The Man Who Would Be King
At my very first meeting on my very first trip to Hollywood to talk about turning my short story “Air Raid” into a movie—at the Polo Lounge in the big pink Beverly Hills Hotel—I met three formidable people. I was intimidated. (Big time. Dustin Hoffman was at the next table.) One was Doug Trumbull, the SFX wizard behind 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The next was David Begelman. He had been the agent for people like Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minnelli, Woody Allen, Richard Burton, Peter Sellers, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Rock Hudson, and Carol Channing. Major stars. Later he headed Columbia Studios, where he was responsible for films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But I had already read a little about him, that morning in my room at the Beverly Wilshire, on the front page of the LA Times. That very day he had been indicted for embezzlement for forging Cliff Robertson’s signature on a check for $10,000. Somebody later wrote a book about it: Indecent Exposure. (He was sentenced to community service.) David was a scoundrel, no question, and one of the most likeable people I ever met.
But it was the third person who impressed me most. Even if he had made only this film, John Foreman’s reputation would be secure in my mind, but he also produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and many other good movies. He once had a production company with Paul Newman, and it was through John that I met Newman two times. So again, I was impressed.
The reason for all this name-dropping is that John Foreman worked with John Huston on this film, and over the ten years of our association he had many amusing stories to tell about the production. The most amusing concerns the polo game and the mules. The warriors in the fictional Kafiristan had a custom of playing polo with the severed heads of their enemies, and they did it riding on mules. Huston was such a stickler for detail that he insisted a few dozen mules be trained to play polo. The scene was filmed, and then the production manager or whoever was in charge of such things tried to sell the mules back to the Moroccan mule skinners they had bought them from. No sale. It seemed the mules liked playing polo so much that the contrary animals refused to carry loads or pull wagons anymore. I always kind of wondered what happened to those mules. John didn’t know. Do they eat mules in Morocco?
John also said that he had never had a script handed to him and then gone on to film it exactly as written. It is standard practice to rewrite endlessly, even during filming. Not with Huston. He and Gladys Hill had worked on it for decades, it was extremely faithful to the Kipling short story, and he saw no need for changes. Only the ending is a little different, in that he eliminated a sort of postscript to the story, and I agree it wasn’t needed.
Huston had wanted to make this movie since the ‘50s, but one thing or another got in his way. He originally saw Bogart and Gable in the parts of Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan. Later he thought about Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Still later it was Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I am so glad all those projects fell through. Danny and Peachy are British to the core, not a one of those six could have pulled it off, and then what are you left with? Changing the location? The American West, maybe? The Philippines? Give me a break. Could Gable or Bogart have handled lines like these:
Peachy: Detriments you call us? Detriments? Well I want to remind you that it was detriments like us that built this bloody Empire and the Izzat of the bloody Raj! ‘ats on! About turn! By the left …
Billy Fish: He wants to know if you are gods.
Peachy: Not gods – Englishmen. The next best thing.
Daniel Dravot: You have our permission to bugger off!
Not in a million years. Sean Connery and Michael Caine are perfect in these roles, Oscar material. (Though, scandalously, neither was nominated.)
As for the movie, it is pure, old-fashioned adventure of the kind Hollywood has hardly made since Gunga Din and Lives of a Bengal Lancer (with Gary Cooper horribly miscast.) These are British soldiers from the era of Empire, racist, opportunistic, cocksure that the sun will never set, etc. They find the confines of India too restrictive for the likes of themselves, and set out to conquer a land where no white man has been seen since the days of Alexander the Great, with only their wits, their soldierly skills, and 16 rifles. They go through the Khyber Pass, cross raging rivers and the towering snowbound Himalayas. “The mules was most contrary. They all died but one, and he died later.” It is one wonder after another, and I was utterly enthralled by every minute of it. And last but not least, mention should be made of Christopher Plummer, who superbly plays Kipling as a youngish man. One of the best movies ever made.