Monday, February 02, 2009

Movie Review: Gunga Din (1939)

Sgt. Ballantine: "I'm leaving the service."
Sgt. MacChesney: "Leaving the service?!"
Sgt. Ballantine: "That's right. I'm getting married and I'm going into the tea business."
Sgt. MacChesney: "Married!"
Sgt. Cutter: "Tea business!"

It's 1880 in the Northwest of India and the British have lost contact with their outpost in the village of Tantrapur. A small detachment of the British Indian Army is sent out to investigate. The company includes three long-time friends, Sgt. MacChesney, Sgt. Ballantine and Sgt. Cutter. Upon arriving in Tantrapur, they find the village deserted. While making repairs to the telegraph they find themselves surrounded by an angry mob. During their water escape, Sgt. Cutter grabs a pickaxe that is later identified at British Headquarters as belonging to the Thugee, a group that murdered people through strangulation.

Meanwhile the trio seems to be splitting up, Ballantine's due to leave the army in a few days to get married and Cutter is determined to find a temple of gold with the help of a water carrier named Gunga Din. Din dreams of being a soldier in Her Majesty's service one day, practicing lance drills and salutes in private. Through a series of circumstances involving a fly in a punchbowl, an elephant and snakes, the British army confronts the Thuggee, Cutter finds his gold temple and Din rallies to save the day.

The Good:

Based off of the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, this film stars Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Victor McLaglen, Joan Fontaine and Sam Jaffee, made in arguably the best year for movies, 1939. Each role is perfectly cast. You might be interested to know that Grant originally read for Ballantine but liked Sgt. Cutter's character better and I think he made the right choice. If it feels like you've seen this movie before then go watch "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom". Some ideas were directly inspired from "Gunga Din".

There are a variety of humourous scenes and general tomfoolery between Grant, McLaglen and Fairbanks that really added to the plot. You actually felt the camaraderie between the three and believed they'd been friends for a long time. Maybe they'd saved each others necks several times. My favourite parts included the fly in the punchbowl scene as well as Grant's exuberant comedy.

The battle scenes, especially the fight at Tantrapur were adrenaline-filled though some looked silly as they were sped up. We see a variety of fighting with individual battles to create a connection between the viewer and the three Sgts. For example, Grant tosses around sticks of dynamite that Fairbanks has thrown him from the ammo wagon to humourous results. As well, the final battle has so much going on, infantry, cavalry with flags on their lances and artillery on elephants that you wonder how director George Stevens ever organized everyone. Sam Jaffee is amazing as Gunga Din though. He wasn't a young man when he made the picture but his optimistic grin and willingness to aid others when there are bullets flying around, makes me like the guy.

I also really appreciated the casting of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. If you're searching for eye candy in this movie then look no further. Le sigh.

The Bad:

This movie is a nostalgic romantic look at the British in India. In truth, it seemed to celebrate the imperialist policies of the British Empire in occupied India. The main villains, the Thuggee are the only Indians not involved with the British Indian Army in this movie. As well, it portrays the Thugs as cult members who worship Kali, reinforcing a warped idea of this Hindu goddess. Kali is actually one of many deities within the Hindu religion and while known as "The Destroyer" she is also seen as a mother goddess.

There are some racist remarks within the movie. Din is occasionally referred to as a "beastie", apparently a nickname for water carriers. There isn't an overabundance of these but it is occasionally grating, especially because the fact that this takes place during the British occupation. It was interesting though to see how McLaglen and Grant differed on their views of seeing Din as a soldier.

While this movie is definitely a "buddy" picture, Joan Fontaine gets the raw end of the stick. While I feel that both she and Fairbanks' characters were unreasonable in their arguments, Fairbanks' reply that she wants a coward for a husband and that he's a soldier/man first rather than husband was not believable. I didn't buy into his decision in the end and didn't agree with his reasoning. Also, while Grant is amazing in his part, at times his accent and acting feels forced, grating on the viewers.

And guys, sometimes a pick axe is just a pick axe. We're told that the Thuggee used them to dig the graves of their victims but really, why would they use a pick axe when they could use a shovel? It makes no sense. Also, watch for the snakes on strings.

The Ugly:

Somebody find Eli Wallach.

Rating: 3.5/5

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