Sunday 5 April 2015

The Most D&D Non-D&D Film

I re-watched The Man Who Would Be King last night. It was an odd experience - I'd watched it long ago but mostly forgotten the details, except for a few bits here and there: the scenes of polo played with severed heads; the final, momentous bite; the water-melon eater getting thrown off the train. So as I watched I kept getting these occasional jolts of memory: "Oh yeah, I remember this!"

It's a cracking film, anyway. I don't know about John Huston's intentions exactly, but it seemed to me that it managed to do that most difficult thing - be simultaneously an entertaining story that works on its own merits, while at the same time "saying something" about the real world. It's very cunningly done, serving as a brilliant skewering of the evils, folly and hubris of colonialism, while never once allowing the viewer to dislike Peachey and Danny or want them to fail. Huston never lets the audience off the hook by allowing us to feel all warm and fuzzy about how enlightened we are nowadays. Instead he sweeps us along in the fun of it all, showing us not why colonialism was wrong, but why for so many people it felt so right. (This is similar to what Scorsese did so masterfully in Goodfellas and particularly The Wolf of Wall Street.) That's a hundred times more profound, useful and interesting than the typical approach of a weak storyteller, which is to beat the audience over the head with what he or she wants to SAY.

In a strange way, though, The Man Who Would Be King also feels like the greatest D&D film that never was. (No, don't worry, I'm not about to draw a link between D&D and colonialism here - although I daresay one could if one was so inclined.) Peachey and Danny begin as rogues, not much better than vagabonds. They're also the kind of cipher typically encountered in a 1st level PC: their goals in life are to get rich and powerful, and ultimately to become kings. And that's it. What's interesting about them is what happens now, not their back-story.

From there, they progress through trials and tribulations up the ladder from roving robbers to doughty warriors, to military heroes, chieftains, kings and even higher - mapping the progress from B and E to CM and finally I. They do the kinds of things D&D PCs do: pretending to be insane, charging into battle without a thought for tactics, robbing ancient tombs, slaughtering mooks. As they go they develop depth and character, becoming fleshed out into real, living people as opposed to a set of stats on a piece of paper with "Peachey, Level 1 Fighting-Man" written on the top. They travel to strange, wild lands full of ancient gods and temples. And ultimately they make their mark on the world - in a sense - before disappearing into ignominy.

I also can't help but feel that the film must have affected me when I saw it as a kid, because there are elements of it that seem very Yoon-Suin-ish to me: the sense of variety, the general feeling of chaos and dispersal, the vistas of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, the strange priests and holy men chanting under their statues of weird Gods. Maybe I need to revise that Appendix N.


  1. > No, don't worry, I'm not about to draw a link between D&D and colonialism here - although I daresay one could if one was so inclined.

    Weird, I made a post just yesterday about exactly that.

    Sorry to blogspam, but it feels genuinely relevant.

    1. Good read. I tend to attribute the tendency for D&D PCs to behave like conquistadors less to ideology/structure than I do to natural human tendencies which turn monstrous when an individual finds himself outside of a society or community. I think being an outsider allows you to completely step outside of social conventions about morality, and I think that's what the conquistadors did.

    2. And, I should add, what D&D PCs do. They don't have social ties and act as outsiders. So just like conquistadors, they fall outside of the ordinary rules and can act in a self-interested way.

  2. I have to agree. Last of the Summer Wine is good inspiration for D&D especially if the game revolved around the misadventures of Hobbits in the Shire. When I think of Clegg, Compo & Foggy, I can't help but see Hairfoot, Stout and Tallfellow, respectively. The Captain Clutterbuck's Treasure episode stands out in particular with the classic D&D trope of the stranger in a tavern selling a treasure map.

  3. How can this claim of yours be true when the most D&D non-D&D film is Big Trouble in Little China?


    1. ...and the henchman thinks that he is the hero...

    2. I think it's actually just that he's a first level who thinks he's playing 4E but it's actually 1e AD&D.

  4. I always thought the Goonies was the most D&D non-D&D film. A bunch of inexperienced youngsters (maybe even 0-level) find a treasure map, go to a tavern, befriend a monster (Sloth), discover tunnels under the dungeon, set off and evade traps, fight an octopus, have a boss fight on a pirate ship, and come home with gold and jewels.

  5. well, in my case it is either the wild bunch or mad mad mad mad world

  6. I hate Last of the Summer Wine. It reminds me of being a kid on a Sunday evening watching TV and thinking "The weekend's over..."

  7. Erik the Viking

    Have you read Moby Dick? It's the most D&D non-D&D thing in my opinion, and it existed before D&D.

  8. A British Bank Holiday Appendix N:
    The Man Who Would Be King,
    Last of the Summer Wine,
    The Italian Job,
    various Carry On films,
    King Solomon's Mines,
    Top Gear,
    Where Eagles Dare,
    Dads Army,
    The Great Escape,
    The Guns of Navarrone,
    Roger Moore James Bond films,

    1. Nowadays also Studio Ghibli films on Film 4 as well it seems.

    2. I would go with that list - interesting I recently watched The man who would be king on netflix - lets go and see what else from the appendix N above is available.

  9. That makes sense. I figured people who grew up with the show would have different perspectives on it especially those who actually grew up in the North of England.

  10. Happy Easter!

    I've never seen that movie. I'll have to add it to the list.

    The most current D&D TV show is Person of Interest. yes its modern but it has two dueling gods one Neutral and one Lawful Evil (AI's both refereed to as Gods at several points) and magic in that setting is using networked to accomplish goals

    On those grounds it has Its got the whole D&D cast

    with an Urban Ranger (Reece) with preferred terrain (city) A fighter with medical skills (Shaw) A Rogue ( Fusco whose used stealth, lock-picking, escape artist and repeatedly sneak attack which make him roughly equal to the fighters) a Lawful Wizard (Finch, who created the N God) and a Cleric (Root linked to her AI deity by implant)

    There are also various servants of the evil AI , several evil clerics and a ton of other tropes,, sewer crawls and more.

    No monsters or non humans but otherwise, its straight up D&D

  11. Fellini Satyricon for me is the epitome of the Carcosa, Vornheim, Yoon Suin OSR baroque aesthetic, just with sex instead of violence. Where else are you going to see a quest to steal a purple skinned hermaphrodite child from a temple?
    Terry Gilliam though is my favorite- Jabberwocky, Baron Munchausen, The Brothers Grimm especially for Lotfp.
    The linking factor I'd say is the historical aesthetic versus the cannibalistic, incest, xerox of a xerox dragonlance thing, and the general picaresque structure.

  12. There's a certain category of British sitcom that always puts me in mind of early Sunday evenings and that "Ugh, Monday tomorrow" feeling. The Last of the Summer Wine is the ultimate of those, but there's also Monarch of the Glen, Para Handy, Ballykissangel, 2.4 Children, My Family, that one with Robbie Carlisle set in Plockton.... There's billions of them.