Everything I Learned About Afghanistan Watching ‘The Man Who Could Reign’

In 1997, the British writer and backpacker Jonny bealby traveled to the heart of Asia to realize one of the dreams of any movie fan, at least one of a certain age: to follow in the ‘Afghan’ footsteps of Sean Connery and Michael Caine. After four weeks and 400 kilometers traveling, among other places, the old Kafiristan (just 190 kilometers from Kabul), Bealby concluded, as he writes in his book ‘For A Pagan Song: In the Footsteps of the Man Who Would Be King’: “Yes Daniel [Connery] y Peachey [Caine] fell from the skies again, more than a hundred years later, the task they faced would be exactly the same. Kafiristan is now called Nuristan; the infidels have been enlightened. But beyond religion, little of their customs seems to have changed“.

‘The man who could reign’ (1975) is not only the last great film in the adventure cinema of robes, salacot hats and wide screen. Plus, it’s a carefree approach to Afghan slaughter, an intractable country that does not seem to change with the passage of time.

Playing polo with your enemy’s head

The first thing we learn is the word Sikandar. In his colonizing and Hellenizing epic, which lasted 11 years and more than 25,000 kilometers (from Greece to India, not forgetting Egypt), Alexander the Great (Sikander is Alexander in the Persian language) he dared to turn north before the Indus River and penetrate the Hindu Kush mountain range. The best army in the world, which had crushed the great empire of the moment, the Achaemenid Persians, it took more than two years to completely pacify a rugged province of shepherds and warriors, a puzzle of tribes accustomed to living in quarrel with their neighbors and tomorrow losing the cliff they had won today. There are still several different ethnic groups there (Tajiks, Nuristanis, Hazaras, Pashtuns) and up to five different languages.

The leader of one of these tribes affirms in the film: “There are enemies everywhere. The Bashkai are the worst. They all come to piss downstream when we go for a bath “.

‘The man who could reign’

The humor of ‘The man who could reign’ (with a script signed by the director himself, John Huston, and his assistant Gladys Hill, who takes lighthearted licenses on the short story of Rudyard Kipling) does not deprive us of show us indigenous cruelty. You just have to watch them play polo with the head of the little boss toppled five minutes ago, as newcomers Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine), two rogue British NCOs who have decided that India “are to us it has become too small ”and they decide to look further afield, in remote Afghan Kafiristan, for the power and idolatry of the credulous locals. Getting it means being confused with the blood heirs of Alexander, the last Westerner to be seen there, 23 centuries earlier. A misunderstanding as spontaneous as it was planned. Which of course ends up going wrong. And that instructs us about the intrinsic impossibility of the place, it is conquered with charlatan prodigies or with Sherman tanks.

But the unaffordable of Afghanistan, as if it were a curse, transcends the question of invasions. “You say a lot these days,” wrote the United Press International correspondent in 2001. Steve Sailer, just weeks before the American invasion and just two weeks after 9/11, “that no external agent has ever mastered, permanently, Afghanistan. It is true, but what is forgotten is that no internal agent has succeeded either ”.

Putin fears Taliban destabilization of Central Asia

Javier Espadas. Moscow

The frustrations of the Umayyads, the Soviets or the British themselves magnify an Alexandrian legacy that, in the absence of a treasure like the one in the movie (one that “makes the jewels of the Tower of London look like trinkets”, with rubies the size of apples) must be sought in subtler but equally fascinating vestiges. The journalist told it Guillermo Altares in the newspaper ‘El País’, in 2008: “The appearance of a Greek inscription in the lost city of Aï Khanum, located on the Afghan border with the USSR (with Tajikistan today), confirmed that the settlers who settled more Beyond the Hindu Kush after the conquest of Alexander the Great they remained there for centuries and promoted a splendid Hellenistic civilization”.

A sword cut through the mountains

In addition to Classical and Asian Tribal History, you can also learn quite a bit of geography by watching ‘The Man Who Could Reign’. Rudyard Kipling, youngest Nobel Prize winner in Literature in history (41 years old), defined Afghanistan as “a mass of mountains, peaks and glaciers”. And John Huston did not want to deprive us of any of the three things, no matter how much he filmed in much less impressive Morocco.

The Khyber Pass is a mountainous funnel that has seen Persians, Greeks, British or Americans marching and fighting

And it is not just that Afghanistan is located in the middle of the Silk Road and at “a crossroads of empires” (Arnold Toynbee), between the former USSR, China, India and Iran. In addition, access to the Afghan mountain is gained, from the east, from fundamental India, by the precarious Pakistani pass of the Khyber, a 35-kilometer-long mountainous funnel that has seen Persians, Greeks or Mughals marching and fighting, where they have Pashtuns and Taliban ranged and made their fortune, and where the British and Americans have always tried to supply themselves with their convoys. The definition of George Molesworth, a member of the British force: “Every stone in the Khyber has been drenched in blood”.

Photo: Afghans on the border.  (EFE) Opinion
A vision of what is and what is not Afghanistan from ‘Istanistan’

Susana Arroyo. Wuhan (China)

In its narrowest sections, the Khyber can only tolerate 16 meters in width. Until 1925, in this “sword cut through the mountains” (Kipling), it was not possible to install an infrastructure as essential as the railway, a vehicle whose comforts neither Sean Connery nor Michael Caine enjoy. They cross on mules. Connery does it first singing through the snow (“If a king cannot sing he does not deserve to be king”) and then blinded by the blizzard and clinging to the manes of beasts. The animals all end up dying. And both cheeks only manage to overcome the passage thanks to an avalanche caused by their own laughter when (very chosen irony) they both remember the disastrous withdrawal of the British in 1842. On the other side, the impoverished promised land awaits them, Kafiristan, as warlike as it is incautious. So much as to enthrone them.

After his 1896 jihad, the Emir of Afghanistan changed the name from Kafiristan (‘land of the infidels’) to Nuristan (‘land of light’). Of course, I have not learned all this by watching John Huston films, but today stimulates our memory, almost in the first place, through books and films. And it encourages us to learn more about the country that Muslims took two centuries to convert.

No great adventure movie offers more insight into the possibility of an upcoming war in Afghanistan

Back to Steve Sailer’s chronicle, perhaps so foreboding 20 years ago: “No great adventure film, not even ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ offers more insight into the possibility of an upcoming war in Afghanistan than ‘The Man Who Could Reign.’ . Reminds us that neither despair nor utopia is a realistic attitude for anyone contemplating a military foray into that harsh land. ”

A land, it should be remembered, as mirroring as the ‘flashback’ of the survivor Peachy Carnehan, whose story we cannot know if it is entirely real. A stubborn and harsh land where even dying is not easy:

And old Danny fell, rolled and rolled …

… like a penny.

Thirty thousand kilometers down!

It took him half an hour to crash against the rocks.

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Everything I Learned About Afghanistan Watching ‘The Man Who Could Reign’