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The Man Who Would Be King (1975) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Two British former soldiers decide to set themselves up as Kings in Kafiristan, a land where no white man has set foot since Alexander the Great.

  • This adaptation of the famous short story by Rudyard Kipling tells the story of Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnahan, two ex-soldiers in India when it was under British rule. They decide that the country is too small for them, so they head off to Kafiristan in order to become Kings in their own right. Kipling is seen as a character that was there at the beginning, and at the end of this glorious tale.

  • This movie is about two ambitious ex-soldiers stationed in India who set out to become the rulers of an entire country. After finishing their tour of duty in India, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan have decided that India is "too small for the likes of them", so they decide to bribe a local ruler and extort money from him, in order to buy twenty Martini rifles, which they will use to take over villages in Kafristan. They face many challenges and perils along the way, including difficult terrain, hostile natives, freezing temperatures, and an avalanche high in the mountains. They eventually come to a small village, Urheb, where they meet Ootah and Billy Fish, an Indian who speaks English. He then becomes their translator. They then train the natives of this village to use the rifles, and soon conquer village after village. During a battle, Daniel is struck by an arrow that seemingly sticks out of his chest. The ignorant natives believe that he must be a God for not having died, and fall down and begin worshipping him. Daniel and Peachy decide that it would be easier for a "God " to take over the country, so they pretend that Daniel is a god, the son of Alexander the Great who has returned after two thousand two hundred years to again rule Kafristan. The entire country celebrated the return of their new ruler, the Son of Segunda (Alexander). As a token of their admiration, the holiest of holy men gives Daniel all of the gold and riches left by Alexander in 328 B.C. It is enough to make them the richest men in the world. All goes well until Daniel's ego and greed gets the best of him. He asks Peachy to bow when he walks in front of him. He later tells Peachy that he has decided to stay, and now believes that he is the son of Alexander ("in spirit, anyways"), and that to fulfill his destiny, he will marry Roxanne, like his "father" Alexander did before him. The Kafiri's believe that a mortal cannot marry a God, but Daniel goes ahead anyway. Peachy was set to leave with his share of the treasure, but Daniel convinced him to stay "for old time's sake" for the wedding. At the ceremony, Roxanne, believing that she would soon die, bites Daniel, drawing blood. The entire crowd realizes that since Danny is bleeding, that he is a man, not a God, and that he has been deceiving them the entire time. Peachy grabs Daniel and they run off with their twenty soldiers, shooting at the crowd of monks who set out to kill them. They are eventually captured, and Daniel is forced to walk out on a rope bridge. The monks cut the ropes, and Daniel bravely falls to his death. Peachy is later crucified. When they come to see him the next day, he is still alive, and they say that it is a miracle that he lived, and they cut him down. He eventually climbs down into the valley and retrieves Danny's head, still wearing the crown. He brings it back to Rudyard Kipling, a writer for the Northern Star, as proof that Daniel accomplished his goal, and became the King of Kafristan. Themes developed in the story: 1. ambition 2. friendship 3. taking risks 4. perseverance (not giving up) 5. power 6. honor and dignity.

  • Newspaper correspondent Rudyard Kipling is startled to get a visit from a man in miserable state, who reveals to be Peachy Carnehan, the swindler who, with his army vet buddy in crime and adventure, Daniel "Danny" Dravot, set out to make their fortune in Kafiristan, a backward Himalayan tribal warfare zone outside the British viceroy's colonial sway. Peachy explains how they nearly died in the mountains, found an expedition's Gurkha sole survivor, took charge of a tribe and started conquering. Then a freakish arrow incident lead the natives to believe Danny invulnerable, hence Sikander, the long-expected divine son of Alexander the Great, and therefore made him theocratic King of all Kafiristan. But even if ruling went surprisingly well, living up to a god's expectation pattern didn't.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • Lahore, British India, 1885.

    While working late one night as a correspondent at the offices of the Northern Star newspaper in India, Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) is approached by a ragged, seemingly crazed derelict, who reveals himself to be his old acquaintance Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine). Peachy begins to tell Kipling the story of how he and his comrade-in-arms Daniel "Danny" Dravot (Sean Connery) traveled to remote Kafiristan (in modern-day Afghanistan; the province is now known as Nuristan), became "gods", and ultimately lost everything.

    Three years earlier.

    Dravot and Carnehan had met Kipling under less than auspicious circumstances; Carnehan, a former Colour sergeant of the Queen's Own Royal Loyal Light Infantry, pick-pocketed Kiplings's pocket watch but was forced to return it as he was a fellow Freemason. Carnehan claims to be an expert in "whiskey, women, waistcoats, and bills of fare." Both Dravot and Carnehan are in the process of blackmailing a local Rajah by posing as newspaper correspondents of "The Northern Star" newspaper, which outrages the real correspondent (Kipling). To save their lives, Kipling has the local district commissioner arrest both Dravot and Carnehan, who obliquely blackmail the commissioner himself.

