Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Monday, May 11, 2009

GUNGA DIN (1939)

“Gunga Din” is a rousing adventure yarn, spun from the poem by Rudyard Kipling and combined with elements from Kipling’s “Soldiers Three” stories by prolific authors Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur. Hecht contributed to the screenplays of seven films released in 1939, including “Stagecoach,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Gone with the Wind.” A marriage subplot of “Gunga Din,” completely fabricated by Hecht and McArthur, is reminiscent of their most famous theatrical collaboration, “The Front Page,” itself adapted to the silver screen numerous times.

The story of “Gunga Din” follows the exploits of three fun-loving British sergeants stationed in Colonial India, who, along with Gunga Din, their regimental bhisti (water-bearer) longing to throw off his lowly status and become a soldier of the Queen, become entangled with a deadly murder cult.

I know that my Dad enjoyed this film for its action and humor, for the comedic interplay of the main characters, and for its moving climax of self-sacrifice. There is a heightened and exaggerated level of performance from Cary Grant, Victor McLachlan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that lends the film lightness and energy. Grant in particular as the happy-go-lucky treasure hunter chews the scenery with abandon, afforded one of the rare opportunities, along with “Sylvia Scarlett” and “None But the Lonely Heart,” to affect his native cockney accent.

It’s an adventure movie for the 10 year old boy in all of us.

Director George Stevens learned his craft working on westerns and on comedies for Hal Roach, and both influences are in evidence here in the mix of low comedy and high adventure. It’s impossible to imagine Stevens adopting this light-hearted approach to soldiers and war in his later films. During World War II, Stevens and his film unit, the "Stevens Irregulars," would document the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris and the discovery of the Nazi extermination camp at Dachau, forever influencing the tone and content of Stevens’ films.

Watching “Gunga Din” today elicits mixed and conflicting emotions, particularly in its treatment of colonialism in general and the Indian people in particular. Whereas the three British soldiers are the obvious heroes of the piece, it is the Indian Gunga Din who is eventually revealed to be the bravest of the lot. However, Din’s wish to essentially be British, even when seen in light of his rejection and treatment by his own people, is demeaning. The producers had originally intended to cast Sabu, a fifteen year old native of India, in the role of Gunga Din. When Sabu proved unavailable, they instead cast 47 year old Caucasian Sam Jaffe, whose most recent role had been the 300 year old High Lama in “Lost Horizon.” Jaffe gives a powerful, heart-wrenching performance, but it’s embarrassing that none of the three most prominent Indian characters in the film are portrayed by Indians, or even Asians. American Abner Biberman, most known for essaying criminals and convicts, plays the treacherous Chota, and Italian-American Eduardo Ciannelli plays the monstrous Guru. All give powerful, affecting performances, but in the Indian equivalent of blackface. Noting that none of this is uncommon or unusual for a film of this era does little to lessen its sting.

If a modern viewer can look past this (and there is a whole other argument to be addressed as to whether a modern viewer SHOULD look past this), then “Gunga Din” can be a wonderfully entertaining experience from a cast and a director at the height of their powers to entertain.

The influence of “Gunga Din” is far reaching. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” has whole sequences that feel lifted from “Gunga Din.” Soldiers involved in extra-military treasure hunting adventures are in evidence in films as disparate as “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Three Kings.” And “Gunga Din” was remade as a western starring Sinatra’s Rat Pack as “Three Sergeants,” with Sammy David Jr. taking on the Gunga Din role.

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© 2009 Edward Bowen

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© 2009 Edward Bowen