The Man Who Would King (1975): The story behind the film & the conflicts behind the establishment of the British Empire, 1830-1901

The film The Man Who Would be King is director John Huston’s interpretation of British Imperial policy and the idealized exploits of the adventurers and soldiers of Queen Victoria’s Empire in the late 19th century inspired by the original short novel. In particular the movie concerns the exploits of two former British army officers’ adventures in Kafiristan, a remote part of the wild and open mountain ranges of Afghanistan.

Based on the novel of the same name by famed Imperial era author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), The Man Who Would Be King is an historical inspired if ultimately idealize portrait of the imperial age and spirit. The real life adventures of James Brooke, the White Rajah of Brunei, mentioned very briefly in the original story, is most certainly an inspiration for Kipling's original 1888 novel.

The story begins as the reminisces of Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, two former soldiers in the British Army who are planning an expedition to the remote region of Kafiristan, in the Hindu Kush mountain region of Afghanistan. Both Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Dravot (Sean Connery) are rather unapologetic believers in the “white man’s burden” whose experiences in the other Imperialist wars of the period have shaped their opinions of the British Empire and its subjects. 

With a small stockpile of Martini-Henry rifles and ammunition, the two adventurers (and filibusters) set out from the Khyber Pass, on the border of the British Raj (modern-day Pakistan), planning to install Dravot as King of Kafiristan, a region inhabited by mostly non-Muslims.

Sir Michael Caine and Sir Thomas Sean Connery star in The Man Who Would Be King

The Khyber Pass historically is a vastly important mountain range and from British Rule in India and Afghanistan, to Soviet Russia’s campaign in the 1980’s in Afghanistan and into today’s American-UK led intervention, the Khyber is critical to the regions stability because it is the gateway to the country.

Carnehan remarks in the film as they clandestinely cross the border into the territory not controlled by Britain (smuggling weapons nevertheless) that “last time Danny and me came through the Khyber Pass we fought our way, yard by bloody yard-and General Bobs’ called us heroes.” He is of course referencing General Frederick Roberts campaign during the Second Anglo-Afghan War from 1878-1880, which ceded control of much of Afghanistan to the British.

Battle of Futtehabad 1879 
'Captain Manners C. Wood, 10th Hussars, about to be killed by an afghan before Lieutenant Fisher brained the Afghan with the butt end of a carbine.' Illustrated London News, 1879

British interest in Afghanistan spans back much further than General Roberts’s campaign which ended with his victory in Kandahar  September 1880 and signing of the Treaty of Gandamak. Born in 1832 in India, Roberts is typical as a mid to high ranking British officer of the period in that he was born into a privileged background. [1]

His father had served in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842)- 'Bobs' himself had an illustrious career with posts held in India and Ireland, with active service in the Indian Rebellion, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) campaign, and in Afghanistan, with posts in Natal and Transvaal, and later as Commander-in-Chief in South Africa during the Second Boer War. [1]

Lt. General Roberts during the Second Anglo-Afghan War

As the film The Man Who Would Be King presents this region was still untamed, tribal warfare still ruled in Kafiristan, a region which represents in this film one of the last untouched lands during the mid to late colonial period from 1870 to 1900 which had not been conquered by the British Empire or any other colonial power. What led the British to Afghanistan was the fear of Russian Imperial aspirations in Central Asia in what came to be called the Great Game.

The Great Game, India, Afghanistan, England and Russia

In 1828 London was concerned that the Czar would decide to invade India through Afghanistan, so the Prime Minister at this time, the Duke of Wellington took a more hands on approach to diplomacy in the region. This led to increased British interest in the provinces closest to the Punjab and India. These events led to the period known as the Great Game, in which most of Central Asia was divided between British and Russian spheres of influence. As it is today much of Afghanistan was itself divided between ancient tribal loyalties and varying religious movements, making the frontier regions very hostile and dangerous places for western travelers.

Very loosely based on actual events, The Man Who Would Be King amalgamates several events from the history of British Imperialism in Afghanistan and elsewhere from circa 1870-1890, to portray Afghanistan in the time directly after the 1880’s. Dravot’s character is based on the adventures of an American, Josiah Harlan, a ‘freebooter’ and political schemer who held various positions in the government of Emir Dost Mohamad, the leader of Afghanistan who’s unwillingness to bend to all British diplomatic demands led to the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Josiah Harlan, titular Prince of Ghor

Harlan was named Prince of Ghor for his service and was more of an opportunist,than opposed to the greater idealism of the Dravot character of the film and original story. After installing a pro-British ruler, the Shah Suja, the tribal Afghans rose in rebellion against British rule and the threat of the Singh Empire of the Punjab encroaching further into Afghanistan. The first British conflict in this land ended in infamy, with the retreat from Kabul which began in January of 1842.

In the wake of the Afghan uprising a group comprised of British soldiers, some of their families, political refugees, and Bengal levies tried to escape back into British held territory in Jalabad. [2] Of the more than 700 British soldiers and almost double that amount of Indians, only Dr. William Brydon would make it to safety in Jalabad.

