Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gunga Din

Today, I decided to finally watch Gunga Din, which I have heard referenced as a favorite of all military men.  I have always enjoyed Cary Grant, but I've only seen a small fraction of his films; Gunga Din is one that I hear a lot about (it's been nominated for several AFI lists), but knew nothing about.  And today is Pearl Harbor Day, so I wanted to watch a great war movie; sure, I could have watched Pearl Harbor, but I wanted to see something good and inspirational instead.
Like a technologically advanced army fighting natives

Gunga Din is the story of three military buddies serving in Her Majesty's army in colonial India, around 1880.  MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) is a career soldier, a large man that is more than happy to brawl; Cutter (Cary Grant) is the goofy one, always on the hunt for treasure; and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is the one who is going to break up the gang, by becoming a civilian in a few days, getting married (to Joan Fontaine), and working in "the tea business," whatever that entails.  The trio have been fast friends for many years and shared many adventures across multiple campaigns, but their time as a trio is quickly coming to an end.  It would be bad enough if Ballantine was simply becoming a civilian (he could just re-enlist and fix that), but getting married and taking a dull joe job is a tragedy that MacChesney and Cutter can hardly believe.
Grant, preparing to audition for a role in Colors

While the kookiness of the characters is being explored, we also learn that the Thugee cult has returned to India, after many years, which means that there will be violent uprisings, right when Ballantine is set to retire.  Meanwhile, Cutter is looking for his next crack at immeasurable wealth.  The squad's Indian water-carrier, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), mentions that he has heard of a temple made of gold.  The two set out for the temple, which turns out to be the headquarters for the Thugees.  Oops.  Gunga Din escapes and notifies MacChesney and Ballantine, but what can they do?  Ballantine is a civilian now, and MacChesney is no match for a cult all by his lonesome.  What follows is a tale of the bond of brotherhood between military men and the sacrifices one makes for God and Country. 

I have to admit that I was surprised that the titular character in Gunga Din is not actually one of the main characters.  Knowing nothing about the plot, I thought "Gunga Din" might have been a battle, or a town, or an elephant or maybe the villain of the film; I did not expect it to be the relatively small (but important) Indian role played by a man of Russian and Jewish descent. 
He is only slightly darker than the eternally tan Grant
Of course, it's a slippery slope for me to criticize a movie released in 1939 for racially inaccurate casting; that was a tradition in Hollywood for decades, and continues today.  I suppose I would have been less surprised about the character if I had remembered the Ruyard Kipling poem of the same name, which inspired the film.  Then again, it's not like many movies are based on poems, right?
"Unless you count Troy, Jabberwocky, Beowulf, El Cid, Braveheart, The Nightmare Before Christmas..."

The acting in Gunga Din is an odd blend of classic Hollywood machismo and screwball comedy.  Naturally, that fits Cary Grant perfectly, and he is very enjoyable as a brave, loyal soldier with a tendency to act like a jackass.  Victor McLaglen was pretty good for the period, but the more comedic aspects of his performance have aged poorly.
Actual script line: "Ruh-roh..."
He was definitely a good soldier and I enjoyed most of his bantering with Grant, but some of his character's idiosyncrasies (like the elephant thing) seem absolutely random and corny now.  Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had the thankless task of being the straight man of the film; he was solid, but as the romantically conflicted character, he was a bit shallow.  Sam Jaffe was okay as Gunga Din, the water boy that really wanted to be a British soldier; it wasn't the most racially insensitive portrayal ever (that would be Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's), but I would have liked his character better if he wasn't ridiculously stupid.  Joan Fontaine wasn't much better as the wife-to-be who reasonably wants her fiancee to marry her and work a normal, 9-to-5 job; her argument makes total sense and is sympathetic, but the character whines and complains enough to make a nine-year extension with the army seem like a better choice.
Fontaine, the Yoko Ono of Gunga Din
I did like Eduardo Ciannelli as the villainous head Thugee.  Sure, he is just as white as Sam Jaffe, but his character was smart, devious and fanatical, without playing up a ridiculous accent.

I was very impressed with the direction of George Stevens in Gunga Din.  It's not that the acting is fantastic, or that the pace is perfect, but the cinematography is great.  This entire movie was filmed in California, and yet it looks like a location shoot.  I've read up on some of the scenes and am now more impressed than ever with the camera tricks used to make this feel authentic.
Example: this bridge was about six feet off the ground
More importantly than that is the epic scope of the film.  Even today, the size of the battles is impressive, even if it is not accompanied by the gore that Braveheart made commonplace in battle scenes.  The key to the epic-ness of Gunga Din is how effortlessly it conveys the bond of brotherhood between soldiers.  I have to admit that I wasn't really buying into this being a great movie for military men, but the end of the film is designed to make manly men weep.

Gunga Din isn't a perfect movie.  The comedic and dramatic elements battle for supremacy, with neither truly succeeding.  The shame that the titular poem alludes to --- which should be the central theme of the film --- does not really come across through the actions of the characters.  Despite all that, this is a pretty entertaining movie to watch, with Cary Grant being truly magnetic on the screen.

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