GUNGA DIN (director: George Stevens; screenwriters: Joel Sayre/Fred Guiol/based on a story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur/inspired by the poem by Rudyard Kipling; cinematographer: Joseph August; editors: Henry Berman/John Lockert; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Cary Grant (Cutter), Victor McLaglen (MacChesney), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Ballantine), Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din), Eduardo Ciannelli (Sufi Khan), Joan Fontaine (Emmy), Montagu Love (Colonel Weed), Robert Coote (Higginbotham), Abner Biberman (Cheta), Lumsden Hare (Major Mitchell), Reginald Sheffield (Rudyard Kipling); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: George Stevens; RKO; 1939)
“As breezy as the pipe playing Seaforth Highlanders marching to battle without a care in the world.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
George Stevens’ (“Shane”/”Giant”/”The Diary of Anne Frank”) Gunga Din remains one of the great nonsense-adventure tales ever made by Hollywood despite its smug colonialist attitude and its glorification of war. It’s loosely based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem, an homage to the noble Indian water-bearer Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) who wanted to become a British soldier and sacrifices his life to save a British regiment as he blows his bugle to save it from an ambush. For that, the poem concludes saying “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” The film is a series of comical unsavory capers, well-staged fights with the likes of a marauding cult of Kali worshipers and murderers and a spectacular final battle scene of 1500 men, several hundred horses and four elephants. The performances are sparkling, the directing is sharp and the action is rousing. The much worked over script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (also Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol) might have also received some help from the uncredited William Faulkner.
The adventure is set in the early 1890s. It finds three happy-go-lucky brawling and boozing British sergeants stationed in an army outpost in Muri in colonial India: Cutter (Cary Grant), McChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). They are fighting for love of country and adventure. When the more romantically inclined Ballantine intends to break up the merry threesome by going into the tea business and marrying the proper Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine), his cockney pals hatch a few wild schemes to keep him in the army (a plotline lifted from the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play The Front Page).
The colonialists are pictured as peace-keepers in the North-West Frontier who are called to action when a native revolt is instigated by the fanatical Thugee cult, wanting to restore India to its past glory by strangling the villagers who don’t cooperate with them. They are led by Sufi Khan (Eduardo Ciannelli).
The film was as breezy as the pipe playing Seaforth Highlanders marching to battle without a care in the world. It’s an outdated nostalgia piece glorifying such ideals as friendship, loyalty and imperialism with equal love. Who cares if it’s all questionable, politically incorrect and nonsensical, when it’s so entertaining and it has become the blueprint for many other action pics.
REVIEWED ON 4/2/2006 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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