Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
George Stevens' Gunga Din more or less invented the modern escapist adventure movie. Previous
adventures in realistic historical settings were either deadly serious (and usually dull),
or completely frivolous fairytales. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem but adapted from other ideas
by the English writer (especially Soldiers Three), Gunga Din sets up a very specific
colonial conflict with a historically real cult of murderers - and then invents three adventurer
heroes who pay it no heed whatsoever.
Audiences loved (and still love) the contrast between dire jeopardy and the protagonists' jaunty
attitudes, and the movie is a heck of a fun ride, thanks to some superb clowining by its stars,
especially Cary Grant.
A Thuggee cult uprising in the northwest of India interferes with the schemes of
three British sergeants: Sgt. Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) wants to let his enlistment
expire to marry Emaline Stebbins (Joan Fontaine), Sgt. Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant) has plans to
search for treasure, and Sgt. Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) scoffs at both of them while worrying
about the health of his favorite elephant. But the Thugs are out there, and our heroes fall into
their trap along with the rest of the army. Their only ally? A lowly regimental Bhisti, Gunga Din (Sam
Jaffe), a water carrier who aspires to become a soldier.
Seeing WW2 in person had a profound effect on George Stevens, and when he returned his films took
a turn toward serious issues and 'important' human statements. Before the war he certainly did
his share of meaningful dramas, but he was most noted for his lighthearted comedies, which
tended to be less forced than those of Frank Capra.
Made at the height of his powers, Gunga Din combines Stevens' clever handling of actors with
action scenes laced with comedy timing derived from his Hal Roach days, when he handled camera
and story duties. The characters move from one gag situation to another just as had Laurel &
Hardy. There's a logic to the action - especially in the rooftop battle that ends the first act -
with physical gags like Fairbanks getting a leg caught in a hole in the roof. Stevens had also
done work with Astaire and Rogers, and there's a bouyancy to the action choreography as the men
scamper from parapet to parapet, capsizing ladders and tossing sticks of dynamite around. One
almost musical movement begins with single shots where each hero in turn leaps up to charge, swords
and pistols at the ready.
These are the "fun" battles where enemy riflemen never hit our heroes,
who can knock down three scrawny opponents with one good punch, and pick off targets with snappy
shots from their dapper-looking pistols. The polite attackers die cleanly and bloodlessly. This
formula for pitched movie battles stayed more or less in place until Sam Peckinpah blew it full
of gaping holes with his bloody The Wild Bunch.
The characterizations are kept as simple as a Laurel & Hardy short as well. Each star has a theme
interest (treasure, a fiancée, an elephant) and no depth beyond that save for some joking
loyalty to the regiment. The army in Gunga Din is a great place for happily undisciplined
adventurers who love to get into irresponsible trouble. Grant does a hilarious bit emptying some
stomach-turning elephant medicine into a punch bowl. Stevens has him hold the bottle out of sight,
shaking it with a gesture that any male will see as something else. Grinning fiendishly, McLaglen
(far more palatable here than doing his drunk Irishman act in Ford cavalry films) uses the dirtiest
tricks he knows to fool Fairbanks into re-enlisting, rather than marrying the simpering Joan Fontaine.
The script shows its only female character no mercy - she's no match for Grant and McLaglen's sneaky
tricks. There's a great shot of the lovers kissing while Cutter and MacChesney look on, and it's
completely ambiguous. It's like they recognize that women are attractive but are sworn members of
a male club that's decided to deny that females exist. 1
Gunga Din is the name of the regimental water boy, of course, played by the entirely
strange Sam Jaffe. He appeared in only only four or five movies in the thirties yet made indelible
impressions in this picture, Lost Horizon and
The Scarlet Empress. Stevens
and his writers (including uncredited top names like William Faulkner and Dudley Nichols, who labored
on the story when Howard Hawks had it) pull out all the stops to ingratiate Din with the audience,
and his noble sacrifice at the climax is a part of cinema history.
Jaffe's obedient, groveling Bhisti is so good, it's easy to set Gunga Din aside from other
movies with stereotyped racist ideas about anything east of Suez or south of the Mediterranean. Din
is the prime example of the child-like 'native' that lives for the doglike joy of pleasing his
anglo superiors. Grant is a nice guy, and treats Din to the 'honor' of military compliments, with
gestures halfway between sincerity and snickering patronizing. Only when life and death are
on the line do the heroes resort to even a hint of sentiment for one another - Fairbanks and McLaglen
are still stealing Fairbanks' re-enlistment paper back and forth - and by that time Din has become
an unofficial comrade at arms. It's a fantasy that's hard to resist, as every boy wants to impress
the bigger, admirable leaders of his peer group.
