*/**** Image B- Sound C Extras A
starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joan Fontaine
screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling
directed by George Stevens
by Walter Chaw To say that George Stevens's Gunga Din hasn't aged well overlooks the cold reality that the best one could ever say for it is that its hinges were once merely creaky instead of frozen. (It also presupposes that being a decent, moral person meant something different in 1939 than it does in 2005.) The picture is almost impossible to watch for a modern audience: the characterizations are broad and insulting; the dialogue strongly suggests that Rudyard Kipling's poems should be left untransmogrified (even by William Faulkner--deep in the sauce when it came his turn) into filmic narrative; and the attitude towards empiricism and oppressed native populations on display was always condescending and appalling for anyone not currently being shot at.
A moment where poor native bearer Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) secretly practices marching in puerile emulation of his oppressors is frankly disgusting for no politically-correct reason, but rather for a passel of humanist reasons. (Compare this to an identical scene in Whale Rider where a little girl, hoping for the approval of her stern grandfather, takes the place of poor Gunga Din.) Political correctness would dictate that Gunga be treated with respect, as unlikely then as it is now (and contrary to history besides); common decency dictates that Gunga be treated as something other than an unfortunate animal the magnanimous British tame and tolerate as an adorable pet (see also: Radio). It's not a problem to me that the film shows the British as superior, genocidal, imperialist prats, but it becomes a problem when they're celebrated as such. Consider that in its broadest strokes, the text of Gunga Din compares/contrasts Gunga to a heroic elephant that frees Cary Grant's character from prison--something the addled Gunga can't do.
The really dangerous argument is that there was once a time in the enlightened West when East Indians (and, really, all minorities) were seen as subhuman savages or ridiculous children, as evidenced by Chinese servants named "Ping Pong" in Elvis epics, ugly Japanese caricatures in badly miscast Audrey Hepburn vehicles, and Song of the South, for starters. But the argument is meant to isolate reductive racial stereotyping to those dimly-remembered early days of Gunga Din, Birth of a Nation, and all that stuff Leni Reifenstahl was doing for Hitler, when the truth is that things haven't changed substantively in modern--especially American--cinema. It hasn't even, truth be told, gotten much more subtle: Rob Schneider has made a cottage industry of playing ethnic brown-face in the Sam Jaffe mold. It should be instructive to compare the upcoming animated version of Gunga Din to the attitudes of the original.
Gunga Din is no more or less abhorrent in its prejudices than is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (same movie, fewer heroes) or Radio (or pretty much any Cuba Gooding Jr. film, actually), and what that says about us isn't cynical so much as it is perversely optimistic. The things people like about Gunga Din are still marketable commodities in modern action films. Men in war form unbreakable bonds, perform acts of astonishing courage for god and country, and are imbued by their leadership and their culture with an intense fear and loathing of alien cultures, meaning that dehumanizing acts committed against the enemy are not only possible, but also desirable, nay, laudable. It's easier to kick a dog than a man--and the attitudes that made the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Chinese, the Germans against the Jews, the Christian crusaders against the Muslim infidels, and so on and so forth, are installed cunningly to make humans of us and animals of them.
In other words, as we watch a contemporary correlative like Bad Boys II, Shark Tale, or Bringing Down the House, what we're engaged in is a time-honoured way to rouse the rabble by pandering to the most bestial, isolationist parts of our tribal natures. Contemplate the case of Gunga Din, one of the most popular pre-WWII propaganda films released in that magical twilit hour of 1939, introduced into the depths of the Depression to demonstrate pluck, stick-to-it-ive-ness, and nationalistic pride. It features Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Cary Grant as a trio of Her Majesty's finest in darkest India, where they take on an uprising of Kali-worshipping Thuggees along with an unassuming native porter named Gunga Din, whose only desire is to die for the people invading and occupying his land.
