Friday, April 3, 2009

The Lost Art of Adventure

What happened to the adventure films of yesteryear?  The Man Who Would Be King (1975), is a Rudyard Kipling short story engagingly stretched into a feature-length narrative by director John Huston. Watching the film, I grew nostalgic (as I often do) for movies that credit the audience with having the patience to be told a story.  It seems to me, the assumption has become that mass audiences will not fork over their 12 dollars unless they are assured a precise number of whizzes, bangs and ka-booms.  There are no modern day adventure films.  Like the Western, they have gone the way of the dodo and why?  Because adventure films, like Westerns, emphasize the journey over the final destination, they emphasize character over plot and they depend on our willingness to imagine there are places we haven't even heard of.  Our willingness to transport ourselves to a simpler time.  Nowadays, in Hollywood, the phrase "period film" carries about as much cache as a carton of milk that's past the expiry date.  

The problem is, we're so accustomed to the relentless tempos of the modern action movie that a picture like this almost feels too quaint.  Special effects have modernized movies so much, that now movies without them seem less special and movies with them rarely have any residual impact.  We as an audience have consumed so many stories that we're preconditioned to anticipate the rhythms, sound effects, music and pyrotechnics of even the most dazzling popcorn epics.  Big scenes are followed by small scenes which are followed by even bigger scenes and so on.  It takes a picture like The Man Who Would Be King to remind us that spectacle can be special -- to remind us that modern effects have the power to exhilarate so long as they are placed within the context of a story.  

In this regard, The Man Who Would Be King is exemplary.  Sean Connery and Michael Caine play Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, two former British soldiers and grade-A con artists who run out of people to swindle in India and set out on a journey to Kafiristan, in the hopes that they can dupe the natives out of a fortune in gold.  When they arrive, a string of chance coincidences convince the natives that Dravot (Connery) is actually a god descended from none other than Alexander The Great.  Dravot is only too happy to entertain this fallacy, until the power begins to go to his head and he and Peachy are faced with the dangerous consequences of overplaying their hand.  To say any more would be unconscionable, but this is the real deal.  For fans of old-fashioned adventure, the settings are spectacular and Connery and Caine's comedic chemistry is tough to beat.  The Man Who Would Be King is one of the last of the great adventure films.  It retains its ability to delight, nearly 35 years after its initial release.