I wake exhausted, but somehow rested. In the end, we always tough it out; I say “we,” because it’s usually a band of hard workers I’m trekking with — like the staff of the theater I used to run back in the seventies — a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George, that was, for the year we occupied it, always on the verge of collapse.
In my Covid dreams, we could be up to our collarbones in mud on some riverbank or clinging to a sheer rock face. When I wake, I think, “Well that was hard,” but I feel cleansed, knowing my unconscious has had to work all night to come to terms with this moment in history — the madness, the masks, news of the dead. You need an epic dream-scape to cope with all this mess... So what else is there to do but create and star in a movie!!!?
I probably don’t have to tell you, especially if you’ve followed this blog over the years, that palaces like the St. George were built for big-screen adventures, even the relatively silly ones, like sword-and-sandal romps through Ancient Rome (Quo Vadis?), or lesser westerns.
Which brings me to a treasured old-school epic I watched the first time at the St. George, sitting in the balcony with a large popcorn; I was the only person in the balcony that day and practically the only watcher in the whole house, given how bad the feature was doing for us. It was John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King....only a year old and making the rounds of second-run houses.
Movies can be time-bombs. Recently, I watched the Huston epic for the third time in my life, on Netflix. From its bizarre opening scenes in an Indian marketplace — that include, among so many things, a man eating scorpions — the movie/Kipling story carried me from our bedroom and flat-screen TV, once again to a dusty velvet seat on the left lip of the St. George Theatre’s balcony.
During the fateful and loaded year when we ran the St. George, King was the first of only a handful of films I would watch from beginning to end, not getting up to check the concession stand or go back to my office and juggle the books. For the duration of the movie, I was transfixed.
Though it was largely filmed in Morocco, I was, in short order, up to my knees in snow, gazing while two soldiers of fortune (Michael Caine and Sean Connery) make their improbable trek through the Himalayas. En route to a mythical kingdom unseen by Western eyes since Alexander the Great conquered it in 328 B.C., Peachy and Danny are pickpockets, confidence men mustered out of the British Army, looking for gold. Gold is what Peachy (Caine) wants, but Danny actually hopes to be a king somewhere in those mountains beyond Tibet.
A king! I see it all now. I wasn’t escaping, but identifying! How much more ridiculous than being a king in a mythical kingdom was our plan, impoverished as we were — to refurbish and run at a profit an aging movie palace? Pick-pockets? Not quite yet. Soldiers of fortune? Absolutely.
In the movie, they make it to Kafiristan, train a small army and, thanks to a lucky coincidence having to do with a masonic symbol Connery is wearing, inherit the kingdom of Alexander the Great.
It was luck that got them over the pass in the mountains, and luck that got us in the front door of our theater. Yes we did train a small army — of cashiers, ushers and concessionaires — and, for a time we wore the crowns of entrepreneurs. We never did build a rope-bridge (they did in the movie) back to our normal lives; which is to say we never had the exit plan every good soldier of fortune should have. (In case you somehow haven’t watched The Man Who Would Be King, I will only say the rope bridge and what happens there is worth the whole film).
Dated and unapologeticly macho, not to mention Eurocentric, it’s nonetheless a brilliant movie; Huston waited several decades to make it, almost casting Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable (but Bogie died, and Gable followed him shortly after that). Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas almost moved into the roles, almost followed by Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. Of the three, only the last pair intrigues me.
This movie was undoubtedly a terrible choice for our (mostly poor, racially diverse) audiences, a cynical tale about the corruption inherent in armies of occupation (the British Raj certainly was that and a lot else — as when Peachy throws an Indian man carelessly out the door of a moving train, ostensibly for littering the floor with watermelon seeds). Who could like these guys? (Ah, but you can identify with them! – that's what happens when characters are that well drawn).
The movie sold hardly any tickets. What were we thinking? How can I not have known from that day forward we were doomed on our own private trek? Why has it taken me better than forty years to discover the misplaced adventurer in myself? It was almost worth personal bankruptcy, to see that movie in a real palace.
1. An earlier version of this post hails from 2015, and elicited a few comments. Here’s Clifford Browder, 5/6/15, recalling his own childhood:
I grew up on British movies of the 1930s — yes, way back then — that glorified the Empire and those who fought for it. I never thought about the native peoples and their point of view, but those movies didn't want you to. It wasn't about politics; I and boys like me just wanted to be immersed in an exotic world with lots of adventure, casts of thousands, etc., and the "good guys" always win. Your movie is of a later date, obviously, and more critical. But those old movies — often Technicolor epics by Alexander Korda — were fun. But they wouldn't fly today.
2. And Beth Gorrie, same day:
A gentle reflection on the magic of your movie palace & that mad, quirky movie. What do you suppose is the basis for the timeless appeal of a film like Casablanca & its broad audience? Can't be just romance. Bromance?