It's a flatly-directed picture full of suffocating close-ups (something Stevens would never entirely grow out of), panoramic master shots showing off the cast of thousands (credit veteran cinematographer Joseph August), and sped-up action scenes, themselves a holdover from the silent era along with some slapstick involving the aforementioned elephant (Anna Mae), who, almost without fail, has her scenes right after Gunga's in the type of mute juxtaposition that would drive Kuleshov nuts. Fairbanks's romance with Joan Fontaine is given the kind of brevity testosterone opera demands: just a catalyst for his hale chums conspiring to sabotage his happiness and trick him into a series of deadly misadventures. Gunga Din's ultimate sacrifice, then, is apparently due in equal parts to his pickaninny servility and a fraternity prank, marking Gunga Din as a forerunner to both the modern epic action/adventure and the American Pies of the world.
The chemistry between the three leads is stiff and predicated on our familiarity with the actors in a greater historical context. Isolated in a diving bell as supporters of the film would do with the rest of it, Grant, McLaglin, and Fairbanks Jr. contribute Old Hollywood star turns that seem for the most part oblivious to one another. They're caricatures of British resolve as well as pre-emptive caricatures of the icons each performer would become--embryonic personalities in a puerile epic that, to be fair, is no worse than Troy or Alexander. (Although there're more white folks playing venomous monsters or flinching Uncle Toms in Gunga Din, there are roughly the same number of groaners, bloated, improbable action sequences, and stiff Hollywood royalty-to-be cast helter skelter in the role of bwana.) Released now on DVD by Warner in an edition that restores some twenty-some minutes of elided footage, we get to see at last that Rudyard Kipling appears as a character within the film (played by Reginald Sheffield) to pen the poem of these deeds of derring-do (framing stories another staple of this kind of bullroar). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Visually speaking, the disc's source print is compromised by specks and lines throughout, in addition to the blooming/flicker of nitrate negatives. While the lighting isn't well-matched and the shadow detail is soft, I'm apt to pin these things on Stevens before the telecine operators. The fullscreen, b&w transfer looks perhaps as good as it can based on the available elements, which is not to infer that this is an abysmal presentation, just noticeably aged. The centre-channel mono audio is tinny, fuzzing out in the extreme registers; dialogue sounds hollow, if consistently intelligible.
"On Location with Gunga Din" (11 mins.) demonstrates that Stevens's 16mm colour home movies have actually survived with a greater fidelity than much of Gunga Din has. It covers the basic making-of bases, including scouting a location in Lone Pine, CA (which, according to Stevens's son, resembled the Khyber Pass) and spends some time with script development, with William Goldman offering his opinions on the wonder of the screenplay. As Goldman has matured into a writer of long, tedious, and frankly bad adaptations, I'm not absolutely certain that he's the best--or the first--guy to ask. Producer Pandro Berman relates Grant asking not to play the romantic lead, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (at least some of this documentary is archival footage, obviously) gives us a sample of his Indian pidgin. Once the charmer, always the charmer. Nothing here that the feature-length Rudy Behlmer commentary doesn't essay in greater detail.
The Film Fan (7 mins.), a Leon Schlesinger Looney Tunes short featuring Porky Pig, showcases one of Carl Stalling's bombastic scores in the service of a fascinating mini-treatise on the progression, or lack thereof, of the American cinema in the minds of the masses as an ill-used ghetto of the fine art metropolis. "Gone with the Breeze" and "The Wizard of Abs" are gentle lampoons, while certain images in the elastic cartoon aesthetic are extraordinarily disturbing--far more so than the puns and one-liners that bridge the gaps. An early appearance by Daffy Duck breaking the fourth wall, Sherlock Jr.-style, hints at future madness. Two misleading trailers for the original 1939 and the 1957 re-release prove that the film was subjected to a restoration for this incarnation--with the '57 spot swapping a different close-up of Joan Fontaine in her marquee close-up to the detriment of Fontaine fetishists everywhere.
The centerpiece of the DVD, however, is Behlmer's aforementioned scholarly, authoritative session, wherein he furnishes each of the principals with lively filmographies (up to and including their deaths) and analyzes the difficulties of production and choreography. I particularly liked hearing of the post-screening judgment that Fontaine was an actress with a limited appeal/future: as she was summarily released from her studio contract, a nice thing that a year later Hitchcock cast her as his nameless heroine in Rebecca. There's enough here to fill a seminar on the film, in spite of Behlmer dodging the issues of race dredged up by this dinosaur--the only issues, after all, worth discussing when you brave Gunga Din. Originally published: February 10, 2005.