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“The Man Who Would Be King” by John Huston Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2022

Introduction

After exploring the history and culture of the Western ancestors, many writers and filmmakers directed their attention to the stories about the East. The unexplored culture and traditions fascinated and astonished the audience. The Westerners started to compare their values and characteristics to the ones of the East, often portraying the Easterners as weak and unwise. Literature and films that depicted and sometimes misrepresented eastern culture created a concept of orientalism. The film The Man Who Would Be King, directed in 1975 by John Huston, is an example of portraying western and eastern people and how the two seemingly opposite cultures interact with each other. In this movie, Huston attempted to show good and bad sides for both cultures and explored the difference between the two worlds – the West and the East, while reinforcing the logic of imperialistic saviors.

Orientalism and Comparison of Western and Eastern Cultures

The film The Man Who Would Be King follows the adventures of two British men, Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, who travel to Kafiristan to become kings by supplying the natives with rifles to conquer their enemies (Huston). The main part of this adventure takes place in Kafiristan and shows the lives of natives, their religion, and culture. From the beginning, the cultures of East and West are put into comparison, which can be seen in the first and second scenes of the movie. The first scene shows a marketplace in the East, immediately exposing the audience to the sounds and visuals of a different culture. The following moments show British reality and the protagonists of the story. They are portrayed as smart and charismatic individuals, capturing the audience’s attention from the start. Although they steal and blackmail other people, they are considered to be the likable heroes in this story.

Peachy and Danny’s plan to go to Kafiristan and give the native people weapons is rooted in the prejudice against these people, showing them as helpless savages, who are not able to fight for freedom without the help of the British soldiers. The negative portrayal becomes more apparent, as the protagonists arrive in Kifiristan and meet the people they want to persuade with an intention to enrich themselves. The native people in this place are different from the other modernized Easterners because they do not know anything about technology or weaponry of the British soldiers. The audience sees their customs of eating, singing, and dancing, which the protagonists deem barbaric. As a contrast, the scene of Peachy and Danny signing a contract prior to their departure shows them as reserved and logical people. This opposition in characteristics sets a course for the rest of the movie. Peachy and Danny assume the roles of mentors for the people of Kafiristan, picturing themselves as saviors of the uneducated natives. This relationship between the protagonists and indigenous people continues the narrative of barbaric native people and educated righteous imperialists. However, the relationship between Peachy, Danny, and Billy Fish is different. Billy is a westernized native person, who adapted to the new environment. He lacks the qualities of his people but has the traits of a Westerner instead.

The display of cruelty from the people of Kafiristan is opposed by the protagonists’ mercifulness in a number of scenes. Upon conquering new territories, Peachy and Danny do not wish to kill the surrendering people, instead, asking them to join the rest of the captured lands and live in peace. These actions are supposed to portray them as forgiving and virtuous, although they mostly care about the money and treasures that they can acquire after the fight. The protagonists’ motives are not righteous in any way, as Peachy and Danny are mostly moved by greed. Huston does not hide the mixed emotions of the main characters as they become more and more enwrapped in the situation. At the end of the movie, the negative depictions of the native people as savages fade with their need to fight. However, the conflict between the two main heroes emerges from their desire to rule. In these scenes, the audience can see the trait of spirituality that is often ascribed to the eastern people.

Conclusion

In the film The Man Who Would Be King, Huston follows some principles of orientalism. The portrayal of the native people as needlessly cruel and uneducated savages is opposed to the depiction of the protagonists as clever, cunning, and logical individuals. This movie, while having a tragic end, still portrays the western characters as saviors and rulers. The native people, on the other hand, are endowed with all the traits that are typical for oriental depiction. They are superstitious and scared, brutal and unorganized, helpless and dependent. It should be noted, however, that these negative qualities are not ascribed to the westernized characters, such as Billy Fish.

Work Cited

Huston, John, director. The Man Who Would Be King. Columbia Pictures, 1975.

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