    Despite being accomplished gun smugglers, swindlers, fencers of stolen goods, con-men, and blackmailers, both of them are bitter that after fighting to make India part of the British Empire, they will have little to return home apart from dead-end jobs. Both Dravot and Carnehan turn up at Kipling's office and explain their biggest gamble yet: feeling that India is too small for men such as them, they intend to travel to Kafiristan, a small and remote country to help a local king overcome his enemies, overthrow him, and become "gods"/rulers themselves before stealing various riches and returning to England in triumph.

    After signing a contract pledging mutual loyalty and forswearing drink and women until they achieved their grandiose aims, Peachy and Danny (taking along 20 Martini Henry rifles stolen from a local armory) set off on an epic overland journey north beyond the Khyber Pass. Kipling, after attempting to dissuade the men, gives Dravot his masonic emblem as a token of brotherhood. Over the next few weeks, Dravot and Carnehan travel through Afghanistan, fighting off a group of bandits at a campfire, trekking through a blizzard and avalanches as they make their way into the unknown land of Kafiristan (literally "Land of the Infidels").

    They chance upon a Gurkha soldier who goes by the name Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), the sole survivor of a missing mapping expedition sent several years earlier which had been lost in an avalanche. Billy speaks English as well as the local Dari language. Acting as translator and interpreter of customs and manners, he smooths the path of Dravot and Carnehan as they begin their rise, offering their services as military advisers, trainers, and war leaders to the chief of the much-raided village of Er-Heb. Dravot and Carnehan muster a force to attack the villagers' most-hated enemy, the Bashkai. During the battle, Dravot is struck in the chest by an arrow, but is unharmed, leading the natives to believe that he is a god. In fact, the arrow was stopped by a bandolier hidden beneath his clothing. As victory follows victory, the defeated are recruited to join the swelling army.

    Finally, nobody is left to stand in their way, and they are summoned to the holy city of Sikandergul, where the chief high priest, Kafu Selim, sets up a re-enactment of the arrow incident, to determine whether Dravot is a man or a god by seeing whether or not he bleeds. When Dravot flinches, the monks grab him and open his shirt to stab him, only to be stopped by Dravot's Masonic jewel. By coincidence, the symbol on the jewel matches one known only to the highest holy man, the symbol of "Sikander" (a linguistic corruption of Alexander the Great), who had conquered the country thousands of years before and promised to return. The holy men are convinced Dravot is the immortal son of Sikander. They hail him as king and lead the two men down to storerooms heaped with treasure (gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, among various jewels) that belonged to Sikander, which now belongs to Dravot.

    As the months pass, Carnehan is anxious to leave with the treasure before winter arrives and heavy snow closes the mountain passes (and before the natives learn the truth about them). Dravot, however, has developed delusions of grandeur. First, Dravot 'suggests' that Carnehan bow to him like the others, ostensibly to "keep up appearances" in front of the natives and continue the deception. He adjudicates disputes among local people and villages, and issues proclamations overseeing their administration. He begins making plans to turn the land into a modern country, to the extent that he envisages eventually meeting Queen Victoria "as an equal." Resigned that Dravot's mind is made up, Carnehan decides to take as much loot as he can carry on a small mule train and leave alone.

    Meanwhile, Dravot decides to take a wife after seeing the beautiful Roxanne (Shakira Caine), and invites Carnehan as a witness. Roxanne, having a superstitious fear that she will burst into flames if she consorts with a god, tries frantically to escape, biting Dravot during the wedding ceremony. The bite draws blood, and the high priest exclaims that Dravot "not a god or a devil but a man". When everyone sees it, they realize that Dravot and Carnehan have deceived and used them. Carnehan and Billy quickly grab Dravot off the podium and hurry away.

    A large crowd of angry natives pursue Dravot and Carnehan, who order their loyal troops to open fire on them. As their forces and ammunition dwindle, Dravot and Carnehan offer Billy a horse to escape, but Billy refuses and courageously charges into the mob with a kukri single-handedly, before being killed amidst the mob. As the two men are soon surrounded captured, Dravot apologizes to Carnehan for spoiling their plans, and Carnehan forgives him. Now resigned to his fate, Dravot is forced to walk to the middle of a rope bridge over a deep gorge as the ropes are cut, casting him into the gorge.

    Afterwords, the Carnehan was crucified between two pine trees, but he was cut down the next day when he survives the ordeal. Eventually, he makes his way back to India, but his mind has become unhinged by his sufferings. In the present, as Carnehan finishes his story, he presents Kipling with Dravot's severed head, still wearing its crown, thereby confirming the tale to be true.

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