Reworking the Novel: Language and representation in The Man Who Would Be King

The binary oppositions of the colonial self and the colonised Other are habitually encoded in colonialist discourse as a dichotomy necessary to domination.[1] Within imperialist Britain, the ideologies supporting the colonial vision were continually propagated from the 1880s onwards through exhibitions, parades, and popular literature;[2] yet some of the 19th century’s most prevalent works belonged to Rudyard Kipling, who somewhat toyed with the preconceived hierarchies of racial superiority. Many of his imperialist texts, such as The Man Who Would Be King destabilise the fixed binaries integral to the imperialist ideologies between the supposedly supreme white and the exotic Other, with each story establishing a fluid, self-conscious yet undetermined nature of power residing within colonial regions.

Indeed, Zohreh T. Sullivan acknowledges the continual power shifts in Kipling’s stories. It is his sense of indeterminacy that ‘mark Kipling’s narratives about India, his inability to secure some absolute ground either for the cause of the empire or for his best loved India’.[3] Sullivan also goes on to state that ‘because his primary identification was with the land of his childhood, his narratives betray the ambivalence of his position as a coloniser’.[4] We can therefore deduce that Kipling’s work is overtly less critical of indigenous populations, and instead examines the unobtainable nature of the utopian visions of imperialist rule. This is particularly evident in The Man Who Would Be King, which maps the journey of two British soldiers in their quest to dominate the lands and the people of Kafiristan in their self- proclaimed mission to take ‘the whole country as far as its worth having’.[5]  Kipling’s tale elegantly explores the idea of kingship and power through the distilled dream of the empire, and its repercussions, possessing such a degree of potency that it has been reshaped through the medium of film.

It was in 1975 that ‘The Man…’ was reimagined by John Huston, who created a distinctly epic version of the original tale.  Through its performativity, this cinematic story is less ambiguous in its racial depictions, appearing to pay homage to the heyday of empire cinema through its use of landscape, language and narrative. Critics have conceded that Huston’s reconstruction does seem problematic in some instances; according to Alan Spiegel, the cinematic successor proves ‘too comfortable in its recapitulation of the past’.[6] While Spiegel’s comment is open to debate, we can deduce that he is here referring to the way in which the adaptation is performing as a visual representation.  It is the performativity of Huston’s work in its visual image and language that I wish to investigate in this essay, analysing how the adaptation differs from Kipling’s original text in relation to the imperialist propagations pronounced by the dogmas of empire cinema.

The plot of both Kipling’s and Huston’s story is virtually the same; two renegades from the British Army, Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachey (Michael Caine) declare that ‘India isn’t big enough for such as us’,[7] and instead harbour desires to become Kings. Consequently, Dravot and Peachey set off in search of a Kingdom in the form of Kafiristan, which they manage to win and rule, but ultimately lose through one, terribly conceited act. Dravot is eventually murdered, whilst Peachey is crucified but lives to tell the tale. Essentially the story functions as a reworking of the classic Marlovian theme of the overreacher; men who are admired and rewarded for their ambition, then consequently punished for it.[8]

Huston’s work however differs from its predecessor through its means of communication to the audience, particularly in its exaggeration of both language and image. The film functions as an example of transmedia storytelling, or what is culturally deemed as ‘the adaptation’ by modern standards. Short stories are frequently subjected to this procedure, with some transmedia narratives, such as those of film, creating a more capacious experience through visual representations. Indeed, Christine Geraghty identifies that cinematic adaptations provide a sense of reassurance through the familiarity of the story, but ‘through the fact of it being a new version… it promises changes….they allow for a… open narrative process in which it is possible to see variations in how particular incidents or characters are handled and how the familiar is updated’.[9] These representations, such as Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), certainly follows this mode of thinking through its performativity, with its overriding forms of augmentation residing within the framework of colonial India and empire cinema. The genre of empire cinema is one which I wish to examine in due course.

What we must first consider is how this ‘open narrative process’ works, and cannot necessarily function without complications. Indeed, Kamilla Elliott acknowledges the dangers of the literary adaptation and the contradictory elements between words and visual representations.


‘Film subjugates words to images as novels have subjugated images to words. Hybrid arts that favour images over words are particularly threatening to entrenched hierarchies of word over image, for they daily showcase the dominance of images over words. It is easier to maintain hierarchies between so-called “pure” arts with rhetoric and theory. But when words and images mix between art forms, they frequently disregard and contradict theories concerning them’.[10]


The key issue Elliott raises is that of cinema’s legitimacy. Through the medium of film, the resonance of the original tale may be lost, or else exaggerated to the point in which the predeceasing story can no longer be recognised. Whilst the plot of Huston’s story is fairly similar, it is the visual expressions of the film which ultimately raise uncertainties. Huston’s The Man…, in its ability to vividly and immediately represent visual and dramatic narrative through vast, sweeping shots of landscape, forces the short story to rapidly depart from external action to internal thought processes, from plot to character, and also from social to psychological realities.

