursed with a streak of honesty, Kipling found himself able to hold his head above the pronouncements of the either the official Anglo government, or the strictures of the imported polite English society of which he formed not so much a part as that of an errant cog.  Because of this his reporting often covered the uneasy and hard truths about the Raj.  What is revealed in his writings, both fiction and otherwise, is a society of Britons who realize, often on an unconscious level, that their dominion of this conquered land is always tenuous at best.  Nor are they able to ever feel quite at home in it.  This creates an irony for Anglo-Indians like Kipling.  They find themselves in a position of being strangers in their own homes, and with little understanding of the nature of their surroundings.  It's even worse for those who've arrived on India's shores from the Sceptered Isle.

One of the subjects the crop up time and again in Kipling's work is a figure described by Charles Allen as "the European loafer, almost always an ex-soldier who has fallen on hard times and taken to drink, staggering from one Station to another, scrounging off the Native population until he dies alone and unlamented (160)".  Part of what makes these characters work is the way they have of breaking down social barriers through their unintentional ability to reveal the shared uneasiness of both the working and ruling classes.  Both parts of society share the same  fragile truce with a land they barely understand.  It is this lack of the ability or willingness to understand the other person that serves as one of the mainsprings for Kipling's narrative mechanism.

Carnehan is the first major character we are introduced to as the story's action unfolds.  He presents the surface appearance of an affable and charming sort of rogue, a type that already occupied the pages of countless Penny Dreadfuls in both England and India.  Kipling is able to make this trope a dimensional character, however.  Carnehan is something of a motor-mouth, and as he continues to gab, what emerges from underneath the rakish facade is a very bitter and resentful man.  He's also one with a distinct lack of direction in his life at the moment.  "If India was filled with men like you and me," he tells the narrator, "not knowing more than the crows where they'd get their next days rations, it isn't seventy millions of revenue the land would be paying - it's seven hundred millions (18)".

Huston's film expands on this sentiment when Peachy calls India a "Great country, or was till the bureaucrats took over and ruined everything...Because them that governs make up laws to stop men like us from getting anywhere.  And whose loss is it, eh?  Why England's, of course!"  Not long after, Huston gives Peachy one more speech to drive the idea home, when both Carnehan and Dravot are being reprimanded by a local official as "Detriments to the Empire and the Raj".  Peachy's response is perhaps best described as one of injured merit.  "Detriments you call us," he asks?  "Detriments?!  Well I wanna remind you it was detriments like us that built this bloody Empire, and the Izzat of the Raj"!   It's clear enough that neither side has much use for the other, except when it's convenient, of course.  Unless it's not; it all seems to depend on which way the dime drops at any moment.  The systematic rule of convenience is one that Danny and Peachy go on to apply, in turn, to their future subjects.

The way both Kipling and Huston portray the British Raj and its subjects is one of abusive self-sabotage.  The ruling classes like the government official mistreat and use men like Danny and Peachy.  Each man then turns around and passes on the abuse.  The two main leads tend to look down on the natural citizens of both India and Afghanistan.  This applies to both the strangers they meet and, later on, the soldiers they have to train.  It is just possible that Kipling takes the message a step further in the original short story when Danny explains the plans he has in store for his newly minted subjects.  "I won't make a Nation,' says he.  'I'll make an Empire.  These men aren't niggers; they're English!  Look at their eyes - look at their mouths.  Look at the way they stand up.  They sit on chair in their own houses.  They're the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they've grown to be English (50)".

It's passages like these that are perhaps the most telling character notes in the entire story.  What we are presented with is a man of such fundamental alienation, that all he can see when he views others is not a subject with whom he must share a necessary amount of space, but something more like an object to be used according to the dictates of his broken desires.  All of this material is perfect as both a critique and satire of British Imperialism.  There's a bit of irony involved, however.  It's logical enough to expect this kind of sentiment from a post-colonial like Huston.  The sort of punchline, however, is that he never would have succeeded half as well if all the themes in his film hadn't been developed by Kipling in the first place.  Strange as it may sound, it was the man everyone claims as the great apologist for Imperialism who wound up writing one of it's greatest condemnations.

