Grade: B+/A-
Rated PG (but see below)

Rudyard Kipling adventures have always been popular with Hollywood and its audiences. The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Soldiers Three, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Wee Willie Winkie, and Kim were a part of every youngster’s coming of age in the last half of the 20th century. But filmmakers ignored Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King until the legendary John Huston took up the challenge in 1975.

Maybe that’s because “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of the stories published in Kipling’s The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (1888), is a little more adult than this film’s PG rating would suggest. The heroes are amoral at best, and in addition to adult situations there are a few grisly elements.

If your family saw and enjoyed The Road to El Dorado, that 2000 animated adventure was also based on “The Man Who Would Be King,” but softened for family audiences. This feature from the director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Misfits stays pretty close to Kipling’s original tale.

The story follows the exploits of two former British soldiers who had fought in India and Bharat and now crave adventure more than a return to England, retirement, or respectability. They’re rogues, really, who seem nice enough yet don’t give killing a second thought. They’re also motivated by greed and self-interest—not exactly the kind of heroes that Hollywood gravitated towards. But the anti-hero that had become popular in the late ‘60s paved the way for audiences to watch Peachey Carnehan (Sir Michael Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Sir Sean Connery) with fascination, if not admiration.

The Man Who Would Be King is an offbeat adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet doesn’t approach the level of comedy you find in the Indiana Jones films. A project Huston had wanted to do for many years, he originally intended it for Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, then (after Bogart and Gable died) Burt Lancaster / Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton / Peter O’Toole, and Robert Redford / Paul Newman before finally settling on Connery and Caine. Burton was originally signed to play Kipling, who appears at the beginning and end of this frame story, but Christopher Plummer stepped in as a last-minute replacement. For fifth choices, the cast knocks it out of the park. When the film was released, Roger Ebert awarded it four stars (“It’s been a long time since there’s been an escapist entertainment quite this unabashed and thrilling and fun”) and New York magazine called it Huston’s best picture since The African Queen.

The Man Who Would Be King earned Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing, and Connery and Caine went on record as saying it was their favorite movie to have made. Ever.

Under Huston’s direction and enhanced by location filming in Morocco, the film evokes a colorful authenticity as viewers follow the two ex-soldiers who decide to go to isolated Kafiristan, find a warlord to fight for until all his enemies are defeated, then depose the leader and rule as kings. That’s the life they envision for themselves, but of course not everything goes according to plan. Things get complicated when the two ex-soldiers enter a valley with the army they trained, discover a city of holy people, and one of them is received as a god. One of them also is tempted to forego the pact they made to avoid alcohol and women until they reach their goal. Despite the small plot, Huston’s treatment and attention to detail makes the story seem much larger in scope, even epic, and the men ultimately feel as nobly flawed as Shakespearian tragic heroes.

Spoiler alert: there is no happy ending, but The Man Who Would Be King remains one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated adventure films, with all the drama and impact of The African Queen. While it would still merit a PG rating today, I would think it isn’t suitable for anyone under 10 years old (see below).

Entire family: No
Run time: 129 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link
Rated PG for violence, some nudity and language 

Language: 1/10—One Hindi/Urdu swearword, one “bugger off,” and a few other English versions of minor swearwords

Sex: 3/10—Two long shots of bare butts, one female and the other Connery’s, but both situations are treated matter-of-factly

Violence: 5/10—One man is crucified, another falls to his death; there are numerous action scenes involving fights with spears, swords, and guns; and severed heads, though not graphically shown, pop up in three scenes

Adult situations: 1/10—There is minimal smoking and alcohol use

Takeaway: Most of the films that John Huston made were stunning, sprawling adventure, and this one ranks right there with the rest/best of them