Film Commentary: The Man Who Would Be King

Often, when given access to excessive power or opportunity, a hero may overindulge to his personal downfall.  This tragic flaw within a hero often displaces him from a place of high status and wellbeing to a more disastrous and insecure place in life.  In The Man Who Would Be King, Danny exhibits just such a flaw.  His excessive pride, or hubris results in his loss of power and riches and ultimately his life.  Danny’s downfall becomes imminent as the film progresses. His increasing authority in addition to his desires for wealth and the improvement of Kafiristan create him a persona that is both contradictory and unstable.  A true mortal hero cannot have it all, especially if he is deceitful to those who follow and respect him.  Downfalls like Danny’s are not uncommon, for they reflect the uncontrollable greed and ambition that plagues the human race.

The campaign of Danny and Peachy begins as a seemingly immoral conquest.  They cross into Kafiristan with the primary goal of gaining financially and initially regard the native people as primitive savages who are far less valuable than they, for their customs and rituals are foreign to them.  The people of Kafiristan are unfamiliar with the majority of modern technologies Peachy and Danny are accustomed to such as transportation by train and modern firearms.  Because of their unfamiliarity with Western customs, the men view the natives as beneath them and openly deceive them with little guilt. While not initially proclaiming to be gods, the men insist that since they are Englishmen they are the next best things.  This ethnocentrism leads to their domination over the natives they encounter, which begins first by teaching them to fight in the “proper” Western fashion. They native people of Kafiristan are put through many exercises in order to teach them to march and shoot to the accepted Western standard.  Peachy and Danny are very harsh to the native men who struggle because they are unfamiliar with the methods in which they are instructed to fight and drill.  Their ignorance is taken as inferiority and natural inability.

Once their army is aware of the basic ways in which to march and fight in combat, Peachy and Danny utilize it to their personal gain.  With their soldiers, they are able to defeat other conflicting tribes and to unify Kafiristan under a single army as a result.  Such an act is beneficial to both the native people and to Danny and Peachy’s colonial aims.  Having the people of Kafiristan united in a bonded military force makes them easier for Peachy and Danny to control and, as a result, indoctrinate and brainwash.

The actions of Peachy and Danny are not strictly acts of moral imperialism.  They do not strive specifically to bring the natives of Kafiristan Christianity, commerce, and civilization.  Their aims are far more self-centered. While they do improve Kafiristan by making the men more able soldiers and by unifying the people through both military conquest and the building of the bridge across the gorge, their deception far outweighs their moral deeds.  Peachy and Danny’s aim in Kafiristan is not to better the lives of people they believe to be living a quality of life below their Western lifestyle.  Instead, they dream of acquiring power, prestige, and wealth. The bettering of the lives of the natives is in a large part trivial and occurs as a result of Peachy and Danny’s acts of self-interest.  

As the rulers of Kafiristan, with Danny regarded as the son of Sikander, Peachy and Danny have some effect on the laws and commerce within the nation, but as in the case of religion and civilization, their involvement is more to maintain their power and the respect of the people than it is an attempt to better the natives’ lives.  While Danny and Peachy do act to help the natives by enacting laws such as the creation of a grain storage center for areas suffering from food shortage and by avoiding conflict and restoring equality as in the case of the man who owned all of the cows as a result of his infidelity, bettering the economy of Kafiristan is never an intended goal of their conquest and is more of an obligatory part of Danny’s role as divine leader.

In terms of religion, Danny and Peachey never try to better the lives of the natives through Christianity.  Presumably both Peachy and Danny are Christians due to their connections with Western society, but they never enforce their particular religious standings in the people they overtake.  In fact, the men seem to be accepting of the beliefs of the natives, or at least they let them practice them freely. They do not disrespect or prohibit the natives from ceasing fighting when the holy men march past the battlefield and they never criticize the religious lifestyle practiced in the holy city.  However, this is in part to stay on the people’s good side in order to maintain respected superiority. Of the two men, Peachy appears upon initial contact to be the more accepting and open-minded. Whenever Danny is exasperated or bothered by the ways of the natives, Peachy reminds him that different cultures hold different values, beliefs, and practices and that while such ideals seem strange and uncivilized to himself and Danny as Westerners, to the native people of Kafiristan, they are deeply-rooted and important in their culture.

In addition, the acts of Danny and Peachy do not qualify as moral imperialism in response to the white man’s burden because they do not occupy Kafiristan with a goal of benefiting the nation in terms of the world.  They never plan to involve Kafiristan in the world market for the improvement of its people or for the expansion and exchange of commerce and industry.  Their fairly undeveloped plan to occupy the nation is not even truly colonialism for they simply want to occupy the nation themselves for their benefit rather than to have it interact with their home nations as traditional colonies such as British India and Britain’s American colonies did.  Generally, colonies are utilized by a mother country as a source of labor, resources, and markets. Peachy and Danny however interact minimally in Kafiristan in terms of resources.  They use the natives as soldiers and laborers, but they primarily leave their manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of resources alone, with the exception of laws like the grain law that resolve potential conflict and suffering and make Danny more appealing to the people as a political leader.

