Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Man Who Would be King

This is not going to be a piece about Barack Obama, although he might do worse than to look it over and pick up a few tips. But let’s face it. It seems no one ever learns anything from history or literature. No one in power, that is.

A long time ago, in the latter part of the 19th Century, a British writer, born in India, by the name of Rudyard Kipling, (who is known to the present generation only as the hack who inspired the great Walter Disney to animate “The Jungle Book)”, wrote a short story about two ex-army ‘detriments to the British Empire’ who bum around the “Jewel in the Crown” long after their military services are needed, smuggling, gunrunning, and blackmailing the Rajah of Degumba to make ends meet. If this great story were to fall into the hands of a modern day filmmaker, the leads would, no doubt, be played by Owen Wilson and Seth Rogen. Thankfully, the great director, John Huston, had this project in his sights for most of the last century and when he finally got it together, his original choices, Bogie and Tracy were gone to that great Kafiristan in the sky, so he was forced to settle for Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the heroes (or were they heroes? This was the dilemma I put to my classes for many years and they had various and heated opinions about the matter).

Why do I bring this up? Well…a lot could be learned from this tale about getting involved with that part of the world, both geographically and culturally. There are secret societies, if you can call the Masons, to which my uncle has belonged for many years, a secret, raging rivers, avalanches, rubies as big as your fist, rope bridges suspended over bottomless canyons and even a crucifixion, thrown in for effect. All other adventure films made since that time have borrowed heavily from its plot and images. If movies had footnotes, this one would be referenced in every one from "The Jewel of the Nile" to "The Mummy" to the Indiana trilogy, which even uses Connery, for a double whammy of recognition. I leave out a few thousand, but you get my point. This is probably why I find so many of them dull. The original outshines them in all respects.

It is also a terrific study of all things military, from the rigorous training of the foot soldier to the importance of ‘bluffing it out’ to achieve victory over vicious opponents. When teaching the ‘ignorant Kafiris’ how to properly do the British Manual of Arms, Daniel Dravot, played brilliantly by Connery, who is at the height of his post-Bond powers, promises to teach the locals ‘real soldiering’ how to fight like true Englishmen, the method that won the British a lot of global real estate, if the pink parts on the World Atlas given to school children in the 1950’s were any indication . ‘Left right, left right, marching into battle’. One of my favorite lines, among many in the film, is his admonition that they must learn to ‘stand up and kill their enemies like civilized men’ or something like that. It’s basically a textbook on how to take over a nation and what to watch out for, once you succeed, hence my hope that the President of the not-so-United States take a look at it, soon.

Aside: (I often use Peachy’s (Caine's) mysterious announcement, “I have urgent business in the South,” whenever I need to go downtown on an errand).

This all rushed back to me the other day when watching the mellifluous Lara Logan on 60 Minutes as she interviewed a team of furry-faced Green Berets who are over in Afghanistan passing along what, so far, has not been as successful a form of ‘soldiering’, as did Danny and Peachy, to the local inhabitants. Apparently, the rigid discipline of the British Colonial army has been replaced by a kinder, gentler form of free expression in its American counterpart, hence the privilege extended to these contemporary warriors of cultivating unruly beards. They would do well to imitate the extravagant and dignified mutton chops framing Connery’s noble face rather than descend to the appearance of homeless street people, if you ask me. As the show followed them along on their training mission, I could not help but recall the fate of Kipling’s heroes when their loyal trainees suddenly turned on them with their own weapons. Doesn’t anyone in power pay attention?

Another one of the big themes, ‘different countries/different customs’ shows an early sensitivity to multiculturalism and the trouble you can land in if you foolishly assume your customs will naturally prevail. And as in all great life-lessons, there hovers over the entire enterprise the hackneyed warning that beautiful women are nothing but trouble and will inevitably lead to a man’s ruin, if given half a chance and a lot of drugs.

The greatest life-lesson of all, never throw anything away, haunts me to this day. In the 60's, I, like many other budding fashionistas, possessed a lavishly embroidered Afghan coat, complete with fur-trimmed sleeves and collar, which still retained the delightful aroma of the sheep from whence it came. Where it is now, who knows?

There is so much to be learned from this short story and the subsequent film, about life, about men at war, about the nature of loyalty, about the powerlessness of law and reason in the face of brutality but most of all, of the hopelessness of getting involved in the misguided attempt to try to bring ‘civilization’ to a place in the world where it is unwanted and not understood. It seems the only person to have any success in this region in a couple of thousand years, both in real life and the movies, was Alexander the Great (‘Secunda’, a name whispered with great reverence by the ancient priests, many of whom are played by actors who look old enough to have known him personally). And good old Secunda knew how to go when the going was good. He stuck around only long enough to marry the gorgeous Roxanne, a romantic gesture duplicated by Michael Caine, who married the actress Shakira, who played her rabid descendent in the movie.

I am still haunted by an image on the front page of a newspaper in 2002, of Afghans on horseback, looking much the same as they have for hundreds of years, (and in several scenes of the movie), when they celebrated the triumph of battle by batting around a huge polo ball made of the head of the defeated king. I don’t think there was an actual head involved in the 2002 game, although I can’t be sure. But I wouldn’t get too confident, if I were up against this way of life.

Just because you can grow your beard as long as you like, doesn’t give you the game.

If you think I sound cynical, check out the over 2 million
‘Googles’ out there on the net, related to this topic. For years, there was nothing more that the IMDB reference, but now there are many scholarly articles, which expand on this subject, so it seems I am not completely alone in my fearful comparison.

See you later...."I have urgent business in the south. I have to see a man in Mahwah Junction!"

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