The Man Who Would Be King

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DVD cover for The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King (1888) is a short story by Rudyard Kipling that tells the tale of two rogue British ex-soldiers who set off from 19th century British India in search of adventure, and end up as kings of Kafiristan. The story was inspired by the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan.

The story was first published in The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (Volume Five of the Indian Railway Library, published by Wheelers of Allahabad in 1888) and collected in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.

Contents

Summary

The narrator of the story, an unnamed journalist, meets two scruffy adventurers, ex-soldiers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who announce that they are off to Kafiristan, in the Afghan mountains, to set themselves up as kings. Two years later, on a hot summer night, Carnehan creeps into the journalist's office, a broken man: crippled, clad only in rags, a beggar. For the rest of the evening, he tells an amazing story. Dravot and Carnehan succeeded in making themselves kings, persuading the natives they were gods, mustering an army, wielding their power over local villages, and dreaming of building a unified nation. Their schemes were dashed when Dravot tried to take a native girl for his wife. Terrified of being united in matrimony with a god, she resisted, biting Dravot until he bled. At this point, he was seen to be "Not a God nor a Devil, but only a man!" Led by the order of the priesthood, the people turned against their rulers, pursuing them throughout the mountains and gorges of the countryside. Driving their quarry to ground, they dropped Dravot to his death and crucified Carnehan between two pine trees. Seeing that he survived a day with wooden pegs driven through his hands and feet, the people concluded it was a miracle and released him. As proof of the veracity of his tale, Carnehan shows the journalist Dravot's head, still clad in its golden crown, which he has been carrying with him. He hobbles away into the rising sun of the morning. When the journalist searches him out two days later, he finds that Carnehan has died of exposure to the blistering mid-day sun. No belongings were found with him.

Film adaptation

In (1975), John Huston adapted the story into a feature film starring Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, Michael Caine as Peachey Carnehan, and Christopher Plummer as Kipling (giving a name to the story's anonymous narrator).

Shot on location in Morocco, Huston had planned to make the film since the 1950's: originally with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and then Robert Redford and Paul Newman — Newman suggested Connery and Caine. Like much of his writing, Kipling's original story is overtly imperialist; in Huston's telling, both East and West have their faults and virtues.

Synopsis

While at the offices of the Northern Star newspaper, Kipling is approached by a ragged, seemingly crazed derelict, who reveals himself to be his old acquaintance Peachy Carnahan. Peachy tells Kipling the story of how he and his cohort Danny Dravot traveled to remote Kafiristan, become gods, and ultimately lose everything.

After meeting Kipling at his newspaper office a few years earlier and signing a contract pledging mutual loyalty, Carnahan and Dravot muster an army from the natives of a Kafiristan village. In their first battle, the natives decide that Daniel is a god after he is shot with an arrow in the chest but continues fighting. In fact, the arrow has struck a bandolier beneath his clothing and become lodged in it, but the natives don't know this. When they arrive in the holy city of Sikandergul, the natives confuse their Masonic medals for symbols of Alexander the Great and declare the men to be gods.

Danny has delusions of grandeur, while Peachy wants to sneak out of the city with chests of gold and jewels. Danny decides to take a wife from amongst the natives, much against Peachy's advice; he chooses Roxanna (played by Michael Caine's real-life wife Shakira). Roxanna fears no woman can live if they consort with a god, and so tries to escape from Daniel, biting him in the process. The bite draws blood, and when the natives see it they realise Daniel is human after all, and pursue him and Peachy through the streets of his erstwhile kingdom. Danny is killed when forced to walk to the middle of a rope bridge over a deep canyon; the ropes supporting it are cut and he falls to his death. Peachy is tortured and released. At the end of the film, as Peachy finishes his story, he presents Kipling with Danny's decaying head, still wearing its Kafiri crown.

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