I just saw the film Gunga Din for the first time, and I am bowled over by the sheer joy and thrilling humanity of the film. 1939
is known as one of the greatest years for filmmaking, with such stalwart
works as Gone With The Wind
, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
, Basil Rathbone
's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
, Some Like It Hot
with Bob Hope
, Wuthering Heights
, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
, Son of Frankenstein
, William Dieterle
's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
with Charles Laughton
and Maureen O'Hara
, and the timeless and unforgettable The Wizard of Oz
, but none share the pride and heartfelt soul of Gunga Din. One would think a film that by today's standards might be mistaken as prejudice
d or perhaps even juvenile couldn't stand the test of time
. However, time has been quite kind to this black and white film directed by George Stevens
. It's quite remarkable how a movie powerhouse like RKO Radio Pictures
gets cut down less than a decade later, after the maelstrom of Citizen Kane
and other uncalculated risks. Today's film studios play it safe and avoid such gambling of resources. The late 30s were a heady time in Hollywood
, where almost anything was possible, and they didn't need silly computer graphics or expensive special effects either. Just take hundreds of men, put some of them on horseback, run them around in front of a camera and blow a few things up now and then. Now THAT's cinema
Based loosely off a poem written by Rudyard Kipling
, the main story was designed by Ben Hecht
and Charles MacArthur
. The screenplay
was then hammered out by Joel Sayre
and Fred Guiol
with uncredited assistance by several others. Written by committee
one might say. The story takes place in 19th century British
, though it was actually filmed in California
. Three particular soldiers of Her Majesty's service
s who have been through thick and thin together in the past, and we the audience join them at the height of their unrelenting, and perhaps a little thickheaded, glory.
plays Sgt. Archibald Cutter
. Originally he was cast to play Douglas Fairbanks Jr
's role of Sgt. Tommy Ballantine
, but after perusing the script, Grant insisted on the role with more funny bits in it, and how could the producers say no to Cary Grant? Though Fairbanks does play the male ingenue in this film with the same flair he used in over eighty pictures, it should be noted that Grant was right to outflank his contemporary and take the funnier part. Fairbanks wouldn't have been as capable as Grant in the role of Cutter.
Grant's at the height of his game in this picture. He's young, charming, brash, funny, but he's still a bit unseasoned and lacks the maturity which becomes the hallmark of his later films, particularly the Hitchcock
work of North by Northwest
. This young Cary Grant has a vitality and a comic timing that surpasses the efforts of most young comedians in the latter half of the twentieth century. Grant could spin on a dime from grandiose slapstick
to subtle deadpan delivery of a line or a doubletake
in half a tick of a sped up clock. It's a real treat to watch this man at work, not unlike seeing Eddie Murphy
in his first film, 48 Hours
, before Murphy started actually listening to critics and second guessing himself. Cary Grant is unstoppable in Gunga Din as a humorous talent, yet he senses where he can go over the top and when he has to rein himself in.
I fear words may fail me with an attempt to describe Victor McLaglen
's performance as Sgt. 'Mac' MacChesney
. The scene where he performs opposite Anna Mae
, the actual name of the film's prize elephant Annie, is heartwarming and priceless. McLaglen plays the role of Mac with his heart a bit close to the skin. He's supposed to be the tough as nails
brick wall type of the threesome with a soft spot for animals and discovered sincerities. He's like a big hairless teddy bear
in a military uniform. Yet in his performance, McLaglen seems to almost capture the spirit of the whole British army at this time. Tough, stubborn, and sometimes thickheaded, but with a good heart and a true intent, even if going off half-cocked occasionally and getting itself into trouble. Mac tends to feel things first, then he reacts and asks questions later. That too is an important element to the film, and in some ways underlines Great Britain's attitude towards India in this time period, thus helping the viewer to understand almost empathically why history occurred the way it did between these two great nations. Though this topic is perhaps better illustrated in a more serious manner in films like Gandhi
many decades later, this film encapsulates, idealistically, why India and Great Britain so misunderstood one another for so long, but I digress.
This threesome have faced death together, and though it's never spoken in so many words, they believe so long as they stay together they could very well be immortal. There's this sense about them that they live life with a relish and zeal and haven't any true contemplation of their own mortality. Almost as if the characters were shown the last page of the script and know they cannot die. This blind courage and idealistic stupidity when faced with such things as hoards of Thugs or diving off cliffs is the cornerstone of the cinematic experience. Like all the great cinematic adventures of this time in cinema, you know these three guys are going to survive despite their own bravado
: you just don't quite know how, and therein lies the suspense of it.
But the story is not named after them. It's named after Gunga Din, portrayed with a twinkle by Sam Jaffe
. A character actor
of some reknown, Jaffe was originally a teacher of mathematics
in the Bronx
. He's also appeared in Ben Hur
, Bedknobs and Broomsticks
and The Day The Earth Stood Still
among many other films. Jaffe's well known for taking very little from the page and doing great things. Perhaps no role was so designed to need such a careful touch than the title character of this piece. Gunga Din is a water bearer
for the British troops, who dreams of being a soldier like the men he serves. Though officially he has no hope of being so designated or rewarded, he lives and breathes the military with such aspirations, that he learns in his own way to think and feel like a military man. Jaffe's performance is the thread that holds this film together, and he brings a rich vitality and humanity to the film in such a wholesome and natural way that one wouldn't have noticed him had the film not been named after his character. Titling the film "Gunga Din" is like having the director throughout the film go, "Okay I know I don't have the camera focused always on him, but watch THIS guy over here. Don't ask me why; just do it." And one is not disappointed.
plays Emaline 'Emmy' Stebbins
and is largely dismissed in this film, which is disappointing. Such a great talent relegated to stereotype
. Here in this film, her job is to look beautiful and be the reason for some tension and uncertainty in the future of our British threesome. She plays the fiance of Fairbanks' Balantine, and wants him to quit the military and live a civilian life in her arms. The story does not require much from the only principal female in the story. This is perhaps chauvinistic, but the late 1930s were still far more male dominant than they are today.
use of Kali
worshippers is perhaps embarrassing today. Though the film insists in the opening credits that such use of India's deadly Thuggee
cult is accurate, it seems a bit akin to demonizing the germans and the japanese in many World War Two films of the time. Still, the script manages to attempt to instill some dimension in the leader of the otherwise flat and melodramatic bad guys of the film. One can find a new appreciation for Stephen Spielberg
's effort in the second film of the Indiana Jones
franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
. His use of Kali worshippers as villain
s in that film is very similar to the use of them in Gunga Din, and he too manages to find a sense of humanity amidst the Indian peoples, so such two dimensional demonizing is undercut with a wink and a nod to the nobility of such a proud and misunderstood nation.
I can think of little more I can safely say about this film without giving away the ending. Though war film
s are not a strong interest of mine, I'd highly recommend this film. From the J. Arthur Rank
opening credits, to the final reel, there's action, adventure, humor, and a little romance but not too much. Although there are a few places where the editing in of stunt work and explosions are pretty chopping in a way that directors can't get away with today, there's a quaint innocence and daring pride about this work. It's raw yet refreshing, and quite a nostalgic celebration of England at the height of her worldwide power.
Oh one more thing, the music throughout, composed by Alfred Newman
(not to be confused with Alfred E. Newman
of Mad Magazine
fame), really puts this film of sacrifice, duty and fellowship over the top. It's beautiful music with a real sense of the heart of the piece.