Throughout the narrative it's clear that Danny and Peachy are not the story's heroes, but rather it's villains.  Dravot's hubris is such that he can't see the people around him for what they are, and has to recast them in his mind as appearing like something they clearly are not.  What both Kipling and Huston appear to be getting at is the idea that underneath the official machinations of English Colonialism rests the simple and very old conundrum of the will to power.  It'd an inability to live with things as they are unless you can find a way of making it all dance to the tune in your head.  In a way, history is a chronicle of what happens when men with this desire rise to the seats of highest authority.  Kipling's story is also a parable about the inevitable, or logical-illogical outcome, or fate, of people who try to break the world.  They often wind up as men of fragments.

There is one other aspect to the narrative's anti-colonial theme.  However I think it's important enough to warrant it's own discussion.  Part of the reason for this is that it involves a figure who serves as sort of an anti-type or thematic foil to Danny's character.  Technically he is a part of the original source material, though he's not a fictional character at all, and he has like two mentions in passing throughout the entire plot.  It was Huston who gave this figure his real thematic importance.  Before we can reach this subject though, it's important to take a look at the kind of symbolism the story places him under.

The Masonic Theme.

This the is part of the review I'm dreading the most.  It's not because I dislike the subject, far from it.  For the longest time now one of my greatest critical interests is the study of symbolism in literature or film and its meaning.  The trouble is it's also the one subject that's difficult for me to pin down.  Part of it has to do with the fact that sometimes a symbol can be so well buried in the earth of the story that I can walk right past it without noticing a thing, no matter many times I read or watch a story over again.  The biggest challenge, for me, anyway, has been the fact that a lot of symbolism, by its nature, is often multi-valent.  In other words, the same symbol, (for example, a Phoenix) can mean one thing in a story by one writer, and then another can use it in such a way that it has a different significance entirely.  In addition to this, if a story should be composed of a sequence of symbols, I've often had trouble being able to point to these narratological patterns.  The reason for this is again down to how differing artists can use the same symbols in all kinds of dissimilar ways.  For all these reasons I'm really going to have to ask the reader to bear with me.  What follows is not uncharted territory, just one in which I'm still no expert.

For that reason I find myself having to rely on Richard Jaffa's Kipling study, Man and Mason, even where I might diverge from his judgment on certain details.  With this in mind, I suppose the best place to start is with a brief in-story primer on the meaning of Freemasonry in terms of Kipling's narrative.  Jaffa claims it was a very important subject to RK.  Because of this, he would sometimes take extra precautions to conceal its occasional presence in his own works.  Part of the reason for this is that often Masons swear a code, not so much of secrecy as a form of club privacy.  They were, however, permitted to code their language, both in public and private, as well as in correspondence or other writings as a way of cluing in those in the know.  For the most part, this was designed as something that only one Mason could recognize from another.  Because of this level of guarded privacy, it can be difficult to glean the nature of Masonry from Kipling's writings.

The good news is John Huston seemed to be under no such strictures, and wasn't the kind of man to keep such things to himself anyway.  Because of this he was able to do audiences a favor by laying out a basic and necessary understanding of the nature of Freemason thought in his film adaptation.  To that that end it makes sense to turn to him for information.  Huston starts by asking the most important question:

"District Commissioner: Just what exactly is Masonry, Kipling?

Kipling: Oh, it's an ancient order, dedicated to the Brotherhood of Man, under the All Seeing Eye of God.

Commissioner: We should have done well to have left that sort of thing behind us in England, my friend.  It could never work here.

Kipling: Oh there are tales that it did work here; before we ever came.  Some audacious scholars can even trace it back to the builders of Solomon's Temple.

Commissioner: Old wives tales, I suspect.

Kipling: Well, yes.  In all, erm, likelihood sir".

