The Man Who Would Be King follows ne’er-do-well soldiers and Freemasons Peachy (Michael Caine) and Danny (Sean Connery) on their journey to become rulers of Kafiristan. The tale is recited to fellow Freemason Rudyard Kipling (who wrote the short story the movie is based on) by Peachy after he returns, ragged and possibly mad.
The two con-men, firm in their belief of superiority above the savage, non-British people they set out to conquer manage to make it Kafiristan with twenty state-of-the-art rifles. While their military background and ability to think quickly, and charisma are critical to them being able to pull off this incredible con, it is mostly luck that leads to their success. For one, they find a Gurkha named Billy Fish that speaks English and the local language. As Danny and Peachy help the village they first encounter conquer their enemies, they slowly gain respect as war leaders. Then Danny is struck by an arrow, but unhurt by it. The native people think this makes him a god, possibly the Son of Sikander (Alexander the Great, who previously ruled the area) when in reality, it had struck his ammo belt underneath his clothes. Then, when Danny is ‘tested’ by the high priests (they want to shoot him with another arrow, shirtless this time) his Freemason necklace is revealed, which happens to be the symbol of Alexander the Great. The priests bow to him and give him their treasure (a hoard of jewels and gold).
The con completed, Peachy wants to take the treasure and leave. Unfortunately, Danny becomes convinced of his own divinity and power. Here the movie examines how far the idea of White Supremacy can go. Danny begins to believe he is the Son of Sikander, that he should stay as god-king of Kafiristan, create a modern nation (by western standards of course). He is convinced of his right to rule, and that he knows the right way to rule.
Before they left on their adventure Peachy and Danny signed a contract not to partake in alcohol or women. Tempted throughout their stay, Danny eventually gives into his lust, which is unsurprising as he doesn’t plan to leave or complete the plan they had made. It is this base human drive that is his undoing. The god is brought low by the woman he desires. Believing she will die if Danny sleeps with her, the woman, Roxanne, bites him and draws blood. Enraged at being tricked a mob chases Danny, Peachy, and Billy. Billy is killed trying to fight the mob off. Danny is killed and Peachy crucified for a day.
The film reminds me of Heart of Darkness in its message. It shows the perils of falling victim to your own sense of pride and superiority. Peachy and Danny thought that India was too small for men like them. They relied heavily on luck while all along calling it skill and cunning. It was for these reasons that they failed, that one was killed and the other left poor and half-mad. They treated their ‘subjects’ like savages and were in turn treated savagely.