Monday, October 7, 2013

Gunga Din (1939)

Director: George Stevens


Rudyard Kipling’s poem of a native water boy for British soldiers in colonized India and his bravery in battle finds its way to a motion picture adaption in RKO’s picture Gunga Din. Despite its title and source material the film is more of a war/adventure picture starring three well known actors using sarcasm and cynicism to create a lighter edge to the movie that deals with battles and prisoner torture. The film was one of the year’s most expensive endeavors, which is clearly on exhibit on screen, but ultimately lost money, but leaves an interesting inspiration for a movie very much beloved decades later by Steven Spielberg, starring one of Hollywood’s most recognizable icons.

Gunga Din is an adventure film about three British soldier in colonized India, battling hostile natives of a deadly cult, and a loyal water boy that desperately wants to be a soldier himself. Sergeants MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Cutter (Cary Grant), and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) of the British Indian Army have all served long terms in the Asian colony, growing close enough to be considered brothers. Along with their military prowess and brute fighting abilities, they are known to get themselves into trouble as well, but nothing too bad that they cannot handle. However, each man has their own goals in mind. Ballentine plans on leaving the army and marrying his love, Emmy (Joan Fontaine), which visibly upsets the other two, while Cutter is always on the search for treasure that would allow him to retire comfortably.

With the aid of loyal water boy Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), who desperately wanted to be a soldier, in his pursuit of riches Cutter is captured by deadly cult that has been known to harass the army. Din runs back to get Ballentine and MacChesney who attempt to save their friend, but become trapped in a standoff holding the cult’s guru (Eduardo Ciannelli) hostage with the entire cult ready to strike. When all hope is lost its Din’s ability to send the army that saves the three friends, even though it comes at the price of Gunga Din losing him own life. In the end Din is remembered by his fellow soldiers, immortalized in a poem, remembering the water boy more of a hero than they are.

The picture is a rather entertaining story that centers around the three soldiers and their antics. They have moments that are funny as they jab fun at each other, their enemies, or just the army in general, all in all having a good time as it they were just grown up boys having a rough, good time playing soldiers. They are somewhat invincible, always seeming to make their ways out of jams where the numbers are against them, but the film lends to a lighthearted adventure romp. The real drama is between the three’s friendship being possibly torn apart by future separation as Ballentine plans of marrying and leaving the service. Of course the gang in held together for a mission that lands them in a the middle of murderous cult, the Thuggee, a name one might recognize for a film produced near five decades later, Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Gunga Din, despite the move being named after the Kipling poem of a native water boy, the character is reserved for a minor role. The film Gunga Din is only partially based off the poem of the same name, taking the real main character story from other Kipling group of works entitled Soldiers Three. The character of Din is a bit of a goofy individual with a good heart, but makes minor mistakes, ultimately wanting to serve his master army of British soldiers. Sam Jaffe is an odd looking fellow in the first place, and he plays the role with a rather foolish smile much of the time, but you do not become very attached to him as his story has no flesh to it like the three soldiers. Gunga Din dies a hero and in grieved by the soldiers, giving nod to the Kipling poem with a fictionalized Kipling character producing the rhyme in scenes shortly after the battle, only stating lines that actually paralleled the actions of the movie in the brief ending. Sadly Gunga Din as a character is rather forgettable even though the film bares his name.

The appearance of the fictional Rudyard Kipling would not make his estate happy, demanding that the scenes be removed. The scenes would on a limited basis be removed after the demands of the Kipling family, in some cases crudely matted over when other characters conversations are still carrying out on screen, but the scene would survive intact within later copies of Gunga Din, restoring it to its original form.

The picture it well put together. Directed by George Stevens, who came up working primarily with comedies for Hal Roach, he adds the great comedic timing for the film and its main cast. In a film that ultimately dealt with death, Stevens manages a perfect mix of humor from all three of its main stars throughout the dramatic plot. Shot in majestic valleys within California recreating northwest India along with some of the best visual effects seen up to the time, primarily miniatures to create dramatic actions of a collapsing bridge among others, the film would be nominated for best cinematography for a black and white feature at that year’s Academy Awards.

The film’s main cast was highly recognizable names to major motion pictures. Cary Grant was a large star that seemed to continue to rise. Victor McLaglen was an Academy Award winner who was a big lovable character having played tough men as well as in soft figures. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was a recognizable name from his father’s lrgscy, but was making his own acting skill known throughout Hollywood. Sam Jaffe was a remarkable 47 years old when he played the young title role. In a minor character as Fairbanks’ fiancĂ©e is Joan Fontaine, the older sister of Olivia de Havilland, who was yet to find footing and make a jump to major roles which she accomplish very soon.

The Thuggee cult, would inspire scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Gunga Din up to its time of release was the most expensive picture ever produced by RKO, which aided to its popularity, but would still fail to make a profit. Critics would mostly give the film positive reviews, likening its adventure to films such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Charge of the Light Brigade, also taking place in India. The humor likened to The Front Page with its quick wit. Gunga Din would go on to inspire Sergeants 3, a tongue-in-cheek picture in 1962 that takes place in the West starring members of the infamous ratpack. The Thuggee cult’s representation in this film would inspire Steven Spielberg in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with using similar mysterious, deadly actions of this Indian cult that carried out mystic rituals.

The pictures lasting legacy in American cinema would allow it to be honored in 1999 by being elected to the National Film Registry, as well as being named to AFI’s list of top 100 inspiring American films list in 2005 at number 74. Contemporary audiences may not be as familiar to the feature, but it lasting impact on Hollywood is seen. An adventure film that pokes fun at itself and its stars makes for an entertaining picture that, though unnoticed by later audiences, leaves lasting inspirations for films to come decades later.

Fairbanks, McLagen, Ciannelli, Jaffe, and Fairbanks.

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