February 20, 2022

Gunga Din (1939)
Grade: 58/100

Director: George Stevens
Stars: Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Sam Jaffe

What it's about. Set in India circa 1885. Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. are sergeants in the British occupying army. Aside from a few other English officers, their unit consists of Indian soldiers and servants. In the latter category is Gunga Din, a middle-aged water boy whose greatest wish is to become a British soldier.

Meanwhile, an Indian guerilla army is causing trouble in the countryside. Telegraph wires are cut. English soldiers are getting killed. Out three sergeants are ordered to stop the guerillas. Instead, their incompetence and disregard for military procedure gets themselves captured. Yet somehow they save the day, thanks in part to the heroics of Gunga Din, despite his lowly station of non-English water boy.

How others will see it. Gunga Din was a big box office smash. Over the succeeding decades, though, it has come to make viewers uncomfortable, since it appears to glorify the British occupation of India. And aside from Gunga Din, the Indians don't come off well.

Nonetheless, the movie made the National Film Registry in 1999. And cinemaphiles have often praised the movie. Today at imdb.com, it has a respectable user rating of 7.3 out of 10, though there is a sizeable gap between American (7.6) and non-American (6.9) viewers. The user reviews alternately attack the film for its political incorrectness and praise the movie for its entertaining comedy and rousing action scenes. Sometimes, the "yes, but" is within the same review.

How I felt about it. The obvious question regarding Gunga Din is, is the movie racist? Well, it is true that racism is non-binary. Movies can be a little racist, very racist, or somewhere in between. We also have to keep in mind that the British Army occupying India was undoubtedly racist, and thus any movie accurately depicting that era would have to depict racism in the British Army.

This is why none of the Indians in the British Army, or working for that army, have any speaking lines, with the exception of the title character, who is played in blackface by an American without Indian ancestry. It is sad that the goal of Gunga Din throughout the film is to join the British Army; he can't even become a private. It appears unthinkable that an Indian could get promoted to officer.

We know that the British are an occupying force, and the Indians they fight against would normally be a guerilla army intent on compelling the British to leave the country. But RKO Radio can't have us developing too much sympathy for the Indians, against our white British leads (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was American, but from the Indian perspective there is little difference). So, the rebel Indians become a murderous cult bent on worshipping a false bloodthirsty god.

It is further disheartening to see our three soldiers single-handedly beat up groups of Indians who are each bigger than they are. The English are not supermen. It is curious that the cult leaders speak excellent English. How is this possible? It is difficult to imagine them attending English boarding schools in India. We also wonder why Cary Grant can't sit in the jail for a day (two at the most) instead of risking a firing squad by arranging an escape that tears down the jail.

In the early 1960s James Bond movies, Bond is regularly captured by the villain. The villain then not only doesn't kill Bond, he tells Bond his entire plan, so that when Bond inevitably escapes (or sends a message) the plan can be foiled in the finale.

Even though those Bond movies are now six decades old, Gunga Din demonstrates that capturing and talkative bad guys were not original to the Bond franchise, but go back at least two more decades. Only because it is a movie, our brave foolhardy British leads don't get the execution they are due.

Just as implausible is the romantic subplot. Fairbanks, Jr. has the opportunity to marry a perfect ten woman whose father is a wealthy tea magnate. But he rejects that path to risk his life chasing indian guerillas. Which proves that movie characters do not act like their human counterparts would in the same position.

The problem with Gunga Din, then, is not that it is racist, but that it is not credible. After all, Gone With the Wind, made the same year, is said to be racist, yet is undeniable a great movie.

A huge budget helps Gunga Din, as do the formidable comic talents of Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen. Grant, as expected, steals the show at the expense of McLaglen and Fairbanks, Jr. He mugs for the camera, and acts even more stupid than his character, but we don't mind because he knows (as we do) that the film should be a comedy. McLaglen knows this too. It's the rest of the cast who are left out of the joke.