When Danny and Peachy’s actions are juxtaposed with those of traditional colonialism in response to the white man’s burden, the immorality of their venture is made clear.  The imperial aims of the men are illegitimate and ill intended when compared with colonialism as an attempt to bring Christianity, commerce, and civilization. While the deeds of imperializers acting to remedy the white man’s burden were often harsh and unforgivable, they were legitimate imperial aims.  Today, in this modern era, it is largely regarded as narrow-minded and inhumane to forcibly replace a person’s beliefs with your own, but during the age of imperialism, the missionaries, soldiers, and diplomats sent to convert and Westernize “primitive” and “savage” people believed they were acting morally.  They believed they were enhancing the natives’ quality of life, bringing about an end to slavery, and bringing them closer to salvation through conversion. Danny and Peachy on the other hand, do not primarily act to better the lives of the people of Kafiristan.  Instead, they act in their own self-interest as clearly illustrated through their actions.  For example, when monsoon season is over and Peachy knows he can safely travel home with treasure, he opts to abandon the natives.  While Danny stays, he primarily does so to maintain his power and prestige and to continue his lineage of deceit by marrying Roxanne.

Greed and ignorance are the primary forces that lead to the downfall of Danny and Peachy’s mission.  From the beginning, their plan is not clearly laid out and structured. They began their mission to Kafiristan with very little knowledge of the nation and what they will find within it.  They are ill prepared for the weather they face crossing the Hindu Kush and lose all but one of their camels and almost perish as a result.

As their journey progresses, they continue to act upon whims.  As Peachy rightfully states before Danny’s marriage, a great deal of their success in Kafiristan is due to luck.  Danny’s rise to fame is primarily due to chance, rather than through his actions and choice.  The arrow that does not strike him due to his clothing, for example is a chance happening that leads to his being held in high regard.  The same is true of his being found wearing the freemason symbol seconds before having his heart removed to prove his divinity. Danny is very lucky that the symbol he happened to be wearing around his neck happened to be hidden in the holy city as well.  

As is common in the adventures of heroes, streaks of good luck must always come to an end.  Danny takes his fortune for granted and feeds off of chance occurrences to satisfy his desires for fame, wealth, and power.  If Danny had heeded Peachy’s advice, realized how fortunate he was to have achieved his high position in Kafiristan, and left with him, he would have avoided discovery and as a result, death.  Instead, Danny is egotistical and ignorant enough to believe that his luck will continue and that he will continue to rule over Kafiristan after his marriage to Roxanne.  Dazed and blinded by his newfound and highly sought after power, Danny is unwilling to sacrifice what he could potentially gain for safety and stability even though the odds of continual survival are not in his favor.

As a hero, Danny’s tragic flaw is that he doesn’t know when to cease his act of pretending to be the son of Sikander.  He is so captivated with the prestige and power he gains throughout his journey he is unwilling to let it go and to abandon the increased superiority he has the potential to gain over time.  Danny takes the respect and the customs of the native people of Kafiristan for granted, especially when it comes to his marriage to Roxanne.  He has been told by many natives that they do not believe that a woman can survive if married to a god, as they believe Danny to be.  Despite this deeply-rooted belief as well as Roxanne’s fear of the marriage, Danny arrogantly insists upon marrying her. If he had been less selfish and more inclined to listen to the beliefs of the natives and to the wishes of Roxanne, it is likely she would never have bitten him.  If this had never happened, he would not have been exposed to be a mortal and therefore would not have had to try and flee. Fleeing, Danny and Peachy lose their influence, prestige, and treasure. When Danny is executed by being thrown into the gorge and Peachy is crucified, they both make the ultimate sacrifice for their ignorance and greed.  Danny loses his life and while Peachy survives, his life is ultimately destroyed by the horrors he experiences as well as the loss of his best friend who’s head he carries around as a reminder and talisman. Such horrors could have been avoided by both men, especially Danny, if they had not been blinded by their seeming superiority over the people of Kafiristan, as well as their greedy desires for power and riches.

The tragic flaw within a hero is responsible for his downfall and has the tendency to emerge when he is at the height of his power.  Therefore, it often emerges from the arrogance and feeling of superiority caused by the gain of power and wealth. In The Man Who Would Be King, Danny and Peachy are both captivated and blinded by the power that is given to them, primarily due to luck.  Believed to be the son of Sikander, Danny plays upon his influence upon the people of Kafiristan to act in his own self-interest.  His loss of power, wealth, and ultimately life is the price he pays for blindsiding and exploiting the people of Kafiristan to do his bidding.

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