The rest were killed in repeated assaults by Afghan tribesman or imprisoned, the last Britain’s to survive the massacre were the men of the 44th foot, who made their last stand at Gandamak. [3] 

Last Stand of the 44th at Gandamak      

British imperial army, society, culture, psyche, experience

The British wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Asia, beginning in 1839, are indicative of the blueprint which was established by political and military policy makers of the period who created the Imperialist doctrine. One hallmark of this policy is the recruitment of levies or volunteers from all over the Empire to serve her Majesty wherever needed in any capacity when called upon to do so.

From Indians, to the Gurkhas, and the Sikhs, and with other large recruiting pools from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Wales and Ireland, British imperialism during the many 19th century conflicts which defined it’s course was a very multi-ethnic institution, albeit ruled solely by Englishmen of the higher social classes. The irony did not escape many enlisted colonists who were products of the imperialist system, who regardless fought and died for the Empire and showed great courage and loyalty to Britain in the process of doing so.

These colonial troops whether levies or enlisted men formed the backbone of the British armed forces and were also often the ones who paid the dearest price for the success of Britain during the Imperial Age c.1800-1900. Besides death from a bullet or spear, the enlisted man contended with sickness, disease, malnutrition, and other natural hazards which went along with conquering the remote regions of Africa and Asia. Sickness being the major killer, if one survived the slew the diseases the one only had to be lucky enough to not be killed in combat.

 Fear of Russian influence in Europe and in Asia as well was compounded by the Crimean War, fought from 1853-1856 on primarily the Crimean Peninsula of the Ottoman Empire. It was in this war that combat forever changed; with the advent of deadlier technologies the antiquated Napoleonic style of warfare had officially reached its epoch, evidenced by the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 and immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s now famous poem. “While horse and hero fell, they that had fought so well came thro' the jaws of Death, back from the mouth of Hell, all that was left of them, left of six hundred.”

Crimea was very critical because many of the later figures critical to British Imperialism such as Sir Garnet Wolseley, Charles Gordon ‘Pasha’, and Evelyn Wood were reared in this first instance of the Imperial ambitions of the West clashing with Russia in the name of an Empire in Asia. [4]

After the Great Game: British Africa-Cape to Cairo, the long war for Afghanistan

Coupled with the failed Indian Mutiny which lasted from 1857 to 1859, British interests in Africa seem to supersede all others in the latter half of the 19th century, following the defeat in Afghanistan and wars with the Sikh, with perhaps the vested Western interest in China directly behind those in Africa, where the desire to have an empire from ‘Cape (South Africa) to Cairo, Egypt was an obsession for a few.

In the many histories on British Imperialist policy several conflicts from the later period have been immortalized also by popular culture and film, the Zulu War of 1879, Gordon Pasha at Khartoum in 1885, and the Second Anglo-Boer of 1899-1902, all remain important to those who study British Imperialism in the context of the Scramble for Africa.

One interesting aspect of British Imperialism portrayed in The Man Who Would Be King is the desire of many would-be British adventurers during this era to “go native.” Often this meant shedding the red coat, later khaki coat, and pith helmet of the Imperial soldier, and wearing the local fashions.

But it extended to taking native wives, speaking the language, and living amongst the populace almost in disguise. Dravot and Carnehan don native garb before they pass through the Khyber to help blend into the predominately Muslim population (and escape capture- execution if discovered crossing the border with weapons). Certainly there is a sense of giving in to the primal urge of freedom which inspired these proper Victorian, christian men who had previously lived comfortably within the Empire's confines- to break free from army and/or company life to choose their own destiny.

Certainly this was a motivating factor throughout the Imperial age, conquest, exploration, and adventure, the chance to become rich and maybe famous once one published their memoirs detailing their various exploits in a foreign land.

Scottish born Alexander Burnes did just this, gaining nominal fame in England for publishing his travels in India and Afghanistan as a representative of the East India Company. His violent death at the hands of an angry mob in 1841 was the beginning of the end of the British disaster in Afghanistan. [[5]]

Despite this setback British influence in Central Asia was maintained through the Sikh client state and the large colonial apparatus already established in the British Raj. England’s third war in Afghanistan in 1919, a product of the turmoil fomented by the end of the Great War is yet another example of foreign intervention in Afghanistan’s long history. A history which continues today with the long US-UK led intervention in the region following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Major British imperialist conflicts c.1830-1860

First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-1842

First Opium War 1839-1842

First Anglo-Sikh War 1845-1846

Second Anglo-Sikh War 1848-1849

Second Anglo-Burmese War 1852

Crimean War 1853-1856

Indian Rebellion 1857

Second Opium War 1856-1860

[1] Wessels, AndrĂ©, from Victoria’s Generals, ed. Beckett, Ian F.W., Corvi, Stephen J. pp. 165-166
[2] Waller, 244-246
[3] Waller, pp. 200-202
[4] Beckett, Corvi Victoria’s Generals
[5] Waller, pp 200-201

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