Be that as it may, the unavoidable fact is that the symbolic meanings of Masonry operate in both the film and short story as more or less the main guiding theme.  That means it helps to know just what direction the symbolism is taking the action for the purposes of the narrative.  For that purpose I'll have to turn to the help of Jaffa's study.  As he puts it, there are moments in the short story where "the youthful Kipling runs riot...with Masonic ritual.  "Peachy", says Dravot, "we don't want to fight no more.  The Craft's the trick, so help me!...Amazingly Kipling asks his readers to accept this and offers no explanation as to how an obscure tribe in the North West came to know about Freemasonry, its different degrees, handshakes and passwords.  Dravot and Carnehan feel very superior as they, like Kipling, have been through the third degree and these natives only know the first two degrees.  Why this strange situation has arisen is not explained.  Again it is not enough that they know about Freemasonry, but why this tribe should know two but not the three main craft ceremonies is a leap that Kipling asks his readers to make (108-9)".

This is a leap of narrative logic that Huston is able to smooth over to a great extent.  He does this by foregrounding the Masonic philosophy and its symbolism as a constant background presence during the action. "In the film, the narrator is portrayed as Kipling himself.  The meeting on the train is retained but in this version Carnehan steals the narrator's watch which has a Masonic fob on the chain, and which, as a result he feels morally obligated to return.  The early scenes in the film have the two soldiers calling Kipling "brother" and the cryptic exchange between Kipling and Carnehan at the start of the story is kept intact (112-13)". From there, the theme of Masonry and its iconography keeps cropping up here and there throughout the course of events, like a subtle yet constant background note.  The implication is that all this time the main characters seem to be caught in an elaborate ritual they are almost unaware of, and whose meaning the can't begin to fathom.  Jaffa is perhaps correct in saying that each of these elements are responsible for the narrative, yet I'm convinced he doesn't go far enough in his reading of either the text or its adaptation, and hence misses the the themes that give it its value.  In this sense the point has to go to critic Edmund Wilson, who "saw it as a parable by Kipling about what would happen to the English if they lost their moral authority (113)".  He's close enough to the mark for me to be able to say he's correct in essence.  There is a good deal to unpack in that idea, however.

When it comes to a good description of the nature of Freemasonry, it's here that I've had to face up to the fact that it's difficult to know where to start.  Most of it is down to the intricacy of the topic.  The best place to start is by thinking of it as a system of images. Each image, in turn, symbolizes a concept, or series of ideas, which go together to make up a sort of philosophy.  It's trying to summarize such a philosophy in a single review that is the real challenge.  The best thumbnail sketch I could find comes from Oxford scholar Beatrice Groves:

"In this alchemical image...we can see how closely allied the Masonic symbol from “The Man Who Would Be King” (an interlocking pair of compasses and set square with an eye at its center) is to this alchemical symbol (an interlocking pair of compasses and set square with a circle at its center). Alchemy and Freemasonry are, in fact, closely allied modes of thought. Both revolve around self-purification through a secret and arcane quest. Both rely strongly on the power of symbols: a pictorial device that encompasses a complete concept (which, the skeptic might note, can easily suggest themselves as a shortcut to profundity (web)".

I suppose the best course is to take up the trail left by Prof. Groves and do the best I can to describe not so much the curious symbols of either alchemy or masonry, so much as the fundamental guiding idea that lies in back of each of them.  As far as I can tell, at the heart of of the matter lies what might be described as the question of character.  The true subject of both alchemy and masonry is really just the personality of the individual.  The core problem that lies behind the symbolism of both alchemy and masonry is the simple question of the individual's development.  The important part is that this development be in a positive direction, while at the same respecting the particular strengths and alleviating the weaknesses of each singular person.

It's the kind of idea that sounds simple enough on paper. The whole globe is dotted with self-help seminars that promote what sounds like just the same thing.  However, the idea I have in mind, the one that used images like salamanders and All-Seeing-Eyes as a sort of symbolist short-hand seems a lot more complex that just having a positive self-esteem.  It's hard to give a sense of what older writers like Plato or Aristotle meant by the phrase personal development.  Even if the terms are more or less correct, the way it is used now is more like the shadow of a more expansive concept.  When I say that older writers conceived of the maturation of the "whole man", it has to be stressed that they were thinking of what can only be described as a change of mind that would, hopefully, leave a permanent, positive imprint on the individual's entire way of thinking and acting about his life.  If this could be achieved, so it was held, it could then be said that a person had achieved a note of character.

