Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Men Who Would Be King

Of all the versions of this tale, the true one is the most amazing ...

I've long been a fan of John Huston's 1975 film version of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, and have watched it several times. But only recently did I finally read the original short story it is based on. The film is faithful to Kipling, but even more incredible is the real story that lies behind them both.

Starring Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, Michael Caine as his pal "Peachy" Carnehan, and a youthful Christopher Plummer as Kipling, the film tells the story of two adventurers in the days of the British Raj in India who set out to forge a kingdom for themselves in Kafiristan. In those days
this remote province of Afghanistan might as well have been darkest Africa for all that was known of it. Foreigners who went in were seldom seen again.

Our heroes are not to be discouraged, however. Full of British pluck they set off on a pair of camels loaded down with concealed rifles, disguised as a crazy holy man and his servant. The ruse is intended to keep secret their identity and the fact that only one of them speaks an indigenous language.

Once in the country they quickly form a series of alliances by offering their services (and rifles) in support of one local ruler against another. This of course was a practice that the British, like the Romans before them, used in many places including Scotland, Ireland, and America, as well as in India. With each victory they add to their followers and the size of their territory. And they use their military experience to train a growing army.

In Kafiristan their right to rule is recognized by a fortunate fluke.
The inhabitants claim to be the descendants of Alexander the Great, whose army established an outpost there two thousand years ago. There is also a connection between Alexander and Freemasonry having to do with the Gordian knot, and the Masonic medallion around Dravot's neck is a match to the ancient and revered symbol in their temple. This is all they need to consider him a god who has returned to claim his throne.

This detail is the most marked difference between the film and Kipling's yarn. As the author -- a Freemason himself -- told it, the natives actually knew the secrets of the sect, including handshakes and the initiation rites for the lower orders. I suppose Huston and his screenwriters thought this would be a bit much for general audiences in the 20th century.

But power soon goes to the newly crowned head of Dravot. He begins lording it over his subjects, including the hapless Carnehan, to whom falls the task of training the army while his friend tells them what to do. In the story version Dravot's plans run wild. He foresees himself delivering the whole country to Britain as a perfect bulwark against Russian expansion in the region, from which his fortune, medals, and a knighthood are sure to follow.

In the end it is his desire for a queen that proves his undoing, in a way I will not mention so I don't spoil the plot for anyone. Suffice to say that only one of the pair of adventurers makes it back alive, and I won't say which one, or what is the fate of the other.

The Story Behind the Story

Kipling's story was long thought to have been based on the exploits of James Brooke, an Englishman whose foreign adventures ended with him becoming the Raja of Sarawak in 1841, a post he held until his death in 1868. But it has since been discovered that there was another possible model in the person of Josiah Harlan, whose story has many parallel details to the ones in Kipling's tale and is an even more likely source.

Harlan was an American Quaker from a small town in Pennsylvania. When his girlfriend broke his heart he left the country to seek his fortune abroad, and ended up serving as a self-declared physician with the British army in Burma. For this alone his Quaker meeting revoked his membership when they heard of it. Little did they realize what was to become of him later.

Leaving Burma he made his way to the Punjab region of India (later Pakistan) and formed the idea that he wanted to explore Afghanistan--oh, and perhaps become king of it. He was quite aware that the last European to do so was Alexander the Great, a person of particular historical interest to Harlan, and one whose mantle he saw himself taking up.

How he did so is related in exquisite detail in Ben MacIntyre's 2004 book, The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. Through an amazing series of diplomatic encounters, Harlan managed to obtain support from both the British (as an intelligence source) and the deposed Shah of Afghanistan (as one who would create a rebellion and restore his lost throne). Armed with the Shah's money and his own chutzpah, he proceeded to raise an army of loyal supporters of the Shah and bands of mercenaries, and led them to conquest under his personal banner--an American flag made to his order by a local seamstress.

I recommend MacIntyre for the rest of this incredible story. But it is worth noting that along the way Harlan took in two deserters from the British army who were out to seek their own fortunes by offering their services as military commanders to anyone who would have them. They are Dravot and Carnehan incarnate. Like those characters, Harlan too started out by impersonating a holy man who had taken a vow of silence as a way to conceal his foreign identity until he could learn the language. He even ended up in Kafiristan where he may have married, or at least cohabited with, a Kafiri woman--though with better results than in Kipling's tale.

Harlan's exploits predated those of Brooke by several years. In fact, when the British finally invaded Afghanistan they found Harlan comfortably in residence. Now with a title, the Prince of Ghor, and claim to much Afghan territory, he found himself at odds with the imperious Brits, who refused to take his sage advice about how they should conduct themselves (ultimately with disastrous consequences). Eventually he left in a huff to return to America. Back home he penned a book that was so critical of the Empire's bungling in the region that it created a scandal all over Europe--one more reason that Kipling was quite likely to have heard of Harlan's story even many years later.

Harlan's end was less dramatic than that of Kipling's heroes, but no less tragic. Back in his own country he was an utter failure. When the Civil War erupted he took up a commission in the Union army and tried to replicate his military successes overseas. But he was now so out of touch with the customs of his homeland that his troops mutinied. After the war he spent much time lobbying the government to establish a corps of camel cavalry, putting himself forward as the only person to go abroad and bring back the camels. Perhaps he was just looking for a free pass back to Afghanistan. At any rate, this too was a failure.

His last days were spent in San Francisco, a city where he knew not a soul, and where one day in 1871 he died on the street. He might have been forgotten altogether but for MacIntyre's research. More than a century later, his curiosity aroused by the American invasion of Afghanistan, he discovered Harlan's journals in a box in a back room of a public library in Pennsylvania.

At the bottom of the box was an ornate document signed with an official seal: the proof of Harlan's royal title, and the grant in perpetuity of his Afghan lands.

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