GUNGA DIN - DVD review

Like the poem, the movie is sentimental and corny and totally absurd, and we wouldn't want it any other way. This is grand and exhilarating filmmaking that's hard to resist.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Now in Injia's sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin' of 'Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them black-faced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.
I sha'n't forgit the night
When I dropped be'ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should 'a' been.
I was chokin' mad with thirst
An' the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin', gruntin' Gunga Din.
'E lifted up my 'ead,
An' 'e plugged me where I bled,
An' 'e guv me 'arf-a-pint o' water--green:
It was crawlin' and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I've drunk,
I'm gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
'E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An' a bullet come an' drilled the beggar clean.
'E put me safe inside,
An' just before 'e died:
'I 'ope you liked your drink,' says Gunga Din.

So I'll meet him later on
In the place where 'e is gone,
Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
'E'll be squattin' on the coals
Givin' drinks to pore damned souls,
An' I'll get a swig in Hell from Gunga Din!

Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Tho I've belted you an' flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!"

--from "Gunga Din," Rudyard Kipling, 1892

Today, it's hard to countenance the political incorrectness of such blatantly prejudicial condescension, but there's no denying the uplifting bond of friendship, loyalty, devotion, and admiration that permeates the author's words. The poem has been inspiring readers for over a century, and if it seems dated, hopelessly old-fashioned, corny, and patronizing, so be it. For what it's worth, the 1939 film of the same name is only loosely based on the poem, and while the water boy still saves the day in the end, it's the rousing exploits preceding it that make the movie "Gunga Din" one of the best action-adventures of all time.

"Gunga Din" was made by RKO, but at Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn was taking over in the swashbuckling department where Doug Fairbanks, Sr., had left off, and RKO probably figured the time was ripe for a swashbuckler of their own. With Flynn having seen success in WB's "Captain Blood," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and "The Adventures of Robin Hood," RKO looked for a comparable star and found not one but three in Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the son of the silent-screen star. One brawny (McLaglen) and two dashing (Grant and Fairbanks) heroes looked to be just the right combination to take audience's minds off the recent Depression and the looming prospect of World War II.

And right they were. RKO even brought in director George Stevens to oversee the film, the director having just created such breezy fare as "Annie Oakley" and "Swing Time," and who would continue in this lightweight vein until after the War, at which time he would get more serious with "I Remember Mama," "A Place in the Sun," "Shane," "Giant," "The Diary of Anne Frank," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

Of course, "Gunga Din" is outlandish, silly, preposterous fun, but that's the whole idea, is it not? The movie is children's play for adults (as well as for kids), the ultimate buddy film, where the heroes can do some serious male bonding, and where not even true love can get in the way of a few laughs, a good scrap, a smidgeon of excitement, or the faintest hint of danger.

The setting is a military outpost in India during the late nineteenth century, when the sun had not yet begun to set on the British Empire. Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks play Sergeants Cutter, MacChesney, and Ballantine, hard-drinking, hard-fighting, happy-go-lucky comrades in arms, and stalwart heroes all. Grant is the comedy relief, McLaglen the muscle, and Fairbanks the romantic.

In the main plot, the three buddies are sent to investigate a thugee cult uprising threatening to sweep all of India. In a subplot we learn that Sgt. Ballantine is engaged to be married to a Miss Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and planning to quit the service. His pals don't much like the idea of his leaving, so they hatch a scheme involving a temple full of gold to lure him into staying. By the movie's second half, the two story lines come together in a rousing adventure and climactic battle sequence that is the essence of what action movies are all about. And Ballantine may be through with the army, but he's not through with his friends.

Now, where does this leave the title character, the water boy Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe)? Mostly out in the cold, actually, until the very end of the picture where the chap not only saves one life (as in the poem) but a whole company of soldiers. You knew that. Despite Din's infrequent appearances on screen, Jaffe makes the character his own, and we remember him just as much as we do the three principal leads.

Along the path of their adventures, the protagonists meet villainous murderers, stranglers, the worshipers of Kali; pits of venomous snakes; Indian temples with labyrinthine tunnels; rope-ladder bridges over deep, narrow gorges; minor brawls; major fights; and all-out battles. Does this remind you of anything? Do you figure George Lucas and his buddy Steven Spielberg might have seen "Gunga Din" more than a few times in their youth?

The mountainous desert region of Lone Pine, California, fills in admirably for India's Khyber Pass, and director George Stevens's previous experience as a cinematographer pays off with spectacular scenery and composition. Alfred Newman provides the familiar musical background, at once heroic and exotic. In addition, I've always enjoyed the big gong during the opening credits, lending a tongue-in-cheek note to the proceedings before they even begin.

Oddly, the fight scenes have a herky-jerky, fast-motion appearance to them reminiscent of silent films, but maybe it was intended to look that way for light relief. It seems a little dated at first, but you get used to it.

"Gunga Din" is filled with such silly hokum, it's hard not to like it. The cheeky humor goes a long way toward making it almost an outright comedy. When Cutter faces an entire assembly of the thugee cult in the bowels of a temple, he marches to the fore, confronts them and their leader, and proclaims, "You're all under arrest, the whole lot of you. Her Majesty is very touchy about having her subjects strangled." Wonderful stuff.

The opening credits are a bit more grainy than the rest of the picture, but things clear up considerably as the movie goes along. This is an archival restored print in that some twenty minutes of lost footage has been found and replaced, but it does not appear to be a digitally restored print in terms of film quality. Therefore, it is as good a print as Warner Brothers could find. Some grain is always present, some occasional age marks, and average definition for an older film. There are fairly good black-and-white contrasts in most scenes and good black levels throughout, but now and again one notices a particularly murky scene.

The audio is 1.0 mono, reprocessed in Dolby Digital for added clarity. The entire frequency range is limited, especially the bottom end, and the sound spectrum seems more than a bit hard and thin at times. There is also a small degree of intermittent hiss accompanying some of the dialogue in quieter scenes. Most of the time, however, one never notices the sound at all.

The primary bonuses are an audio commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer, who provides his usual expertise in background information; and a newly made, eleven-minute, making-of documentary, "On Location With Gunga Din." The documentary includes interviews with the director's son, George Stevens, Jr.; the RKO chief in charge of production at the time, Pando Berman; and the late Doug Fairbanks, Jr. In addition, we hear screenwriter William Goldman pay tribute to the film, saying that nothing else had as big an impact on him as a writer than "Gunga Din." Finally, there's a 1939, black-and-white Porky Pig/Looney Tunes cartoon, "The Film Fan," that's cute and filled with puns; thirty-one scene selections; an original 1939 theatrical trailer, and a 1957 re-release trailer. English is the only spoken language available, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Parting Thoughts:
Practically every action-adventure ever filmed since "Gunga Din" owes a little something to this movie, from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to "National Treasure." "Gunga Din's" got it all: passion, romance, high good humor, and derring-do. The characters are unforgettable, the pacing is crisp, the scenery is gorgeous, and the music is elating. Like the poem, the movie is sentimental and corny and totally absurd, and we wouldn't want it any other way. This is grand and exhilarating filmmaking that's hard to resist.


Film Value