As a concept, this idea of personal development is probably as old as the sphinx and probably had its best statement as the Renaissance Liberal Arts.  In that sense, the ancient concept of personal development was as much about education and the proper acquisition of cultural knowledge as it was about individual psychology.  The one thing that has to be stressed is that all the thinkers who dedicated their lives to this concept were well aware of the ways in which the molding of character could be abused by anyone with a bad motive.  This is the sort of problem at the heart of Kipling's story.      

The Use and Abuse of Antiquity.

I mentioned earlier that there was one person in the story who served as a foil to Daniel's character.  The trick, as I pointed out, is that he's not really a work of fiction. According to Richard Jaffa, "There is a hint in some literature that Alexander the Great may have traveled through Kafiristan and perhaps Kipling is suggesting that the ritual (of Masonry in the story) may have been left behind at that time (109)".  While this logical explanation is a background detail in the story, Kipling is never able to do much with it.

On the other hand, as Prof. Groves pointed out, "It was believed that no Europeans had previously set foot in (Afghanistan) since Alexander the Great’s conquest, and Huston’s film builds on the idea (implicit in Kipling’s story) that it was Alexander himself who had brought the Masonic craft to Kafiristan. Danny’s Masonic token, which he wears as a necklace, therefore leads the Kafirs to believe that he is the son of Alexander. It is believed that it is because Danny is the son of Alexander that he can understand the Masonic symbol (“the missing Mark that no one could understand the why of”), and he declares himself “the Grand-Master of the Sign cut in the stone.” As a direct result of this Masonic symbol, therefore, the Kafirs give Danny Alexander’s treasure hoard (that they have carefully guarded for his successor through the centuries) and make him king (web)".

There's no denying it's the high point of the story.  The protagonists have reached their goal, and now find themselves rulers of not just an entire country, but also a whole culture and the people who live and subsist in it.  The problem is it's difficult not hear a hollow note throughout the entirety of this crowning moment.  At almost every step on their journey, the two rogues have been able to advance in their quest through an absurd amount of what could be either the dumbest amount of luck, or else an unprecedented level of good fortune.  These strange, fortunate twists are best demonstrated in a moment where the laughter of the two men starts an avalanche with them right in the middle of it.  Rather than meeting their ultimate fate in the landslide, the cascade creates a natural bridge that allows them to cross into their very goal.  The thing is events like this never cause Dravot or Carnehan to consider just how lucky they have been in their endeavor.  Their hardships have not molded them into ideal leaders.  Because of this lack of personal growth, there is an irony at the heart of their victory.

This is where the thematic significance of the real-life Alexander comes in.  The historical record shows a man who wasn't content at just being a ruler.  The life of the Greek Emperor and General is interesting in that he comes off as one of those types who are always driven some kind of inner idea or ideal.  It wasn't enough for him for him to just take or seize a country in the manner or style of other warlords of his era.  Instead, what marks out Alexander from the rest of his type is the lengths he was willing to go in order to build bridges between various and differing cultures.  It marks him as different because it shows a remarkable sense of open-mindedness toward others.  Alexander was a soldier, first, last, and always.  His entire life was marked out as that of a man of action.  This was a role he trained for since birth, and which he fit into as naturally as waking or sleeping.  What made him different, however, is that there was a philosophical streak in his makeup, in addition to being just a military strategist.

History records that Alexander's tutor was none other than Aristotle.  To say that the modern world owes him an unpayable debt is to understate the case.  In some ways Aristotle's system of thought is one of those legacies which are so ubiquitous that it's difficult to make the average person realize it's the lens through which they do all their talking and (if it can be managed) thinking.  It is just possible for someone to make the statement that the past has no claim on them, and then go onto to try and prove it using the same deductive methods Aristotle laid down before anyone even conceived the idea of North America.  This is the kind of impact that the Greek philosopher left behind, and it was this same system of thought that Aristotle was able to put into the head of his most famous pupil.

