Gunga Din (1939)

William Goldman has named Gunga Din (1939), multitudinously and vociferously, as the greatest movie ever made, and his favorite, of course. He was eight years old when the movie came out. Obviously it made a big impression on him, one that has not faded with time.

The movie is old-fashioned cowboy-and-indians in spirit, with Bengal Lancer cowboys and Indian indians. Working as I do with many from the subcontinent, it was hard to ignore the colonial spirit of the thing. I queried some Indians about the movie – five thirty-somethings first. None had heard of Gunga Din, the poem or the movie, or Rudyard Kipling either. One of them knew the Jungle Books, perhaps because she’s a mother with young children. An older Indian friend didn’t know the movie but took a dim view of Western adventure movies set in India in general. I also asked about hats in India, as there was many a turban in evidence in the movie and it occurred to me  that I’d never seen a non-Western, Indian hat. My coworkers and friends reported that there is no Indian tradition of hats, but that the turbans in their many forms, a feature of northern India, could sometimes be doffed and undoffed like hats. A Sikh friend wrapped one out of lemon-yellow cloth for my daughter years ago, on Halloween. It’s still sitting around somewhere. Southern India not only has no tradition of hats, but also has no tradition of turbans. Bare heads all the way.

So then I asked a random selection of non-Indian coworkers about Gunga Din. The first fellow I chose recalled that Gunga was a water-carrier. Good Kipling knowledge! But the next few uniformly had no clue, had never heard of Kipling.  😦  A couple guessed that Gunga Din was a musical group. I checked LinkedIn for possible Gunga contacts. There are a few, all last-named Gunga. Grupo Malungos de Capoeira could be useful in combating Thuggee, the bad guys in the moive. Ganga is a river, the Ganges, the river goddess who flows from the head of Lord Rama, but that’s not an alternate Gunga.

Anyway, the first hurdle that must be mastered on the way to enjoyment of Gunga Din, for some viewers – those of us who spend part of the time in a movie just eyeballing the set locations – is the Californianess of the Hindu Kush in the film. Same problem as with Sherwood Forest’s Chico-like aspect in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Gunga Din was filmed near Lone Pine, California. The backsides of the Sierras filled in for the Himalayas. These days in California, those thousands of extras in the movie could be actual Indians from India. (The movie was RKO’s most expensive to that date, but it made the money back, and plenty more. Faulkner took a first crack at the screenplay.)

Pandro Berman, the production manager, claimed that many an Indian told him that the locations look just like the Hindu Kush, do maybe just because I thought they looked like California didn’t mean that they didn’t look like India as well.

After locations, and Cary Grant’s coming-and-going English accent, it’s all good fun. The kind of fun where the background music is sort of jolly and zippy as the three Lancer heroes kill Thuggees in droves. These days, the music would be more ironic as the dead pile up. We’ve lost some of the innocence of 1939, what with the degradation of the planet, extinction of countless species, deterioration of retirement accounts and pensions, and use of steroids. Fortunately, high body counts in the movies can still be fun. And WW II did shortly provide Hollywood with priceless Nazi drama gold.

Gunga Din also features the old-fashioned type of socking and punching: quick, short blows that put down the opponent quickly. I watched Johnnie To’s Election (2005) the other night and brother ben, guys had to hack guys, and kick them, and whack them with large rocks on and on to finally force quiessence upon them. Added 30 minutes to the film.

I listened to a Kipling biography on tape some time in the past. One thing I remember from it: in a long life, there is plenty of time to do a lot of things and go to a lot of places. Kipling wrote the poem Gunga Din, along with the Jungle Books, Captains Courageous, and various other pieces, while living in Vermont, for example. Reading the poem again, it’s a heckofa poem. The man really got it right with that one. In the movie, they magically transport him to the scene of Gunga Din’s sacrifice and have him write the poem right there on the spot. Then they read it at the grave site. Or at least the final line. Like Gunga, the leader of the other side sacrifices his life for the Indian nationalist cause, jumping into a pit of cobras sort of like Borgnine with the wolves  in The Vikings (1958) (RIP, Tony Curtis, who played the young Viking Eric; Janet Leigh was Morgana; Jamie Lee was born that same year.). Gunga (Sam Jaffe) gets the graveside plaudits; the Indian nationalist (Eduardo Ciannelli) is execrated.

Finally, there is a punch-bowl-at-a-party scene, in which Grant adds the potent contents of a bottle (elephant tranquilizer?) to a bowl of punch. The Key Club (junior Kiwanis)  did the same thing in high school at a Women’s League luncheon, though we used something more conventional than liquid animal trank. Subsequently, as we bused the ladies’ tables, we were disappointed to observe that they seemed to be enjoying their drinks an awful lot without any concomitant falling down dead drunk, or anything more than heightened color in their cheeks. In retrospect, I think that we were doing them all a favor as they faced a spate of boring presentations. Once started, they returned with increasing frequency to the bowl to top off their cups. This was back before doing a couple of lines in the powder room had been accepted by the moms as a way to take the edge off.

One Response

  1. A great review and some interesting historical insights into a movie that I find pretty entertaining and amusing.

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