Sunday, 15 August 2021

The Man Who Would Be King: the hubris of liberal imperialism


‘I’ll make a damned fine Nation of you, or I’ll die in the making!’ (Rudyard Kipling: The Man Who Would Be King).

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1888), two Tommy adventurers in the British Raj believe they’ve found the opportunity to make their name and fortune by convincing the people of Kafiristan, in northern Afghanistan, who, as the name suggests, are holdouts against Islam, that they are gods, the reincarnation of the Greek warriors who conquered the region under Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

Getting carried away with the luck he’s stumbled across and the power he has assumed, one of the British charlatans, Daniel Dravot, begins to imagine bringing all sorts of glories to his new kingdom.

‘In another six months,’ says Dravot, ‘we’ll hold another Communication and see how you are working.’ Then he asks them about their villages, and learns that they was fighting one against the other and were fair sick and tired of it. And when they wasn’t doing that they was fighting with the Mohammedans. ‘You can fight those when they come into our country,’ says Dravot. ‘Tell off every tenth man of your tribes for a Frontier guard, and send two hundred at a time to this valley to be drilled. Nobody is going to be shot or speared any more so long as he does well, and I know that you won’t cheat me because you’re white people — sons of Alexander — and not like common, black Mohammedans. You are my people and by God,’ says he, running off into English at the end — ‘I’ll make a damned fine Nation of you, or I’ll die in the making!’

Dravot takes for his queen one of the most beautiful women from the local population. However, resenting the advances of this outsider, she bites his lip when he goes to kiss her causing blood to pour from her would-be husband’s mouth. The Kafiris realise that Dravot is not a god but a man – gods do not bleed – and the game is up.

Dravot is killed by his ‘subjects’ and his companion Peachy Carnehan is forced to flee, carrying the decapitated head of his friend, begging his way back to British-controlled India, where his experiences have driven him mad and only fit for the insane asylum.

The story of Westerners’ doomed efforts to impart more enlightened rule on unwilling and unconvinced locals was made into a superb film by John Huston in 1975, starring Sean Connery as Dragot and Michael Caine as Peachy.

Huston’s best films – The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Asphalt Jungle – all have the same ‘poetry of failure’ theme as The Man Who Would Be King; the madness and disaster that comes from hubris or excessive desire – for wealth, power, sex.