MOVIE REVIEW | Gunga Din (1939)


“Eight feet away from where I’m sitting, right here, there’s enough gold to make me sole owner and proprietor of a pub as big as the Crystal Palace. Best pub in Hampshire.”

Gunga Din is a movie title I’m pretty sure I’ve been aware of most of my life.  Gunga Din starts Cary Grant, an actor I’ve definitely been aware of most of my life.  The year it came out, the only movie to make more than Gunga Din at the box office was Gone With the Wind.  By rights, Gunga Din is a classic I should be a lot more aware of than I was before today.  But the truth is, before today, I knew exactly nothing about it, except its title.  So, what is Gunga Din?

The British imperialists are having their way with India in the late 1880s.  Those imperialists are represented by three central soldiers.  The roguish Cutter (Grant), the sensible Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr), and their gruff Sergeant, MacChesney (Victo McLaglen).   MacChesney is annoyed by everything, Ballantine is leaving the army to marry his sweetheart (Joan Fontaine as Emmy), and Cutter has a map leading to an immense treasure if Indian gold.  A map provided by the titular Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe).

An Indian local, Gunga Din has been recruited (enslaved?) as a water boy for the British colonialists (invaders?) and all he wants is to be soldier as well, just like his benefactors (captors?).  All Cutter wants is his gold, all Bellantine wants is to live the quiet life with his wife (at least, that’s what he tells her), all MacChseney wants is to be the comic relief in this movie.  But all of their plans are put aside when a group of pagan thugs start ransacking English soldier camps and settlements.

OK, Gunga Din was made in 1939, so it’s not as if I was expecting a great deal of social, cultural or racial sensitivity, but this thing is bonkers with its racist, narrow minded view of things.  According to Gunga Din, the Indian “savages” should still be thanking their benevolent British “saviours” for bringing them awesome things like Christianity and the odd terminal disease that didn’t exists in their country until the whities set up shop.

While that side of Gunga Din might be a bit hard to swallow in the 21st century, there’s still one irrefutable fact that makes this movie enjoyable…  Cary Grant is awesome.  Obviously, that didn’t surprise me, because Grant never disappoints.  What did surprise me was how Fairbanks and McLagen never get lost in Grant’s immense shadow.  All three characters share importance when it comes to the story, and all three actors live up to that.

But the era’s dismissal of minorities is again clear when I realise how little a character Jaffe gets to play as Gunga Din.  Gunga Din the movie might have been named after him, and he might get the odd heroic moment, but the white dudes still get the majority of screen time, plot points and big moments.  1939 sure was a hell of a time to be a white dude.

Gunga Din
Directed By – George Stevens
Written By – Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol

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