It's because of his grounding in both philosophy, and not just one of combat, that allowed Alexander to establish links between cultures.  It was perhaps as much a gift as a learned skill or talent.  Because he knew philosophy, Alexander was able to gain at least some usable understanding of human nature.  The result was that even as a conqueror he realized the importance of being on good terms with others.  This made him one of history's great diplomats.  He was a the sort of bridge builder who is able to not just establish an empire, so much as create the blueprint for an entirely new sort of world, one in which were planted the seeds that in time became known as Western Democracy.  This is a fact that perhaps both Kipling and Huston were aware of.  It's because of this world-spanning legacy that Alexander acts as a perfect off-stage foil for Danny and Peachy.

Neither man has any of the virtues or gifts that Alexander possessed besides a knack for training men to lead into battle.  Their goals are never directed toward the good the people of Kafiristan.  Instead, their original intention was to gain power just long enough to loot the country, then take the money and run.  Once Danny has a crown placed on his head, however, the taste of power acts as a lure that begins to drawn him towards his own fate.  Edmund Wilson called "The Man Who Would Be King" a parable about English complacency.  It's accurate so far as it goes.  However I'd argue the further theme to which the danger of being complacent is attached has to do with man's relation to the ancient past.  Throughout their journey, Peachy and Danny are forever enveloped by the fragments and presence of Antiquity.  It determines the very nature of their surroundings, just as it did for Kipling.  The past is always with them in their story.  It isn't even past.  Yet it is a fact to which they remain blind, at least until its perhaps too late.

This blindness is on display when Daniel tries to commission the work of a bridge which would connect Kafiristan with the countries and terrain leading into India.  Aside from establishing a connection between empires, the bridge is perhaps the biggest symbol Kipling's story has to work with.  Like all the important elements, Huston develops and uses this plot device to bring out the contrasts between Danny and Alexander.  The two men learn of the General's exploits early on in the film.  In particular they learn that Alexander took a wife named Roxanne.  Once he becomes the leader of all Kafiristan, the bridge is one of the main projects Danny sets in motion.  It's clear Huston wants the audience to keep Alexander's accomplishments somewhere in the back of their minds.  Danny is aware of the legacy he is inheriting.  His mistake is in thinking he can try and claim it as his own without first learning how to earn the right to those responsibilities.  In every way, it is impossible for Danny to try and live up to the legacy Alexander.

Like all tragic characters, the flaws in Danny's personality prove his undoing.  His lack in understanding the traditions and customs of other cultures comes into play when he falls for a local native girl.  Her name is Roxanne.  It is part of the belief of her culture that mortals cannot interact with the gods.  This is a custom Danny cannot reconcile himself too, and hence it's impossible for him to respect the rights of others.  His insistence on taking Roxanne for a wife leads to the Kafirs discovering that he is, after all, just a man.  Perhaps its not the fact that Danny is mortal that is the real issue.  The problem is more that the entire culture that Danny finds himself surrounded by is one that ultimately bases itself around ideals, and the people who either have or can prove themselves worthy of them.  These ideals are somehow tied up in the symbolism of Masonry.

The trouble is Danny has trouble living up to the Craft in the same way he can't coexist with the native population.  Instead, once he immerses himself in the style, customs, and values of antiquity, all Danny can think of is how it can all be used for himself at the expense of others.  What Kipling and Huston want to highlight, it seems, is the problem of what happens when the values that create a society are abused and misused to satisfy a limited sense of either injured merit or personal gain.  Both goals appear to be incompatible with the functioning of a normal society.  It's a sure fact that it's impossible to gain any nuanced understanding of the thinking and wisdom of the past while holding on to such an outlook.  It also doesn't stop unscrupulous types like Dravot and Carnehan from trying to take advantage of others by playing on the things that matter most to them.  In this sense, Danny's bridge is important for the very reason that's all one big hollow gesture, with no beneficial meaning for it.  Alexander, Huston appears to be saying, could have made it count for something because he actually did know the value of cultures.  Danny meanwhile is stuck looking for some elusive sense of satisfaction.  It's what drives him first into Afghanistan, and then finally to his fate at the hands of the very bridge he ordered constructed


I suppose I'll always wonder over the fact it was Kipling who wrote one of the great anti-imperialist stories.  He's not the only one to work in this particular branch office.  Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is another attempt at the same kind of story, and is arguably the better known version.  However I don't think this diminishes Kipling's achievement.  He's one of the most contradictory writers in the history of Western fiction.  It also can't be denied that he's one of the most talented.  Just as John Huston is something of a too-much neglected legend in the history of filmmaking.

