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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 <email@example.com>
The characters of Sergeants Cutter, Ballantine, and MacChesney were based on Privates Otheris, Mulvaney, and Learoyd from Kipling's "Soldiers Three" short stories. See more »
In the end, when they're taking Gunga Din's body away, Colonel Weed does the salute the American way (palm down). The British salute with the palm up (Sam Jeffe demonstrates it perfectly a few seconds later). See more »
Anyone with a young boy in the house who won't watch black & white movies should put this on their television set. When the child walks by, wondering what all the on screen shouting and shooting's about, tell him this is a picture for adults and that he isn't big enough to watch it yet. That'll hold him there for a few minutes; director George Stevens and his team will keep him to the end.
I think my father did that to me, anyway, and I'm the better man for it. This classic adventure yarn, set in India during the British occupation, features a trio of Army sergeants who find their tight union facing dissolution as one prepares to marry his sweetheart. Help arrives in the form of a vicious Thuggie revolt that the soldiers find themselves united against.
"Gunga Din" was one of the great movies to come out of Hollywood's finest year, 1939. Even more than most great movies from that Golden year, it is entertaining in a very immediate and accessible way. The theme music is instant hummable nirvana. While shot in California, the camera work (the only thing in "Gunga Din" that got so much as an Oscar nomination) has a windblown grandeur that feels very much like the Raj of a hundred years before. The battle scenes are shot in a very realistic manner, not too violent but very messy as people fall and shoot and run in all corners of each frame in a way that feels real, not staged like some Cecil B. DeMille Biblical slaughter fest.
The script doesn't just set up action scenes, it also develops the relationship of the three sergeants with great dollops of humor. The main focus is on Sgt. Cutter, chasing after tall tales of golden treasures. It's a rare actioner for Cary Grant, and his lightness is just right for a film that never takes itself seriously even as it develops taut suspense.
Anchoring the trio is Sgt. MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), who dotes over his elephant Annie and tries to protect Cutter from his own hare-brained schemes. He's just as funny in his own way, leaving Sgt. Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., displaying some nice Errol Flynnish dash) as the one with the love interest and grounding enough to know he needs to chuck his boyish pals and grow up.
If "Gunga Din" was a Lifetime movie, it would be about Joan Fontaine's efforts to save her man from his two loser friends and their skull crushing hijinks. But since it's a guys' film, the accent here is on how the threesome must stay together and save Ballantine from a fate worse than death, not only marriage, but as Cutter indignantly exclaims several times, the tea business, too.
The political correctness police are hard on this film, not so much for the gender issue but the idea of British soldiers saving poor Indians from the vicious Thuggies. It reeks of colonial apologia. Thankfully, this film was made back when, and the producers thus felt no need to spell out the obvious liberalism at the heart of the film, that these three sergeants, so full of derring-do and false racial pride, have to be saved along with the rest of their army by a humble bhisti that only one of the three had any time for when he sought their approval. After all, for all their swashbuckling glory, the film's true sacrifice involves the title character, played so heart-wrenchingly by Sam Jaffe.
Back when this film was made, movie mogul Jack Warner had a saying: You want to send a message, use Western Union. Still, it seems like the messages were flying fast and furious in "Gunga Din." I watch the film now and wonder if audiences back then were meant to wonder what Gunga Din was really up to when he led Cutter to the golden temple. Was he really plotting revenge against his British overlords? Would he have been justified in doing so, especially given MacChesney's cold treatment of him? When Col. Weed delivers that eulogy, the poem by Rudyard Kipling on which the film is loosely based, was it with a nod in the direction of imperialism's folly, of lording it over someone who proved "a better man than I am" in the end? What did they make of the Guru's great speech, delivered in perfect clipped English: "You have sworn an oath as soldiers to maybe die for a faith, which is your country, England. Well, I can die for my country and my faith as readily as you...India, farewell."
Of course, the same character also instructs his brutal followers: "Kill for the love of killing! Kill for the love of Kali! Kill! Kill! Kill!" Which means we are allowed to hate him and root for the British, and save the questions about what it all means for later.
What "Gunga Din" means to me, most of all, is the quickest, surest 90-minute thrill ride on video. Cutter never found his golden temple, but there's one for all of us watching "Gunga Din."
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