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Generally considered to be among the masterworks of Old Hollywood, Gunga Din comes with the added vintage of its
storied year of release. In addition to the George
Stevens-directed adventure-comedy, 1939 saw the release of several of the most acclaimed
films of all time, including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering
Heights, not to mention The Rules of the Game. Its not surprising that Gunga Din pales in comparison to these films;
whats more surprising is that the film is remembered fondly at all.
Available in a no-frills DVD from Warner Bros.also included on the disc is a seven-minute Looney Tunes short, entitled The Film Fan, which finds Porky Pig sneaking into a theater showing gag titles like Gone with the Breezethis is ostensibly the story of three British soldiers in India who stave off an insurrection at the hands of a murderous sect of Hindus. What is most noticeable, however, is the way the film traffics in cheap condescension and one-dimensional caricatures. While charming enough, Gunga Din presents the kind of embarrassing portrayal of ethnic stereotypes that modern-day viewers cringe at when discussing such problematic classics as The Searchers and Stagecoach; its also the reason sour, revisionist epics like Unforgiven and The Missing continue to be made today. Those John Ford westerns dealt primarily withpardon the expressiondot, not feather Indians, but the mode of representation is comparable. Going native has long been a liberal white cinematic fantasy proposition, from Jeremiah Johnson through Dances With Wolves, and it finds its ancestor in the treatment of Gunga Dins title character.
Decked out in brown shoe polish and phony subcontinent accent, Sam Jaffe plays the eponymous hero. So deeply enamored is Din of the three dashing imperial officers he serves that he actually mimics their haughty British posture at every turn, until the chance to turn against his countrymen and expose their duplicity inspires him to act. (His martyrdom, dispatched to save three petty British officers, inspires the classic line, Youre a better man than I am, Gunga Din!) Adapted from Rudyard Kiplings poem, the film was RKOs answer to United Artists much-better received British Empire film of 1939, The Four Feathers. Roping in a number of studio draws, like Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks and the newly discovered Joan Fontaine, the film never quite lived up to its billing.
George Stevens direction is pretty much textbook classical Hollywood, with large-scale action scenes that vary wildly in their forcefulness, though its likely Howard Hawks could have brought more resonance and compassion to the story. (That Stevens was able to direct massive pachyderms, animals that gave Oliver Stone some trouble on the set of last years Alexander, must say something to his competence.) The three officers, played by Grant, Fairbanks and Victor McLaglen, imbue such heavy-handed caddishness to their respective roles, its worth asking whether or not David O. Russells 1999 film Three Kings wasnt conceived as some sort of direct answer and apology for this films depiction of the behavior of soldiers on foreign soil.
There arent too many options for a present-day audience of Gunga Din; if it were possible to ignore the hopelessly irksome treatments of its dark-skinned people, it could well be an enjoyable romp. American filmgoers are by now quite used to these treatments, so its not unreasonable to expect another generation to accept the broad portrayals, in the same way its necessary to take the character-shadings in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with a grain of salt. Still, its no excuse. If PC backlash makes such classics like Gunga Din difficult to revisit, so be it. At this point, theres no getting around it.
- Jesse Paddock