Thursday, September 6, 2012

Another Look: GUNGA DIN (1939)

Watched this great film for the umpteenth time again yesterday on TCM.
It's another standout from that magical year 1939 (which also saw the release of such lasting favorites as Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Young Mr. Lincoln, and on and on).

Gunga Din is, of course, based on the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling. The movie was directed by George Stevens, penned by a team of writers including Ben Hecht, and given a rousing musical score by Alfred Newman. The stars are Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as, respectively, MacChesney, Cutter, and Ballantine, three sergeants in England's Royal Engineers occupying India in the 1880s. They are a rowdy, brawling, undisciplined lot but nevertheless the right men for a dangerous mission such as the one that arrives when contact is lost with the British outpost of Tantrapur. The three are assigned to lead a detail to find out what has gone wrong. Included in the ranks of those accompanying them is Gunga Din (played by Sam Jaffee) a lowly water-carrier who longs to one day become a soldier of the Queen.

The source of the trouble in Tantrapur, it is discovered, is an uprising of Thuggees, a murderous cult that has been suppressed for many years. Overcoming this Thuggee threat is the central plot element for the remainder of the movie. In the course of things, there is plenty of action mixed with a good deal of humor and banter between the three stars. Despite being a huge fan of McLaglen (who does his usual fine job here), I have to admit it is Grant who steals the show as the brash, somewhat goofy Cutter, always entangled in some kind of scheme, usually for hidden treasure or gold. It is this obsession, in fact, that leads him (with the aid of Gunga Din) to a fabulous golden temple that also just happens to be the headquarters for the Thuggees.
The climax is a rip-snorting battle between British troops and the Thuggee horde, coming when a planned ambush of the British is thwarted by a badly wounded Gunga Din climbing to the top of the golden tower and sounding an alarm with a bugle (one he has been practicing with secretly as part of his hope to join the Queen's ranks), thus warning the troopers to take defensive action before the trap is sprung. When he dies as a result of his wounds, Din is posthumously named an honorary corporal to the regiment and the colonel reads the following (the closing lines of Kipling's poem) at his graveside:

                       "So I'll meet 'im later on
                        At the place where 'e is gone –
                        Where it's always Double Drill and no canteen;
                        'E'll be squattin' on the coals
                        Givin' drink to poor damned souls,
                        And I'll get a drink in Hell from Gunga Din!
                        Yes, Din! Din! Din!
                        You Lazaroushian-leather Gunga Din!
                        Though I've belted you and flayed you,
                        By the livin' Gawd that made you,
                        You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!"

I'll admit that every time I watch that scene—and even a little bit now, re-typing the words—I get a lump in my throat.
Gunga Din is that kind of movie; for the most part high-spirited adventure with plenty of rollicking laughs, but also with sweep and spectacle and a measure of heart and genuine emotion.

The basic storyline was used for a 1962 remake called Sergeants 3, a Rat Pack vehicle starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford in the title roles. As with most Rat Pack ventures, it was a tongue-in-cheek affair set in the Old West, substituting the U.S. Cavalry and a cult-like American Indian tribe in place of the British troops and the Thuggees. Sammy Davis Jr. starred as the Gunga Din-like character. I actually saw this film in a theater before ever catching the original on TV, and thought it was pretty good. I've seen it again recently and, while it has it moments and is a rather interesting spin on things, it doesn't really hold up that well.
Gunga Din, however, hangs together just fine. It's long (especially for the period), coming in at just under two hours. But it never flags and I can pretty much guarantee you'll come away feeling that a couple hours in the company of MacChesney, Cutter, Ballantine, and Din was time very well spent.

Persevere --- WD


Thomas Pluck said...

I saw this one a few years ago, and it's a great adventure story. And you're right, Grant does steal the show in a role against type.

link said...

Action/adventure films have been around long before INDIANA JONES brought them careening across the big screen. GUNGA DIN is one of the classics of the genre with everything one has come to expect from these movies – an exotic location, a hunt for treasure, undying friendship, a murderous death cult, attractive leading men, fights for days and dry one-liners. Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen make the perfect trio of athletic, yet sarcastic soldiers trying to stay alive and make a quick buck all at the same time.

David Cranmer said...

I always enjoy this one.