Saturday, 8 September 2012

Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga Din
Now I know where they got the ideas for Indiana Jones  “Temple of Doom”!

This is where the Kali cult, the Thugee’s, the temple, the colonial master element, even the bridge sequence come from, not to speak of the beloved elephant.

Of course not everything is a rip off, but there can be no doubt that the scriptwriters of “Temple of Doom” saw Gunga Din at least once. Fortunately they did not decide to copy everything. Gunga Din is seriously flawed and at times I do not know whether to laugh or cry.

First of all, it is incredibly racist. I do not know if it is because it is an American film so it is easier to accept that the British are a bunch of colonial master race white supremacy loonies, but that is too simple. It is a lot deeper. We as viewers are supposed to accept that these Britons are in every way superior to the Indians and that it is totally all right to demean the Indians. At times I felt more sympathy for the Thugeee’s than the British, at least when they acted merely to shake off British rule. I shall not say that all this is so far from the colonial reality, but it certainly hurts the modern viewer to see the racial master and servant theme played out this blatantly.

Secondly we see a cast of mostly Americans giving it as English. Oh, man, we have come a long way since then. Not being a native English speaker I am at a natural disadvantage here, but it seems to me to be with much stiff overlap and so much upper crust that it looks more like a parody. In particular Douglas Fairbank Jr. as Sergeant Ballantine and Cary Grant as Sergeant Cutter looks somewhat out of their depth here. Lately I have seen quite a few movies with Cary Grant and this character is so different from any other thing I have seen him do. Odd.

Thirdly, the reasoning and logic behind the actions of the characters are often very strange, borderline stupid. Sometimes it is to show their superior courage as when doing battle with the Thuggees in Tantrapur or distracting the cult in the temple by walking in amongst them singing a jig. Other times it is just plain stupid as going only the two of them (Ballantine and MacChesney, Victor MacLaglen) to free Cutter and just walk straight into the temple with no plan whatsoever. The film would like to show how fantastic these British heroes are but to my mind end up exposing their stupidity and ignorance.

Now you might think that I find Gunga Din a totally hopeless film. Not so at all. It is actually all I love in a movie: An adventurous storyline, charming characters, quick dialogue and humor. Which is exactly why the above flaws bother me so much.

We are in India in colonial times and a rough estimate would place it at the turn of the century (based on the technology used). Our three super heroes are sergeants in the imperial British army, an army mostly made up of Indian cannon fodder and British officers (and sergeants). Oh, and a bunch of bagpiping Scots. Cutter, the funny guy, Ballantine, the romantic and MacChesney, the querulous guy, are sent out to Tantrapur with some cannon fodder to investigate a loss of telegraph connection. When they get there the town is empty except for an army of Thuggee bandits and soon they are engaged in a bitter struggle. The Imperial army of course prevails through glorious effort from our English heroes. Douglas Fairbanks would be proud of his son, this is right down his lane.

Back in the barracks we have two subplots playing out. The first is about an Indian bhisti, a low caste water bearer, who dreams of being a proper English soldier, but since he is considered less than dirt he has no chance in a million years to become a real soldier. Obviously the Imperial army has readily adopted the caste system as a low caste can only dream of being upgraded to cannon fodder. Yet Cutter feel sympathy for him and start treating him as a soldier and Gunga Din is so proud.

The second subplot is that Ballantine is about to be discharged from the army and get married. A terrible fate, and borderline treason according to Cutter and MacChesney, who plot to keep him in the army and set him up against his fiancé. Which is more important: Your brothers in arms or your coming wife? Both seem to think that that allegiance is mutually exclusive.

In any case, they are sent back to Tantrapur with a new army. Cutter and Gunga Din run off with MacChesney’s beloved elephant, Annie, on the hunt for a golden temple Gunga Din claims to exist a short way down the road. Unfortunately this golden temple turns out to be the hub of the Thuggee Kali cult. A sinister death cult obsessed with strangulation. In best Indiana Jones style they witness the Thuggee adulation of their Guru and as they realize the gravity of what is going on Cutter decide to send Gunga Din back with a warning. Cutter himself creates a diversion so Gunga Din can get out, the aforementioned jig.

Back in Tantrapur MacChesney and Ballantine react to Gunga Din’s warning by going the two of them to get Cutter home. Somehow the fact that Cutter is held by a not trivial amount of Thuggee’s is not discussed or considered. Instead our two super heroes wade straight into the temple and are readily captured. The torture they are subjected to include, besides whipping, a snake pit straight out of Indiana Jones “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (or the other way round). Somehow the Sergeants manage to take the guru hostage and take him to the roof. Here we get the speech of the Guru, which is supposed to show what a sinister guy he is, but with modern ears it sounds more like a manifest for freedom from oppression from their colonial oppressors.

In any case they end up in a stale mate. They cannot get away, but as long as they have the guru they are safe. The standoff is broken when the rest of the regiment shows up, bagpipes, gurkas and all. They are walking straight into a trap and the sergeants look on impotently. Instead Gunga Din climbs, badly wounded up on the spire of the temple and blow his horn in warning and thus prevents certain defeat. Instead the Imperial army wins the day, the sergeants are freed, but Gunga Din is dead.

The film ends with Gunga Dins burial and praise from the colonel, who reads a poem by Rudyard Kipling (the end of the original Gunga Din poem):

You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!

Though I've belted you and flayed you,

By the livin' Gawd that made you,

You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din



The reason of the praise is of course that Gunga Din saved the day and lost his life for it. The problem is that the film in general carries the opposite message. Yes, they praise him in the end, but all through the film we are led to feel superior not just toward Gunga Din, but also the Indians in general and their political and social aspirations. It seems a hollow praise when the film itself is convinced of white supremacy.

Ironical when Rudyard Kipling’s poem is exactly an admission that the lowly Indian is being abused by his lords and has more value than many of these.

Conclusively I enjoyed the movie, but was also greatly annoyed. If I had been 15 years I would have been a big fan. Unfortunately I am not.


  1. I think this is a movie that was loved in its day but it hasn't aged well. The adventure and fun are still there, and yeah, I enjoyed them too, but there are problems there that are difficult to look past.

    1. I guess if you reduce it to a an adolecent adventure flick like an A-team of the thirties it kind of works, but I think that at the time it would have been Indiana Jones of 39. I totally agreee, it really did not age well.

  2. I was thrown some by the end where the ultimate compliment to Gunga Din was showing him in the uniform of the British military - the people owning his country. And also Gunga Din was played by a non-Indian. Of course, people were hardly enlightened in 1939, and it was based on an even older story from British author Rudyard Kipling so the story was set in the 1800s, so the racial attitudes were actually period-correct.

    1. I agree. In the era of the film this attitude was okay, at least in the western world. We considered ourselves better than the rest of the world and the highest aspirations of anybody would (in our eyes) be to become like us. I would not say we are entirely out of this funk, but at least it hurts us when it is thrown in our faces like in "Gunga Din". That is why it has not aged well.