Indeed, at 31.22-40[11] we are presented with a voice over from Peachey describing their journey across Pakistan, climaxing in an overlay of non-diegetic percussion, whilst Peachey and Dravot are framed in an extreme wide shot against the vast wilderness of the mountainside. The Man…’s cinematography, created by Oswald Morris, uses his distinguished celluloid palette of Technicolor productions to establish bold, sun drenched shots that exude an air of exotica. These scenes are notable for their similarities to Zoltan Korda’s adaptation of The Drum (1938), a signature work of empire cinema, which produced epic pictorials of its protagonist (Azim) framed against an expansive backdrop. In similar style, each of these films, far from emphasising the superiority of nature, in fact use natural surroundings to assert the authority of the hero. The continual shifts from mid and over the shoulder shots, combined with Peachey’s voice over, sharpens the focus of the narrative upon the soldiers, and thus solidifies their dominance over the countryside, which altogether presents landscape not as an intimidating force but one which holds open opportunity to be claimed.

The colonial plotline, combined with cinematic visualisations of alien landscape, demonstrates Huston’s homage to empire cinema in blatant form. This particular genre has frequently presented viewers with the contrasting images of the white, masculine and racially superior British imperialist, paralleled to the dark, subjugated inferior of the Indian. These depictions, dominating both British and Hollywood cinema during the 1930s-1940s,[12] therefore arguably performed as a work of propaganda, creating a specific representation of the empire in keeping with imperialist ideologies and visions. The vast landscapes which are so characteristic of the empire film signifies the colonial attempt to bring foreign wilderness within an imperialist framework,[13] a feat which appears to be re-established in Huston’s work. Essentially performing as a tribute to the era of empire cinema, the 1975 adaptation appears to recreate the distinctive imagery associated with this genre through its panoramic cinematography, orchestral music and its depictions of the white superior. Despite the eventual downfall of the soldiers, dynamics of power are fixed in the favour of Peachey and Dravot as the camera continually reinforces their dominance through its strategic shots, performing as a means to establish hierarchies between the colonisers and the colonised.

This directly contrasts to Kipling’s text; whilst concerning imperialist ideologies, it lacks the ability to create specific, dominating images through the subjective nature of language. Indeed, Peachey’s disjointed narrative in the original work merely describes Pakistan as ‘mountaineous, and the mules were most contrary, and the inhabitants was dispersed and solitary’.[14] While we can admire the cinematography created by Morris for its pure aesthetic appeal, and also his creation of an ‘open narrative process’, we do ultimately have to be aware of Elliott’s postulations regarding the subjugation of words. Cinematography, in the case of Huston’s work, performs to create a persuasive text, encouraging the viewer to devour the alluring images of the land and thus strip the short story of the private, mental images aroused by literary words. Once reconstructed through pictorials, the abstract representational essence of prose is thus eradicated,[15] with cinematic processes holding the potential to exert a power of its own by its ability to manipulate the viewer.

This relates to Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘The Cinema’, which locates film in the realms of the visual arts tradition, and sets it in contrast with prose. She associates visual art with the eye functioning primitively apart from the brain;[16] film viewers are the ‘savages of the twentieth century’[17] whose eyes ‘lick up’[18] the screen whilst their brains lie dormant. In other words, the audience merely consume the visual images presented before them. Along with the use of celebrity names such as Caine and Connery, Huston’s work performs in a manner which exaggerates and subjugates the humble descriptions originally created by Kipling in epic style. This is also evident at 59.49[19], in which the newly claimed lands of Peachey and Dravot are threatened by rival tribes. This scene in particular is very much reminiscent of empire cinema, echoing other Kipling adaptations works such as Gunga Din (1939) in its illustrious pictorials of battle. These considerations lead us to the propagations of George Grella, who identifies that this filmic genre depends upon  ‘panoramic and… the technicoloured imagination, the portrayal on a large canvas of a spectacular landscape which… dwarf the puny figures of the men posed against it, or… can magnify… heroism of their actions by its size and beauty’.[20] It is evident that these ideas can also be applied to Huston’s composition; the bold images of Morris, particularly his use of extreme wide shots, somewhat dominate through their lasting visual representation, threatening the ‘word over image’ hierarchy which holds the potential to detract from the resonance of language.

This links to my next line of discussion. Huston’s production also differ from Kipling’s tale through its use of prose; dialogues and voice overs function as a means to display the film’s distinct tongue-in-cheek performance, particularly in Caine’s performance as Peachey. Amplifying Kipling’s original depiction to ludicrous proportions, Caine’s character continually delivers comedic one liners centralising upon differences between himself and Dravot, compared to the native people of Kafiristan. Indeed, at 1.05.09[21] Peachey expresses his astonishment at the Ootah’s claims to be a great warrior, sarcastically exclaiming ‘great warrior eh? Well I never saw him in the thick of the fray’.[22] This reaction is met with some confusion from the chief. It seems Peachey exercises his ability to assert authority but also to mock those who he deems inferior, with his comedic play arguably functioning as a means to racialize morality.

