Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Gunga Din

Gunga Din is a 1939 RKO adventure film directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., loosely based on the poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling combined with elements of his short story collection Soldiers Three. The film is about three British sergeants and Gunga Din, their native bhisti (water bearer), who fight the Thuggee, a cult of murderous Indians in colonial British India.

The supporting cast features Joan Fontaine, Eduardo Ciannelli, and, in the title role, Sam Jaffe. The epic film was written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol from a storyline by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with uncredited contributions by Lester Cohen, John Colton, William Faulkner, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols and Anthony Veiller.

In the film, Jaffe brilliantly portrays Gunga Din, the slave/water boy, a native Hindu who desperately wants to be a "first class soldier" for the British army. He is soft spoken but intense with a deep longing to march in a soldier's uniform, do the maneuvers with them and be the bugler in the regiment. He is caught one day doing the maneuvers and holding a "stolen" bugle, by Sergeant Cutter. Cutter (Grant) is brave and fearless but he is also playful and comical. He befriends Din, instructs him privately with maneuvers and how to give a proper salute. He also lets Din keep his beloved bugle. He also calls the water boy "Bugler" much to Din's delight. Cutter is immensely proud to be a soldier of Her Majesty the Queen but he spends much of his time searching for buried treasure and gold. When we first meet up with Cutter and his two fellow soldiers in the movie, they are busy wrecking a village and throwing Scottish soldiers out of a window. These are the swindlers who sold Cutter a map to find emeralds. Unfortunately, he couldn't find his jewels but this is one of the film's funnier scenes. Later on, Din leads Cutter to a gold temple but instead of finding his fortune there, he may possibly meet his fate.

Cutter's partners in crime include MacChesney, the top sergeant played with the conventional brawn and enthusiasm that McLaglen possessed in all of his roles. MacChesney, known simply as "Mac" or sarcastically as "Cheesecake," laughs at Din's desire to be a first class soldier but the burly sergeant finds no humor for the very large soft spot that he has for Annie. Annie isn't his girlfriend but his pet elephant. In a very comical scene, Mac is taking care of Annie, who has developed some sort of ailment. He asks to see her tongue and she lifts her trunk up to him. He checks her forehead to see if she is feverish. When a comrade tells Mac that he'd like to try an old Indian remedy on the elephant, the sergeant complies. But, warns the comrade, very little medication must be given or the result can be fatal. He tries to give Annie a small spoonful of the elixir but she won't take it. Mac's paternal instincts come out and he gushes to Annie, "Go on now, you want your daddy to give you the medicine." He takes the spoonful of medicine and tells his "nice little elephant girl" that if she doesn't take it, she will never "grow up to be big and strong like Daddy." Sergeant Cutter passes by and suggests to him, "Maybe if Daddy takes a spoonful first, baby will do a patty-cake." Mac agrees with this and pretends to drink some of the liquid. Finally, Annie takes it, only to tumble down helplessly to the floor. Mac becomes nearly hysterical but thank God Annie sits up and regains her composure. Later on, this medication proves to be a big help during one of Mac and Cutter's schemes.

All movies, as a matter of fact, should be like the first twenty-five and the last thirty minutes of Gunga Din, which are the sheer poetry of cinematic motion. Not that the production as a whole leaves anything to be desired in lavishness and panoramic sweep. The charge of the Sepoy Lancers, for example, in the concluding battle sequence, is the most spectacular bit of cinema since the Warner Brothers and Tennyson stormed the heights of Balaklava. In fact the movies at their best really appear to have more in common with the poets than with plain, straightforward, rationally documented prose.

Though the picture draws heavily on the Ballads for atmosphere and inspiration, and doesn't scruple to use Kipling himself, the brilliantly talented young war correspondent, as a minor character (it seems he dashed off the famous poem in time for the Commandant to read it over the water carrier's grave), the only historical or literary authority for it seems to have been an original story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In this case, "original" may be taken to signify that the story is quite unlike other predecessors in the same genre, except possibly The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Beau Geste, The Lost Patrol, and Charge of the Light Brigade. The parallels—some of them doubtless unavoidable—may be charitably excused on the ground that two memories are better than one.

As for Gunga Din himself, it seems rather a pity that he should receive fourth billing in his own picture. Yet for all the dash cut by the three stars, Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., it is the humble, ascetic, stooped, yet somehow sublime, figure of Sam Jaffe that one remembers. "An' for all 'is dirty 'ide, 'e was white, clear white, inside, when 'e went to tend the wounded under fire," said the poet, and the sentiment, Victorian and patronizing as it may be, echoes in the heart. There is infinite humility, age-old patience, and pity, in the way old Din kneels to offer water to the living and the dying. And, though bent under the weight of his perspiring water-skin, his agility in dodging bullets is marvelous to behold. As Sam Jaffe plays him, Gunga Din is not only a better man than any in the cast; he should be a serious contender for the best performance of the year.

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