Gunga Din (1939)


  • directed by George Stevens
  • starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sam Jaffe, Joan Fontaine, Eduardo Ciannelli 
  • In 19th century India, three British soldiers and a native waterbearer must stop a secret cult before it can rampage across the land.

“Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the living God that made you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din,” – Rudyard Kipling.

Loosely based on the poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling, the film ends with an appearance from the writer, played by Reginald Sheffield, scribbling in his notepad as an observer of Gunga Din’s posthumous honor ceremony. This scene was cut out of the film for a great many years at the request of Kipling’s family, but I guess time heals all because it’s back in. As this take on the story goes, a small British force and a few Indian-born camp workers, including water-carrier Gunga Din, are dispatched to investigate a communication failure and end up embroiled in conflict with the suppressed, murderous cult called Thugee.

After the initial battle, the British regroup and we learn more about Din, a guy who yearns to stand side by side with the troops, imitating their exercises in private and clutching his bugle as his version of a rifle. Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen do most of the heavy lifting for the British soldiers and they each have their own personal motivations and side-stories through the mission–Cutter gets sidetracked by the temple of gold, Ballantine is on the verge of quitting to wed Joan Fontaine’s Emmy and to start a tea company, and MacChesney just wishes they’d all get in line and stop making waves. Even in the throes of the final battle with all their lives on the line, they’re constantly at each other’s throats or kicking back and having a laugh.

The first time the soldiers cross paths with the Thugee, you really get a sense of director George Stevens’ comedy background. Known at this point for lighthearted fare and Laurel and Hardy short films, Stevens stripped away a lot of danger out of tense situations with a light, bouncy score, and a wily, yet unintimidating “enemy.” When the opposing forces got into hand to hand combat, especially in the beginning, the music and sped-up staging had me expecting a wedgie or an eye-poke in the midst of all the bloody and explosive action. But despite some of the comedic leanings, the battle scenes all manage to climb to exhilarating heights, with a true sense of comradery between the leads and, ultimately, courageous behavior from the man that would give his life to help the British avoid falling into an ambush in the end.

Sure you can think yourself in circles about which side is the true antagonist in such a situation and there was plenty of questionable content within—brownface makeup, the almost always inaccurate and insensitive portrayal of native “savages,” and putting a comical spin on colonial rule and conflict–but at the end of the day, it’s a grand-scale, extremely entertaining adventure film with great performances from Mclaglen, Jaffe, and one of my favorite actors, Cary Grant.

Hey, this is pretty funny: Director George Stevens had Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Cary Grant flip a coin for the role of Cutter. Grant won.


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all the things I should have seen

3 Responses to Gunga Din (1939)

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  3. Pingback: Gunga Din (1939) – classixquest | Blog do Rogerinho

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