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Based loosely on the poem by Rudyard Kipling, this takes place in British India during the Thuggee uprising. Three fun loving sergeants are doing fine until one of them wants to get married and leave the service. The other two trick him into a final mission where they end up confronting the entire cult by themselves as the British Army is entering a trap. This is of the "War is fun" school of movie making. It has the flavour of watching Notre Dame play an inferior high school team. Written by
John Vogel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
For years I thought this knockabout service comedy was a product of John Ford, especially with Victor McLaglen as one of the leads. It certainly has the same rough house humor that Ford laces his films with.
To my surprise I learned it was George Stevens who actually directed it. Still I refuse to believe that this film wasn't offered to John Ford, but he was probably off in Monument Valley making Stagecoach.
Victor McLaglen along with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., play three sergeants in the Indian Army who have a nice buddy/buddy/buddy camaraderie going. But the old gang is breaking up because Fairbanks is engaged to marry Joan Fontaine. Not if his two pals can help it, aided and abetted by regimental beastie Gunga Din as played by Sam Jaffe.
The Rudyard Kipling poem served as the inspiration for this RKO film about barracks life in the British Raj. The comic playing of the leads is so good that it does overshadow the incredibly racist message of the film. Not that the makers were racist, but this was the assumption of the British there at the time, including our leads and Gunga Din shows this most effectively.
The British took India by increments, making deals here and there with local rulers under a weak Mogul emperor who was done away with in the middle of the 19th century. They ruled very little of India outright, that would have been impossible. Their rule depended on the native troops you see here. Note that the soldiers cannot rise above the rank of corporal and Gunga Din is considerably lower in status than that.
Note here that the rebels in fact are Hindu, not Moslem. There are as many strains of that religion as there are Christian sects and this strangling cult was quite real. Of course to those being strangled they might not have the same view of them as liberators. But until India organized its independence movement, until the Congress Party came into being, these people were the voice of a free India.
But however you slice it, strangling people isn't a nice thing to do and the British had their point here also. When I watch Gunga Din, I think of Star Trek and the reason the prime directive came into being.
Cary Grant got to play his real cockney self here instead of the urbane Cary we're used to seeing. Fairbanks and McLaglen do very well with roles completely suited to their personalities.
Best acting role in the film however is Eduard Ciannelli as the guru, the head of the strangler cult. Note the fire and passion in his performance, he blows everyone else off the screen when he's on.
Favorite scene in Gunga Din is Ciannelli exhorting his troops in their mountain temple. Note how Stevens progressively darkens the background around Ciannelli until all you see are eyes and teeth like a ghoulish Halloween mask. Haunting, frightening and very effective.
It was right after the action of this film in the late nineteenth century that more and more of the British public started to question the underlying assumptions justifying the Raj. But that's the subject of Gandhi.
Gunga Din is still a great film, entertaining and funny. It should be shown with A Passage to India and Gandhi and you can chart how the Indian independence movement evolved.
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