Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) is a newspaper reporter in the India of the 1880s and one night he is working alone in his office when a man who looks like a broken down old beggar shuffles into the room. Kipling wonders what he wants, but is surprised when he tells him they know each other from three summers ago... then he remembers. It was on a train through the sub-continent that Kipling met Peachy (Michael Caine), an ex-soldier who was keen to keep his corner of the British Empire held up. Peachy was nothing short of a rogue, and had stolen Kipling's watch at the station, but instantly regretted it when he saw by its inscription that he was a Freemason like him. He gave it back under the subterfuge that another passenger had stolen it - a passenger who Peachy had thrown out of the moving train - and by and by persuaded the writer to pass on a message to another Mason, his partner in crime, Danny (Sean Connery).
Adapter (with Gladys Hill) and director of this Kipling story, John Huston, had become enthralled with it when he read it from his sickbed as a child, and had tried numerous times to get the project off the ground as a film. First it was Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable who were to be Peachy and Danny, then when Bogart died Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. In the sixties, Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton were the stars, but the money fell through; in the seventies, it was to be a vehicle for Paul Newman and Robert Redford until Newman suggested British actors would be more appropriate for the leads. And so, thankfully, one of the great screen friendships was brought to life by Caine and Connery and you can't imagine anyone doing it better.
The thing about the two main characters is that they're opportunist charlatans, yet you can't help but admire them for not only their bravery but their sheer spirit of adventure which is vividly conveyed here. And their cheek of course, where they plan to make their way to a remote Asian territory and basically take over, setting themselves up as overlords due to their expertise with battle strategies - and the cache of rifles they smuggle with them. Once ensconced in their position of power, they will exploit the natives, steal their riches, and return to England as wealthy men. Add to that their tendency to shoot people in cold blood, and you don't have the most admirable of duos, and yet, their bond is so strong, their charisma so potent, that they are never less than utterly compelling.
A mountain trek nearly ends in the freezing temperatures, but it seems their God is with them when their resigned laughter starts an avalanche that provides a safe passage for them. Once they reach the remote lands whose natives are wary to see them, it's as if they've arrived on an alien planet: the rendering of this society, with Oswald Morris's stunning photography, is completely convincing, and goes some way to bringing out the humour and menace of Danny and Peachy's situation. Soon they have helped one town to beat their antagonists, and in combat foolhardy Danny takes an arrow in the chest, but it sticks in his bandolier leaving him unharmed.
Nevertheless the locals now consider Danny a God, and before long Danny is believing his own hype as he becomes ruler of all he surveys. They have an Indian translator in the shape of Billy Fish (the excellent Saeed Jaffrey), but he's not strong enough to point out that Danny is heading for a fall, or Danny is too arrogant to accept it. This hubris, more than their greed, is the men's Achilles' Heel and while Peachy realises that they would be better off escaping with as much loot as possible (they are offered a hoard of gold and gems to do with what they will), Danny grows drunk with power, demanding a wife (Shakira Caine) and not listening to Billy's warnings of how this is un-Godlike behaviour. It's Danny and Peachy's relationship that makes The Man Who Would Be King so great, and when Danny rejects his friend it's genuinely sad, just as their final scene together where they must reap what they have sown yet still have time to patch up their differences is moving. In many ways, this is an overlooked classic of its kind. Music by Maurice Jarre.