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. It’s not surprising that Gunga Din pales in comparison to these films; what’s 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 Breeze”—this 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; it’s also the reason sour, revisionist epics like Unforgiven and The Missing continue to be made today.Those John Ford westerns dealt primarily with—pardon the expression—“dot, 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 Din’s 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, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”) Adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, the film was RKO’s 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 it’s 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 year’s 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, it’s worth asking whether or not David O. Russell’s 1999 film Three Kings wasn’t conceived as some sort of direct answer and apology for this film’s depiction of the behavior of soldiers on foreign soil.
There aren’t 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 it’s not unreasonable to expect another generation to accept the broad portrayals, in the same way it’s necessary to take the character-shadings in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with a grain of salt. Still, it’s no excuse.If PC backlash makes such classics like Gunga Din difficult to revisit, so be it. At this point, there’s no getting around it.