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.
It may have been filmed in Morocco, but I was 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 a 2672-seat 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 some jewelry 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 that 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 back to our normal lives (which is to say we never had an exit plan every good soldier of fortune should have). (In case you somehow haven’t watched this exquisite movie, I will only say the rope bridge and what happens there is worth the whole film).
The Man Who Would Be King is a brilliant movie; Huston had 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.
Regardless of what it meant and means to 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 still identify with them!).
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 almost forty years to discover the misplaced adventurer in myself? However, it was almost worth personal bankruptcy, to see it in a real movie palace.
A tip of the hat to Matt Lambros on whose marvelous website, After the Final Curtain, I found this excellent quote: "People buy tickets to theatres, not movies." — Marcus Loew