Warner Bros. // 1939 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // February 1st, 2005
"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." -- from Rudyard Kipling's 1892 poem
Inspired by Kipling's fairly horrible poem about a loyal water-bearer, Gunga Din is a fairly fabulous movie that follows the exploits of three British soldiers in 19th century India. Combining battles that look like smashing fun, elephant hijinx, exotic locales (courtesy southern California), a cleft chin that could cut diamonds (courtesy Cary Grant)...what more could you want in a movie?
Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant, The Awful Truth) is a young and impulsive Cockney; Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglin The Quiet Man) is the older, gruff career soldier; and Thomas Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Angels Over Broadway) is the solid family-man-in-training. His bride-to-be, Emaline Stebbins (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca) pines in the distance for her Tommy, waiting out the nine days left in his service with the British Army.
Adventure interferes with his planned retirement when a treasure-hunting Cutter discovers a Thugee cult -- a band of murderous Kali worshipers -- and, with the aid of the loyal Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe, The Asphalt Jungle), enters their lair. Ballantine and MacChesney must ride in to rescue Cutter and Empire, but it's Din who makes the ultimate sacrifice and saves the day.
The first thing you will notice about Gunga Din is the cheesy opening credits, where a tiny Indian man bangs a gong printed with each name, causing the text to dissolve into the next. According to the commentary, the effect was achieved by reflecting the image in a pan of shimmering mercury, which is almost interesting enough to help suppress any giggles.
The credits may make you laugh in the wrong kind of way, but the rest of the film injects wonderful bits of slapstick and sarcasm amid the gunfire. The plot may be ludicrous with the maniacal Kali worshipers, but it almost doesn't matter who the enemy is when the three leads have so much fun pursuing them.
Gunga Din benefits from great chemistry between Grant, Fairbanks, and McLaglin. These were giant stars of the age with vastly different onscreen personae, so the blend is irresistible. And the bond between their characters is crucial to the success of the plot. We have to believe Cutter and MacChesney would be devastated at the loss of Ballantine to domestic life, and that Ballantine cares enough for Cutter to risk his retirement in order to participate in the rescue effort. The three actors bounce off each other well, with little sentimentality but a lot of camaraderie.
I'll admit a bias: I love Cary Grant. I will restrain myself from gushing about how gorgeous he is, though. I was introduced to his debonair charms when my hometown's local repertory theater put on a retrospective of his work after his death in 1986. I even sat through the stinker The Howards of Virginia, and own a VHS of another dud, None But the Lonely Heart. That may influence my feeling that Grant steals the movie. Cutter is no suave sophisticate, but Grant's background in vaudeville honed his comic sensibilities and paved his way to wonderful performances in classic screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby. Gunga Din let him play a rare non-romantic comedic role, and he does it beautifully.
The talented, genre-crossing George Stevens (I Remember Mama) directed this film, and though there are some long-range battle and scenery shots, he brought an intimate, close-up style to many scenes that brings us right into the characters' world.
When the film was originally released in 1939, Kipling's widow protested at Kipling's inclusion as a character in the film (he appears as a journalist riding with the company). So the producers matted out the character while retaining the poem he writes in honor of Gunga Din. Re-released in 1954 to be played as part of a double bill, the film was further cut by 20 minutes. For this DVD release, the original footage has been returned to its rightful place, allowing us to finally see the full version of the film.
Though additional footage has been restored -- as in added, not fixed -- the print itself hasn't had much attention lavished on it, and is marred by grain and scratching. Spotlights are apparent in some outdoor scenes, though the lighting and contrast are generally lovely. And despite the spotlights, the beautiful scenery isn't a painted backdrop -- much of the film was shot in California's Sierras, which stand in for the Khyber Pass. Don't expect much from the mono sound -- it's audible and reasonably clear, though some hissing and distortion is evident.
The commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer is a terrific extra, though his detailed observations are rarely directly related to the action on-screen. He goes into detail about the intricacies of filming, with the project going through many directors and writers before shooting began. The information he packs into the commentary could fill a book, with tidbits on casting, budget, and the careers of the actors involved, including relatively minor players like Anna May the elephant and Abner Biberman, who played one of the Thugs and went on to have a long career as a director as well as actor.
Among the most interesting bits is the revelation that Cary Grant was offered the romantic role of Ballantine, but he wanted the comedic role of Cutter even though in that version of the script, at least, it was considered a secondary character. He also talks about the budget overruns that inflated the cost of the film to $1.9 million -- astronomical for the time and for the modest studio of RKO.
The "Making of" featurette crams a lot of entertainment into 11 minutes, with interviews with RKO bigwig Pandro Berman, screenwriter William Goldman, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the director's son George Stevens, Jr., plus 16 mm video of the filming of Gunga Din. Other extras include a vintage Porky Pig cartoon and the original and re-release theatrical trailers.
It has to be said: the condescension directed towards the Indian characters, plus the sight of white actors in brown-face to play them, is unsettling today. Classic films tend to get a pass on issues of racism and misogyny, but the patronizing attitude towards the Indians and Gunga Din in particular does detract from the experience of the film, as does Jaffe's pop-eyed portrayal of the ridiculous if finally admirable title character.
When popular Indian actor Sabu (The Thief of Baghdad) wasn't available for the role of Gunga Din, the producers went for the unlikely casting of Sam Jaffe -- 33 years Sabu's senior and decidedly not Indian. Din is a minor character in the movie that bears his name, so at least the incongruous casting doesn't detract much from the on-screen fun. And his final scenes are affecting as the power of his sacrifice overrides the flaws in the character.
Gunga Din is the rollickingest of rollicking adventures, and the precursor to modern classics like the Indiana Jones trilogy. With not one but three heroes to captivate the audience, and a sparkling mix of cheeky humor, swashbuckling action, and some of the most attractive human beings to come out of Hollywood's Golden Age, Gunga Din is finally released on DVD in its full-length glory.
You're a better DVD than most are, Gunga Din. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Making-of documentary "On Location with Gunga Din"
* Commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer
* Vintage Porky Pig cartoon "The Film Fan"
* Original and reissue theatrical trailers
* "Gunga Din" by Rudyard Kipling