Based upon a Rudyard Kipling short story this is a memorable fun adventure movie directed by the long serving Hollywood director John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay. It is the only opportunity to see Michael Caine and Sean Connery, those two British screen icons, play opposite each other in a feature movie. One may have doubted it would work but they complement each other rather well. Perhaps they decided not to repeat the experience, as one couldn’t outshine the other no matter how hard they tried. The chemistry between them is really down to Huston’s outstanding dialogue. To place the audience in location and period there are some great early scenes of the late nineteenth century railways in India, where there were more passengers perched on top of the train than sitting in the carriages. It’s just as well that there were no low bridges on the route.
The story is related by Caine’s character; one Sergeant Peachy Carnehan; to Kipling who is played by Christopher Plummer displaying a face with a permanent look of astonishment.
Peachy and Sergeant Daniel Dravot, Connery’s character, are two soldiers of the Crown who have served many years in India. Like Kipling both sergeants are freemasons and this eventually proves their undoing; nothing new about that then. Having fought in countless battles and helping to make the ruling class filthy rich, they decide its their turn for untold wealth and set off together and conquer Kafiristan, a land where no white man had been since Alexandra the Great in 300BC. The idea of two men conquering an entire country might seem impossible but not to our dashing duo.
The journey to the Promised Land however is not a walk in the park as there are skirmishes with bandits and soaring snow covered mountains to conquer. With no transport, other than a pack mule they stole from the bandits, they arrive in Kafiristan by the skin of their teeth. The land is made up of countless tribes all warring against their neighbours and their favourite sport seems to be a version of soccer using the decapitated head of a beaten tribe’s leader as the ball. Our boys soon set about training tribesmen into an army barking out orders parade ground style resplendent in their red tunics. They are assisted by cheeky Billy Fish the only survivor of a scientific mission. This was a necessary role to provide the duo with a convenient interpreter. After the first victory they take in the vanquished to help defeat the next tribe. This process continues until there are no enemies left.
Daniel declares himself as King and dreams of an audience with Queen Victoria as her equal. Peachy being more of a realist is only interested in wealth. Having conquered all before them it’s time to call upon the head priest in the holy city of Sikandergul whereupon Daniel is declared a God as his mason’s pendant has the same symbol as their idol to Sikander, which in Kafiristani translates to Alexander the Great. Not much of a test for such a high vaulted position but they’ve waited a long time for this reincarnation. Our duo go along with this mistaken identity as it comes with all the treasure in the city, enough to buy the world ten times over.
Peachy as is his nature wants to cut and run with a mule train suitably packed with priceless jewels, but Daniel begins to believe he is a god and decides to stay and marry a wench who has taken his eye. He should have read the god manual, as anyone who has lived in Kafiristan would know, a woman whose bedded by a god will not survive the experience. So at the ceremony she bites him drawing blood. Catastrophe! A god doesn’t bleed blood and a full-scale riot breaks out. As the lads look to their escape Caine repeats that epic scene from Zulu with a cry of “front rank fire-rear rank fire”. There’s just enough time for a gusty rendition of that rousing old army hymn “the son of god goes forth to war” to the tune of “the minstrel boy”, which is entwined into a fine music score by the multiple Oscar winner Maurice Jarre.
All in all it’s a great movie full of adventure with perfect casting, superb acting, spectacular scenery and an endless supply of extras. It had Sean Connery’s best performance to date, which was only surpassed later by his interpretation of an Irish cop in “The Untouchables”. One couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the cockney Peachy but Michael Caine. That said I found the most entertaining character to be Billy Fish, audaciously played by Saeed Jaffrey.
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