This form of language is very much absent from Kipling’s tale and must therefore deduce that its purpose lies in its performativity. However, Huston has also attempted to incorporate some of Kipling’s literary language in his dialogue, which seem somewhat out of place in this comedic reconstruction. Indeed, Elliott claims that uses of dialogue in reconstructed stories point to the ‘wider idea that film language, or film words, do not belong to the film at all, but are in fact literary encroachments on film’.[23] It seems that Elliott is suggesting that cinema does in fact borrow language from stories, forcing it to exist outside the physical reality of the film. If we take this assertion to be true, we must begin to consider why the dialogues of the adaptation, such as Huston’s, continue to place such emphasis upon literary language. We could simply assert that the medium of cinema uses such language in order to justify its legitimacy as a ‘true’ representation of the original tale, such as Peachey’s voice over, which essentially performs to produce an air of authenticity. However, it seems that literary language holds other values in its performativity. If we return to the use of the voice over, it functions not only to justify authority, but also to move the story along without visual aid. In essence, it is transferable to plot, but does in fact present us with several problems. The fact that The Man… uses voice over narration suggests that the film itself formed in a foreign language needing translation to its audiences through its duplication of words and images, and domineering verbal summaries of scenes, which seems at odds with the visual language of cinema. Indeed, L. Stromgren and Martin F Norden, object to a dominant, omniscient narrative verbal voice, for such a voice holds too much of a verbal control over the cinematic frame.[24] This therefore leads us to consider whether literary language does in fact interfere with the visual language of cinema; the aesthetic task of editing, key to establishing the film’s story, should rely less on verbal language and focus upon analogical visual ‘language’ running along a syntax of editing.[25]  Verbal summaries exaggerates the redundancy of word against image, and therefore disturbs visual language rather than aiding it.

Looking further into the performativity of Huston’s composition, we must also consider its relation to the white saviour narrative. According to Wikipedia, The Man…. features in a long list of films categorised under this classification, described as an ‘ironic’ narrative which mimics the style of empire cinema. Building upon the visual expressions commonly portrayed in this genre, the trope of the ‘white saviour’, although holding an ironic tone, cannot fully be considered as a white saviour narrative as its protagonists have no interest whatsoever in aiding natives. We already familiar with Peachey’s comedic performance towards indigenous peoples, but it also seems that his embellished character is also used to establish a relationship with audiences. The viewer is well aware of the soldiers’ motives, which provides the film with a self-conscious performance that actively encourages viewers to share and enjoy the mocking of the stupidity of the natives, enforcing stereotypes of the white superior and the inferior Other. Ootah is continually satirised, his depiction not only cliché but also bordering on insulting; for example, at 48.16,[26] he is presented as unintelligent through his belief that the soldiers came ‘from the skies’,[27] indulging the white superior in the uncivilised nature of the tribes. The strategic use of comedy implements a particular air of white virtue that functions as an expression of dichotomy integral to the domination of the native. Mimicking the classic empire film, Huston’s work serves as a late form of imperial propaganda that attempts to skate over the uncomfortable aspects of colonialism through comedic play. It performs not only as a means to entertain, but also to manipulate the viewer.

Thus, the work of Kipling falls into disarray through the visual and linguistic expressions of its counterpart, and appears to comply with the racial tropes established by colonial discourse. While we can admire the aesthetics to a certain extent, particularly in Morris’ efforts to construct the exotic, Huston’s work simply performs as a puppet to the white imperialist ideal, propping up old colonial prejudices in a supposedly contemporary homage to empire cinema. The Man… has arguably captured the adventurous spirit of the British coloniser, but also, and indeed more potently, displays his woeful ignorance.











[1] Prem Chowdhry, Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000) p.1.


[2] Chowdhry, Colonial India…, p.1.


[3] Zohreh T Sullivan, Narratives of Empire: The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p.3.

[4] Sullivan, Narratives of Empire, p.3.


[5] Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ taken from Wee Willie Winkie, Under the Deodars, ‘The Phantom’ Rickshaw and Other Stories (London: Macmillan, 1910) p.230.


[6] Alan Spiegel, ‘John Huston as Survivor of the Second Hollywood Generation’, Salmagundi, 35 (1976) 141-152 p.143.


[7] Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King, p.211.


[8] Spiegel, Salmagundi, p.146.


[9] Christine Geraghty, Now A Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama (Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008) p.15.

[10] Kamilla Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p.52.


[11] The Man Who Would Be King, dir. John Huston (Columbia Pictures, 1975).


[12] Chowdhry, p.1.


[13] Chowdhry, p.1.


[14] Kipling, p.224.


[15] Elliott, p.53.


[16] Elliott, p.53.


[17] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Cinema: Full Text’, Woolf Online, (2008) [accessed 3rd March 2015].


[18] Woolf, Woolf Online [accessed 3rd March 2015].


[19] The Man Who Would….


[20] George Grella, ‘The Colonial Movie and The Man Who Would Be King’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 22 (1980) 246-262 p.248-49.

[21] The Man….


[22] The Man….,


[23] Elliott, p.81.


[24] Elliott, p.85.


[25] Elliott, p85.


[26] The Man…


[27] The Man…


The images used for the purpose essay are not my own.


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