Gunga Din (1939)

Directed by George Stevens

“You’re a better film than most, Gunga Din.”

It seems almost obligatory to begin a review of Gunga Din with the Rudyard Kipling quote or, as above, a variation of it.

So now that it’s out of the way, we can get to the movie – a tremendous and wonderful action-adventure.

And it’s from that remarkable Hollywood year, 1939.

This movie is very much like many Errol Flynn films, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gunga DIn (1939).

There is a tremendous amount of fun and humour in the movie and they often inform the action sequences or contrast with the more serious, dramatic moments.

The movie is based (sort of) on Kipling’s poem. It’s set in colonial India at a time when the British Empire was … well, the British Empire.

It’s basically an exuberant movie about three British officers who are friends – Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglan. All three are drinking, brawling men of action and adventure.

Although eliminated from India fifty years earlier (or so it is believed), the thugee cult is resurrected and have murderous intentions for pretty much everyone, not the least of which are the British.

It should be mentioned that, if you are Indian, this film isn’t likely to endear itself to you. It’s about as far from sensitive and politically correct as you can get. It’s not that it is informed by any racial malice. Rather, it’s informed by the ignorance of the time. The Indian characters in the film are, be they good guys or bad, minor. (This is a bit like setting a film in Kansas City and having Americans only as minor players and extras.)

Sam Jaffe and Cary Grant in Gunga Din.

Somewhat related to this, and curiously, is the character of Gunga Din, played by Sam Jaffe in a strange yet marvelous performance.

Although the film is called Gunga Din, through most of the film you can’t help wondering where he is. He does have his moment at the end, however.

But this movie is really about the three buddies and their riotous adventures as British soldiers.

It was one of Grant’s favourite roles and I think, to some extent, you get to see him as the kind of performer he felt he was intended to be – comedic and physical. His performance is almost vaudevillian and you get the sense he’s having a great deal of fun.

Actually, you get that sense from all three of the primary actors. Honestly, they’re playing three courageous asses. But somehow we love them for it. Perhaps because they are really just three very large little boys.

Left to right: Cary Grant, unidentified actor, Victor McLaglan, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sam Jaffe.

Gunga Din is essentially a popcorn movie. But it’s one of the best.

Watching it, you can see where Steven Spielberg got some of his Indiana Jones ideas, particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (I’m pretty sure he had Gunga Din in mind when creating his temple and his snakes scenes.)

This movie is a tremendous amount of fun (I seem to have used that word a lot). I think it largely succeeds in the way the later Indiana Jones films succeed. It is fast-paced action with marvelous scenes and sets and is nicely balanced by its humour. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.

These aspects of humour and fun are, I think, the main things Spielberg takes from a film like Gunga Din (and Errol Flynn movies) and what made his Indiana Jones films such a success.

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