Huston had loved Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” since he was a child, according to the book The Hustons, by Lawrence Grobel. Kipling was 22 in 1888, when he wrote the short story, and had been shot at while exploring the setting. Huston’s adaptation was a dream project which had morphed into the purgatory of lost film masterpieces, like Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Alejandro Jodorowski’s Dune, or Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness. Francis Ford Coppola wound up adapting the Joseph Conrad novel with a post-Vietnam War mentality. His Apocalypse Now is about a good man corrupted by absolute power. Huston took the lessons of the unpopular war in the opposite direction. The Man Who Would Be King is about bad men who are held accountable to the indigenous people they conquer.
The Man Who Would Be King is about power, greed and the manifest destiny of entitled Europeans. It lampoons the superiority of British colonialism. In a “Making of” documentary about the film, Huston says he found the “ideal” actors to capture his subversive intent. This movie was the only time Connery played with his lifelong friend Michael Caine, besides A Bridge Too Far, which had too many bridges and a platoon of stars between them. The pair met at a cast party for the first show Connery acted in, a touring company’s production of South Pacific in 1954. On July 9 of that year, Huston told Allied Artists’ Harold Mirish he wanted his next film to be the first and only on-screen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.
Huston originally had The Man Who Would Be King slated as his next production after he finished Moby Dick (1956). He planned to begin principal photography in India between November 1955 and January 1956 and was negotiating to film in the Todd-AO process. Huston had worked with Bogart on the very first film he directed, The Maltese Falcon in 1941, and the pair continued a string of successful and innovative films together. Though working fairly steadily, Bogart was battling esophageal cancer and ultimately succumbed to it on Jan. 14, 1957. Huston discussed the film with Gable while filming The Misfits, but the actor known as “The King of Hollywood” then also died in 1960.
Richard Burton was set to play the role against Peter O’Toole, and Huston kept start dates ready from January 1966 to January 1967, waiting for the opportunity, but the year passed and it never came. The film almost reunited Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting’s Robert Redford and Paul Newman, who told Huston the film deserved English actors, and suggested Connery and Caine specifically.
Caine immediately jumped at the role just because his part had been written for Bogart. He’d chosen his stage name after seeing Bogart fidget with his ball-bearings as Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. As for Connery, the Scottish actor captures the essence of Gable’s screen persona in the film. They both bring an amused cynicism toward their roles. Both actors furrow their brows and project a sensual gravitas.