Together, what both men have given readers and audiences is a sort of parable about the will to power, and its consequences.  I suppose the best summation I can give of "The Man Who Would Be King" is to say that it is about what happens when the political meets and clashes with the existential or cultural.  Whenever such skirmishes occur, it often seems like its always the political that crumbles in the end, while a culture can always go on its way.

It's a surprising amount of food for thought in just a simple short story.  This doesn't mean its all dreary and dull.  Far from it.  Both Kipling and Huston are storytellers in the grand tradition of epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Here you can find a style that is willing to take its time to set up an imaginative canvas of enough depth and vastness that grand characterizations can perform in them.  It's a form of writing as old as the proverbial hills, yet I sometimes wonder just what kind of reception and reputation it has these days.  I've seen plenty of folks who believe that we're running out of these types of stories.  From there I've seen them go on to either read or watch perfect specimens of this particular genre and come away saying they don't get it, or that it just doesn't work for them.  The overall picture suggests that modern audiences know that something is missing for daily diet of fiction intake.  The trouble is they also seem to lack whatever imaginative skill would allow them to engage with the very myths that they believe are missing.

I guess an active imaginative life is just something that doesn't come as easy as it should.  That's not to say it's a goal that can't be achieved.  I think it helps if people come to the epic genre in slow bits and pieces.  Make it so that it's a proper introduction to a myth here, or a legend there.  Let audiences learn how to build up a tolerance for this sort of tale.  Who knows?  It might just be that in time, and with a little patience, the kind of trend could start where the older forms of storytelling make a comeback by popular demand.  In that sense, perhaps Kipling and Huston's "The Man Who Would Be King" can serve as a good starting point.


  1. (1) A very good, comprehensive overview. As I read this I realized how little I remember from the film. I think my main source on this is one of its Old Time Radio adaptations. I downloaded a Kipling-OTR batch one time and it's in there, I guess. (Not too much else, unfortunately.) I remember more (quick memory lane diversion) the commercial for a TV showing of the movie, which was advertised at the tail end of a VHS tape of Saturday morning cartoons my grandmother sent to us when we were over in Germany. Occasionally there'd be an hour or two after the cartoons ended on there. I distinctly remember thinking about it, mainly because Sean Connery was in it, but also the title stuck with me.

    (2) Don't mean to skip over the substance of your critique, here, I just can't speak to the story/ characters much.

    (3) Masonry has always fascinated me. Like you, I've an early and abiding interest in symbolic literature, and so much of that was wrapped up in Masons for so many centuries, or at least the 19th. It's all over everything from that period and into the 20th.

    (4) Agreed on Huston's stature as a filmmaker/ artist. A giant among giants.

    (5) "It might just be that in time, and with a little patience, the kind of trend could start where the older forms of storytelling make a comeback by popular demand. " That would be great to see. I believe in historical trends always coming back around so this sort of going away and rediscovery is always going on. It'd be nice to see happen in my lifetime, though.

    1. (1) You know, it's funny you should mention Old Time Radio. More on this I won't say. Instead, I would say check out the following episodes of the Lux Radio Theater: "Snow White" (1937), "Treasure Island" (1951) (featuring Captain Nemo as Long John Silver), and "Peter Pan" (1953).

      Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

      (3) Part of the reason I've been drawn to this aspect of storytelling is because it does seem to offer one of the closest ways of grasping the meaning of the narratives in which they appear. Just my luck I'm not that good at reading the entrails, so to speak.

      (5) The only caution I would add is to remember that these sort of things always work best when they're organic and natural. Granted, this means revivals of older stories like this tend to move at a glacial pace, still it's worth the wait if it means a genuine return of a lot of classic art and artists.