Friday 2 August 2019

Movie Review: Gunga Din (1939)

A military adventure epic, Gunga Din enjoys breathtaking scope and ambition, combined with a lighthearted tone and traditional themes of friendship and military honour.

It's the 1880s in India, and the British India Army in the Northwest Frontier is encountering organized attacks. Sergeants MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Cutter (Cary Grant), and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are a close-knit hell-raising trio, and are dispatched in command of a small contingent to repair telegraph lines in the village Tantrapur. They are forced into defensive action to repel an attack by Thuggees, a blood-thirsty military cult enjoying a resurgence.

Ballantine is close to leaving the military and wants to marry his sweetheart Emmy (Joan Fontaine). But the veteran MacChesney and treasure-seeking jokester Cutter conspire to keep him on duty. Meanwhile Cutter spots loyal water carrier Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) emulating British troop procedures and pining to be taken seriously as a soldier, with a particular fondness for the bugle. The three sergeants are again sent to Tantrapur, this time at the head of a much bigger force to flush out the Thuggees. But the enemy is well-prepared, and the British are lured to a gold-embossed temple for a showdown.

Enjoying a mammoth budget and high production values, Gunga Din goes searching for expansive adventure in exotic lands (or at least the best studio sets money can buy). Produced by RKO Pictures and directed by George Stevens, the film is written for the screen by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem (a Kipling character makes a small appearance at the end of the film as a reporter).

The result is a rousing story of enterprising soldiers loving life in the brotherhood of the army, with bloodthirsty action mingling with episodes played purely for laughs. The humour is understandably dated and the scenes setting up the jokes seem to take forever, notably antics related to using elephant medication to spike a bowl of punch.

But all is forgotten and forgiven when the action kicks into high gear, and Stevens orchestrates two breathtaking and prolonged combat scenes, drawing on the colourfully dubious history of the Thuggee cult. First the small British contingent is attacked by the Thuggees and has to improvise a defence. The second action set-piece is the climax and starts with a trap, imprisonment and torture before breaking into an impressive all-out battle between multiple large armies.

In the interludes between the business of combat, Hecht and MacArthur have fun with tense travel exploits across hazards including a rickety bridge. The film salutes the ingenuity of British soldiers but also wields the double-edged sword of local water carrier Gunga Din entranced by the foreign army and proving his worth by playing a crucial role in battle. The humble local and loyal servant is instrumental in the White Saviors' quest to tame the land, for better or for worse.

McLaglen, Grant and Fairbanks share decent chemistry and pull off the raucous friends routine where arguments, fisticuffs and pranks are just as likely as acts of valour. They are less than convincing as soldiers of any sort, but with the military combat scenes staged on a broad canvas, they don't need to be. Joan Fontaine gets a couple of scenes as the token fiancĂ©e, here reduced to a symbol of naggy disruptiveness, but is otherwise wasted. Montagu Love is the gruff base commander Colonel Weed, and Robert Coote is the pantomime frenemy as the stuffy and unpopular Sergeant Higginbotham.

Well staged and infinitely enthusiastic, Gunga Din defines cheeky escapism.

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