The Man Who Would Be King (1975), directed by John Huston

Man who would be king posterI once had a brilliant teacher in college who I admired greatly because of his intellect and his charismatic personality, marveling at his encyclopedic knowledge of text and human nature. One incident, however, changed my perception of him. He verbally assaulted a student who disagreed with him. The professor, full of himself, assumed that his way of perceiving things was the only way, and the student implicitly was stupid.

In truth, the student was devastated by the teacher’s remarks, and afterwards confided in me that he, too, looked up to the teacher but was totally unnerved by his comments. To ease his emotional pain, I told my friend that the teacher may have been under unusual stress and that is why he responded so harshly to him. But, inwardly, I was troubled by the entire interchange.

Subsequently I discovered that the teacher, brilliant as he was, actually believed the press releases that praised him. He lacked humility, thinking that he deserved all the accolades that were heaped upon him. Several years later, he lost his position at the college and labored for the rest of his life in academic obscurity.

This human trait of believing you are more than what you are is at the core of The Man Who Would be King, the story of two British sergeants, Peachy Carnehan and Danny Dravot, who travel to a remote mountain village in Afghanistan to seek their fortunes. Arriving in Kafiristan, a land plagued by marauding bands, they offer their services to the local population whose homes are continually attacked. Serving as military advisors and soldiers, they lead the locals to victory over the enemy.

In one of the battles, an arrow strikes Danny in the chest, but he does not die. The natives do not realize that the arrow has lodged in a leather ammunition belt beneath his shirt. They simply see Danny as a divinity, impervious to death.

Soon after, they are invited to the holy city of Sikandergul, where the chief high priest sets up a test to determine whether Danny is a man or a god by seeing whether or not he bleeds. An archer shoots an arrow at Danny, who flinches. When the people seize him, thinking he is a fraud, they discover that Danny is wearing a Masonic jewel, whose symbol the priest recognizes is the symbol of Alexander the Great, who passed through the country many years before. That linkage convinces the holy men that Danny is a direct descendant of Alexander, and they lead Peachy and Danny to the storeroom where Alexander’s riches are stored, a formidable treasure which now belongs to Danny as king.

Peachy now wants to leave as soon as possible, taking with him as much treasure as possible. Danny, however, does not want to go. He enjoys being king, and even wants to take a wife to insure that his descendants will rule after him and foster Kafiristan’s continued stability. That desire to maintain his position as king proves to be his undoing.

Jewish tradition praises the humble person. Moses, the humblest of all men according to the Bible, wants neither recognition nor power. Moreover, the Talmud tells us to be wary of overreaching. If you grab too much, say our Sages, you will acquire nothing. This lesson Danny does not learn until it is too late.

The Man Who Would Be King is a rousing adventure story, but it is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of arrogance and not being content with what one already possesses.

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