05 September 2008

Gunga Din (1939)

Based on the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name,1939's Gunga Din is a by-the-book adventure film. Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen star as a trio of British officers of the Royal Engineers stationed in India in the service of her majesty the Queen. Sam Jaffe plays the titular role of Gunga Din, the regimental water-bearer who dreams of becoming a proper soldier. When a small army of Thuggee (cf. the English "thug") marauders attack and eliminate a British outpost at Tandipur, the Engineers Regiment is sent to investigate and is subsequently ambushed by the Thugs. After surviving the ambush, the regiment returns to base, at which point an expedition is organized with the intent of putting down the Thuggee revolt. Sgt. Cutter (Cary Grant) and Din strike out for a hidden temple of gold, and adventure and misadventure ensues as the temple turns out to be the nexus of the Thuggee army.

Three things in particular stood out to me while watching. First of all, the bad British accents of Cary Grant and Doug 2.0 and the worse Indian accents by just about everyone else. Second, copious amounts of good, old-fashioned masculinism. Finally--and perhaps most importantly--the film manages to venture beyond the typical "noble savage" fair in its depiction of the Indians. The first bit is pretty self-explanatory, so I'll gloss over that in favor of more profound topics of discussion.

Sgt. Ballantine (Doug 2.0) is coming upon the end of his period of enlistment in the army, and is considering settling down with his sweetheart Emmy (Joan Fontaine) and getting into the tea business once he musters out. Mortified at the prospect of such a fate befalling their war buddy, Cutter and MacChesney (McLaglen) are determined to keep Ballantine in the service. Ballantine, of course, comes around and decides to put bros (not to mention Queen and Country) before hoes.

Aside from Gunga Din's noble self-sacrifice to prevent the ambush and annihilation of the British Army, Eduardo Cianelli turns in an admirable performance as the Guru (the leader of the Thuggee rebels, who looks rather like an evil version of Mohandas Gandhi). The Guru is the sort of villain who is clearly evil, but is quite dignified in his wickedness (of course, any villain who can work references to Hannibal, Caesar and Alexander into his rhetoric immediately gets points in my book). On the other hand, he and his followers do possess a strong penchant for violence and bloodshed--they are Thugs, after all.

In many ways, Gunga Din is the spiritual predecessor of the Indiana Jones movies, Temple of Doom in particular. From the Kali-worshipping Indian death cult to the protagonist's fear of snakes, one can easily see how the earlier film influenced the later ones (although nobody in Gunga Din tries to rip out Cary Grant's heart through his ribcage). Gunga Din also has a climactic, large-scale battle, which is quite well-done, especially considering the massive number of extras who appear. There's also a great cavalry charge, courtesy of a unit of Sikh lancers. I'm a sucker for a good cavalry charge, let me tell you.

Thought it might be a bit dated in its technology and its social mores, Gunga Din is a highly enjoyable bit of movie adventuring in the tradition of the first Douglas Fairbanks (in that respect, it's appropriate that Doug 2.0 gets in his fair share of derring-doery). Definitely a classic.

I only wish I had been able to work in a "Thug Life" pun somewhere...

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