The Son of Man goes forth to war
A golden crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar -
Who follows in his train?
Rudyard Kipling is a great writer whose admirers often feel obliged to qualify their praise for him. As George Orwell wrote in 1942: "Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a by-word for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there." (1)
Even Arnold Bennett, an "enlightened" critic, could write in 1909:
"Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Plain Tales from the Hills delighted first Anglo-Indian, and then English society. There was nothing of permanent value in that book, and in my extremest youth I never imagined otherwise." (2)
Does anyone still read Bennett's novels? I mean, with pleasure? Yet those "Plain Tales" of Kipling's present to us a natural artist before he knew he was one. And long before critics discovered literary value in those tales, countless readers found wonder and excitement in them.
For me, what makes Kipling's early stories both brilliant and eminently readable are all the telling details with which they are infused: the seemingly offhand observations of the weather, of speech and manners that give life to otherwise ordinary people or commonplace moments.
Appearing first in the newspaper The Allahabad Pioneer that Kipling edited between 1887-89, the earliest stories were collected and published in some of the first paperback books, Wheeler's Indian Railway Library, at one rupee apiece. Kipling was paid an advance of $500 for six volumes of his stories, the first of which was Plain Tales from the Hills. One story from that collection, "The Man Who Would Be King," was made into an excellent film by Hollywood veteran John Huston in 1975.
Every time a gifted film director adapts a great work of literature to film, what he is attempting is the impossible: to re-create the unique feeling that the writer's prose has inspired in him, while dispensing with the prose itself.
For a former Hollywood director, John Huston was exceptional in many respects. I once watched him explain why a film uses editing to an interviewer. He told the interviewer to look at something to his left and then to look at something on his right. "There!" Huston said. "You blinked! You already knew what's between the two points and you didn't have to see it. So you blinked. You made a cut."
But in one respect Huston was as philistine as they come. Too often, he attempted to adapt pre-existing texts - novels and stories - to the screen. Moby Dick, The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, and The Dead are all works of varying literary distinction that Huston turned into films of wildly varying cinematic quality. One proof that this is not such a good idea is that, the greater the literary value of the work (Melville, Joyce), the more unsuccessful the results.
Huston acquired the rights to "The Man Who Would Be King" in 1950 and planned to cast Humphrey Bogart and Clark Cable as Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravout, the two British soldiers whose exploits Kipling captures in his story. Huston had to shelve his project and by the time he found he could at last make his film, Bogart and Gable were dead, and other actors had to be cast in the roles.
Kipling's story is so much more than just a tall tale. Carnehan and Dravout, one feels, know every square mile of India, its cities, its highways and railways, and have seen the farthest reaches of its frontiers and beyond. Better than that, they are extremely knowledgable of Indian customs and its people. They are also expert con-artists, and are always involved in one extortion scheme or another, and know how to barter and bribe their way around the country.
Their story is a near-tragedy on an epic scale: how two men venture forth to find - and attain - fantastic glory, to rule and be worshipped as gods, only to be defeated by their very human failings, with one of them killed and the other - Peachy - crucified "between two trees." Peachy somehow survives, and is set free, and shares his tale with the story's narrator, the very man who witnessed the "contrack" between Peachy and Daniel at the outset of their adventure. The scene in which Carnehan returns, little left of him but a rag, to the narrator's office and tells him the whole of his story, before he wanders off again, only to die a few days later, repeatedly singing through his nose the words of the song quoted above, is unforgettable.
"'I ain't mad—yet, but I shall be that way soon. Keep looking at me, or maybe my words will go all to pieces. Keep looking at me in my eyes and don't say anything.'"
Huston changes Carnehan's speech slightly: "Keep looking at me. It helps to keep my soul from flying off."
It is to John Huston's credit that he managed to get as much of Carnehan's story right in his retelling. In the story, Peachy and Daniel's exploits are all related in extraordinary words. Huston had the advantage of images with which he could bring them to life. Shot on over thirty different locations in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, with the gorges Du Todra, at Tinghir, doubling for the Khyber Pass and the holy city of Sikandergul constructed on a hilltop an hour's drive from Marrakech, Huston got the scenery perfectly right.
The story has two weaknesses, both of which derived from a British colonialist mentality, which was Kipling's strongest trait and greatest failing as a writer: a faith in Freemasonry that is ridiculous and a quite brazen racism - the British "gorasahibs" conquering an entire region. Since the story is told by an ignorant reject from the British Army, the weaknesses are understandable and somewhat excusable. But when a barbaric Afghan holy city is revealed to be replete with Masonic symbols and when Daniel argues that the Caucasoid inhabitants of Kafiristan are "Englishmen," one feels the intrusion of the authors true prejudices. (3)
But where Huston does an ultimate disservice to Kipling is in his shrinking of the tragic elements of the story to the more domestic dimensions of a whopping great yarn. For instance, he fails to show us Peachy's sad end. Kipling is concise in his summation:
Two days later I inquired after his welfare of the Superintendent of the Asylum.
"He was admitted suffering from sunstroke. He died early yesterday morning," said the Superintendent. "Is it true that he was half an hour bareheaded in the sun at midday?"
"Yes," said I, "but do you happen to know if he had anything upon him by any chance when he died?"
"Not to my knowledge," said the Superintendent.
And there the matter rests.
The two actors that Huston had to settle on in 1975, Michael Caine and Sean Connery, were capable of embodying Kipling's pair of "loafers" (unlike Bogart and Gable, they're British!). Christopher Plummer, who capably plays the narrator, is obviously modeled on Kipling himself. Saeed Jaffrey, a marvelous Indian actor in his own right, does what he can with the role of the Gurkha, Billy Fish.
Huston's cinematographer was Oswald Morris, who tried to do for Morocco what Freddie Young did for the deserts of Jordan in Lawrence of Arabia. His results are spectacular enough but, like Huston's (and Gladys Hill's) script, it lacks the dimension of greatness that Kipling gave to Carnehan's story in his telling. Legendary French designer Alexander Trauner (The Children of Paradise, et al) created a city - Sikandergul - lost since Alexander the Great that is both primitive and strangely classical.
In his memoir, What's It All About?, Michael Caine describes how, after the film was finished, he and Sean Connery were summoned by Huston to a hospital bedside where he appeared to be gravely ill. Seemingly delirious, Huston addressed Caine and Connery by their characters' names in The Man Who Would Be King, as Peachy and Daniel, and bade them farewell. Caine came away convinced that Huston would shortly be dead, but saw in the papers a few months later that he was preparing to make another film. It was like something out of Kipling.
(1) George Orwell, "Rudyard Kipling," Horizon, February 1942.
(2) Arnold Bennett, Books and Persons, Being Comments on a Past Epoch 1908-1911 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1917).
(3) Even if Kipling intended the masonic details as an inside joke, it is a feeble joke.