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Gunga Din

Gunga Din
Warner DVD
1939 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 117 min. / Street Date December 7, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sam Jaffe, Eduardo Ciannelli, Joan Fontaine
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Film Editor Henry Berman, John Lockert, John Sturges
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol from the poem by Rudyard Kipling
Produced and Directed by George Stevens

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 review 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 concentrated 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 1825.

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 Eastern country.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 due until Rebecca.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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