Monday, November 8, 2010
CLASSIC OR ANTIQUE? "Gunga Din"
"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.