Monday, November 8, 2010


    "Gunga Din" was the second biggest box office hit of 1939, coming in behind only "Gone with the Wind".  It was based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling.  (Students, use Cliif's Notes instead).  It is the tale of a trio of British officers in India circa 1880.  We meet them brawling in a village which establishes that they are BFFs.  The leads (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen) are attractive and seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.  Gunga Din is an Indian water-boy (played creepily by 47 year old, decidedly non-Indian Sam Jaffe) who has aspirations of being a British soldier.  You could wear black-face in a 1939 movie as long as you were not playing a black, apparently.

      The movie features stirring music and beautiful scenery.  The plot revolves around an uprising by the Thuggee cult  ("the most fiendish band of killers in history").  This allows for lots of action including old-fashioned fisticuffs.  A typical action-filled scene ends with our heroes escaping by diving into a river.
      Being best buddies, Cutter (Grant) and McChesney (McLaglen) naturally go about sabotaging Ballentine's (Fairbank's) marriage and subsequent retirement from the military.  They know what's best for him!  He tries to do the logical (right) thing, but when Cutter goes off and gets himself captured by the Thuggees, he joins McChesney on a rescue mission to the Thuggee temple.  Cliche alert: a warrior will always choose his best buds over any woman, even his fiance.
     The chief priest at the temple is a typical 1930's villain.  He is imminently hissable which goes a long way toward deflecting attention from the fact that the Thuggees are rebelling against foreign occupiers.  But then again, Gunga Din is a servant of those colonialists and he is the hero of the movie!  Don't let these facts get in the way of your enjoying the movie. 
      This is a good old-fashioned action film, but it is not really a war movie although there is a huge chaotic battle at the end.  There is lots of humor and some it holds up.  Most of it comes from Grant, but give the forgotten Victor McLaglen some props.
     In spite of the paternalistic and racist overtones, I would have to classify "Gunga Din" as still a classic.  Watch it and then watch "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and let me know what you think. 


  1. I can sort of see how one could enjoy this movie. However we need to put aside all our contemporary political correctness sensibilities. The black-face looks hilarious... For how long where they allowed to use a black face for African-Americans? I had a feeling I have seen movies from that time and even later where it was done.

  2. I wondered about this when I wrote my post. I think I am safe in saying this movie came out after black-face went out. "Gone with the Wind" came out the same year and there weren't any black characters played by white actors.
    Why would England's dominance of India be acceptable in the 1930's? I suppose it is akin to all the westerns that came out back then which portayed the Indians as the villains. Which reminds me that the great war leader Cochise was portayed by a blond-haired, blue-eyed white man in one of those movies ("Broken Arrow").

  3. Gunga Din is one of my favorite b/w movies. good mixture of adventure and humor. the fact that its taken from a relatively short Kipling poem and expanded into a full length movie and still remains well done is a rarity. some of the acting is kinda hammy, particularly Mclaglin and his cheshire grin, but that was the style in old hollywood. Cary Grant is very good in this.
    Hard to compare GD with Temple since the tones can be pretty different. All the Indiana Jones movies are obviously inspired somewhat by GD mainly for the adventure elements and the cliffhanger moments. The Thugee element in Temple is much darker and graphic then in GD of course. But that is the times. The humor is much better in GD. Spielberg's attempts at humor (the gross out banquet scene and the whole romance of Indy with Willy) are pretty lame.
    I have no problem with the racial overtones of GD. Again a part of old hollywood. Plus the original poem is very jingoistic of course. Sam Jaffe was a good actor and that makes the character of Din work despite the goofy makeup. The same can be said for the actor who played the Thugee chief.
    Oddly enuff i would place another b/w "war" movie perhaps higher then GD: The Four Feathers. Great movie with a good story and some wonderful battle scenes. Set around the same time period i would guess. Less comical and more "epic" in scope for its time.


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