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Gods among men

07/01/2011

Ha. You thought I’d forgotten, or given up, or had a horrendous accident. Worry not. My postaday2011 mission continues, admittedly close to the wire, but continues nonetheless. The reasons for the delay on the face of it seem numerous, its been a day of things going on and things to organise, people to give lifts to, grocery shopping, etc, etc, etc. The fact is its because I overslept this morning. By quite a considerable way. My plan had been to get the boring chores out of the way first thing this morning, watch The Man Who Would Be King which has been sitting on my Sky+ since christmas day then chill out in the afternoon until it was time to go round to my folks for dinner. However I underestimated the toll my week of returning to exercise and healthy living had taken on me and I slept away most of the morning. On the plus side I still managed to find the time to watch The Man Who Would Be King. Good news!

Based on a short story first published in 1888, The Man Who Would Be King follows the exploits of two cantankerous soldiers (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) who hatch a scheme to become kings of the nation of Kafiristan by training the first tribe they come across to utilise their modern methods of warfare to crush their enemies and unite all the tribes of the country. Its a wonderful film and a brilliant story and deserves far more respect and renown that it would appear to have. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but if you haven’t seen and keep on reading there’s a chance I will. As always, your choice.

Daniel (Connery) and Peachy (Caine) are blaggers of the highest order, earning their living whichever way they can, often outside the law. The Kafiristan plan is their big pay day. Use their military know how and equipment to elevate one of the local warlords to the position of king and rule the country by proxy in order to exploit the country’s resources for their own personal gain. They sign a legally binding contract to abstain from booze and women and watch each others backs until such time as they become kings and set off on the arduous journey to Kafiristan. After some near misses they arrive in the country and quickly establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with, largely by virtue of their modern firearms. Meeting a Gurkha who has joined a tribe after being the only survivor of an ill fated geographic expedition to the country they have an interpereter and guide. It’s not long before the plan starts to work, the chief of the tribe accepting their help to conquer a neighbouring tribe. The plan takes an unexpected turn when the population become convinced Daniel is a god, the returning son of Alexander The Great. Exploiting this to its full Daniel and Peachy manipulate the populous sufficiently that they are given access to Alexander’s hoard of treasure, wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Just as all is going to plan, Daniel starts to believe his own hype and convinces himself he is fulfilling his destiny. His arrogance proves his undoing when he attempts to marry a local girl and in the process is revealed to be a mere mortal. A little bit upset by the fraud, his disgruntled followers ensure he meets a rather sticky end.

It really is a phenomenal film. What struck me today (its been a while since I last saw it) was how horribly relevant it was to today. A story written at the height of British colonialism criticising the attitude that we westerners could turn up in a country, “civilise” it and rule over it for our own gain it resonates all too much with the world stage today. Both Daniel and Peachy served in Afghanistan in the British Army pacifying the locals. They go to Kafiristan with the intention of training the population in their own methods, of pacifying a war torn country by civilising it, of exploiting this process to plunder the resources of that nation. Sound familiar? Over a century later and nothing really changes.

While our heroes stick to their written agreement the plan works rather well. There are early indications that Daniel is a bit more impulsive than the more down to earth Peachy. His impulsiveness becomes apparent in the first Kafiristan battle where he leads a premature cavalry charge at great risk to all involved, seemingly for personal glory. Its this impetuous manoeuvre that has him mistaken for a god when an arrow that should have killed him is stopped by his bandolier. After this, relations between them start to deteriorate. As the adulation for their new messiah grows, Daniel becomes intoxicated by his new found power. He begins to insist Peachy also treat him like a god, you know, to maintain the illusion and ensure the plan is a success.

He does a reasonable job of being a god. His judgements seem just, he reforms the way the country operates so that the tribes support each other instead of fighting. He essentially achieves the purported colonial goal of improving the country with western ideals. Everything is good in the hood. Until Daniel’s ego takes hold. He becomes giddy with power, forgetting the original mission and turning his back on his old friend in the process. He starts to believe that he is indeed the son of Alexander the Great, that he was destined to arrive at this place and become their king. Drunk with power he oversteps himself and reveals his mortal nature. Here is the point at last, that no matter how noble the intentions may be of the colonial invaders or even how successful their intentions for reform and improvements are, ultimately they can only hold this position while they maintain an obective, selfless approach. After too much time in charge they will make bad decisions because they feel that they can and at this point the native population will see through the illusion and have their retribution. It costs Daniel his head, and very nearly does for Peachy. That’s the worst part, that Daniels arrogance leads to Peachy suffering too.

Its a cautionary tale and no mistake. On a personal level it values loyalty above all else but there is a bigger message here – that we should be careful of trying to impose our standards of living and behaviour on other cultures. The fact that such an old story can be so terrifyingly relevant today is a testament to the writing but also a depressing indictment of how little progress we’ve really made.

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