Cinema: Rogues' Regiment

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Directed by JOHN HUSTON Screenplay by JOHN HUSTON and GLADYS HILL

John Huston has been wanting to make this movie for more than 20 years. It was worth the wait. A mellow, brassy, vigorous movie, rich in adventure and melancholy, The Man Who Would Be King represents the best work Huston has done in a decade. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947), The Man Who Would Be King is also a meditation on the excesses of ambition and avarice.

Huston and Gladys Hill's adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling short story set in 19th century India takes some liberties with plot but holds to the original spirit. Kipling himself even shows up as a major character, wittily played by Christopher Plummer. He serves as a stand-in for the story's narrator, a slightly dazed sounding board for the wild ideas and adventures of Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine). These two shopworn soldiers of fortune, after time in Her Majesty's forces, set out on their grandest exploit: to become kings of the remote country of Kafiristan, a primitive land in a far corner of Afghanistan. "They have two-and-thirty heathen idols there," Danny announces. "We'll be the thirty-third and -fourth."

Penny Whirligig. Dravot and Carnehan succeed beyond their wildest dreams, and then fall farther than their worst fears. They sweep into the country with a shipment of rifles, organize the natives into armies and take over as rulers. Danny is taken for a god and made king. The .wealth of the entire country is at hand and ready for plunder. Danny, however, decides to live the dream, take a wife and settle into monarchy. Before Peachy starts back across the mountain with half the national treasury, Danny asks him to stay for the wedding. At the ceremony, Danny's new bride bites him on the cheek, and he bleeds. He is thus revealed as mortal and punished accordingly. Danny stands on a rope bridge over a chasm, while one of his former subjects cuts the supports with a sword. Peachy, held captive, watches his comrade tumble from the bridge, "twisting in the air like a penny whirligig. He took half an hour to fall."

The movie is sentimental, without apology, but hard-edged too. The sight of Peachy's booty sliding down a mountainside recalls the gold dust in Sierra Madre blowing away in the Mexican wind. Huston includes many of the visual asides and unguarded gestures — like a village chieftain preparing for a beheading by sharpening his sword on a stone wall — that have always given his work such rich texture. Caine and Connery make a splendid couple of cronies, full of bluff and swagger.

The Man Who Would Be King is a welcome return by a film maker who, like Peachy and Danny, has indulged in many precipitous adventures. And, like Peachy, Huston, 69, has come back to tell the tale.

Jay Cocks