Gunga Din came under fire from the Indian Raj in 1939, over its depiction of
a historical India populated only by soldiers fighting for the British, or devilishly nasty rebels
conducting wholesale slaughter to drive out the tea-drinking infidels. A title at the beginning
identifies the Kali murder cult as factual, but almost all the incidentals are exaggerated. The
Thuggees were a highly secretive society and not an organized army, sort of a back-country Mafia
that slaughtered tradesmen and anyone travelling with valuables (I'll get into the details in my
of the excellent Pierce Brosnan movie The Deceivers, coming out soon from Home Vision). Thugs
(pronounced 'tugs' like in tugboat) killed Indians only and were not rebels or revolutionaries.
They were also not a religion: the leaders warped the Hindi concept of Kali to their ends, and
on running a tight terror organization to keep their members in line. It went on for hundreds of
years until, with great difficulty, an enterprising English officer named Sleeman uncovered them
In our script the Thuggee cult becomes an all-purpose demonized Evil enemy dedicated to the slaughter
of white men, with a monstrous perverted Gandhi figure in Eduardo Cianelli's Guru chanting to raise
the heathen bloodlust: "Kill! Kill! Kill!" He's a terrific boogeyman but also the Indian
equivalent of the fantasy character Fu Manchu, a focus for Anglo fear and hatred, the kind of figure
that always seems to gather atrocity stories whenever a Western country goes to war against an
The most typically American of the distortions is the confusion of political rebellion and irrational
fanaticism. The Thugs were thieves using a crazy-cult mechanism to terrorize potential
witnesses and their own members. The 1870s-1880s battles in India were fought against rebel princes
and Rajas resisting English rule. It's always convenient to characterize those resisting Western
force-of-arms as fanatic cultists.
Not that any of that should dampen one's enjoyment of Gunga Din - as long as one remembers
that the image of the mad-dog fanatic Kali cult is an image seen in a mirror.
The very short cast includes Abner Biberman (of The Leopard Man) as a contemptible Thug
captain, Robert Coote (a snooty clerk in The Ghost and Mrs Muir) as a clueless Sergeant
named Higginbotham, and Cecil Kellaway in about two shots as Joan Fontaine's father. The movie was
remade as a cavalry western starring the Rat Pack and called Sergeants Three. In that laughless
dud, Sammy Davis Jr. is the Gunga Din counterpart, and many unfunny jokes are about
the color of his skin.
The real heir to the Gunga Din legacy is Steven Spielberg's fantasy
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which has the Thuggee distortion reappear 107 years
after Colonel Sleeman stamped it out, instead of just 50 years as in this movie. In Spielberg's
version, the Thugs steal magical stones and use psycho-surgery to pluck living hearts out of
their victims. It's interesting to compare this film to Spielberg's reverential Schindler's
List; he's content to sell the same old xenophobic rhubarb when it comes to somebody else's
culture and religion. We don't see Hollywood making movies about evil Jewish alchemists and wizards
conjuring up Golems and stealing children. That would be in miserable taste.
Warners' DVD of Gunga Din is bound to sell like hotcakes. The good transfer (only a few
scratches here and there) looks much better than old TV prints, many of which were of a shorter
95 minute version that cut the picture to ribbons. Left out were references to Kipling, extra scenes
with Fontaine, and even a big part of the spiked punchbowl scene.
Rudy Behlmer has the chance to elaborate on his published account of the filming of Gunga Din
on a commentary; he is also represented in a new featurette-docu along with William Goldman and
several outtake interviews from George Stevens Jr.'s 1984 docu about his director
father. There are two trailers, a choppy original and a similar one from the 1950s reissue. Even
better is a vintage 1939 Porky Pig cartoon by Bob Clampett where Porky goes to the movies. It has
four or five really good bellylaughs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gunga Din rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Rudy Behlmer, Making-of documentary, Looney Tunes cartoon
The Film Fan, Trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 13, 2004
1. I was surprised to learn
that Fontaine was considered a washout at this time, as she was in a series of failed comedies.
Perhaps she was chosen for Gunga Din on the basis that her sister Olivia de Havilland had
been so successful as the female interest in Errol Flynn movies. Apparently Fontaine didn't get her
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson