Review: Gunga Din (1939)



George Stevens
Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur (Poem: Rudyard Kipling)
117 min.
Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sam Jaffe, Eduardo Ciannelli, Joan Fontaine, Montagu Love, Robert Coote, Abner Biberman, Lumsden Hare
MPAA Rating

Buy on DVD


Source Material

Three British soldiers stationed in India find themselves at the center of an investigation into the sudden uprising among the indigenous Indian population. The titular character Gunga Din is a faithful servant to the British army who longs to be a soldier himself.

Based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din stars Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Cutter, MacChesney and Ballantine respectively. They are joined by Sam Jaffe as Din. Ballantine is about to retire from the military to be with his wife Emmy (Joan Fontaine) while his pals want him to take another tour. The film opens not with these three men but with the ambush of a British army caravan who take on an unassuming band of Indian travelers who kill them in their sleep. When the troop never returns the military begins to worry, a concern that is justified when communicating with one of their bases and communication is suddenly silenced.

Extricated from a massive bar brawl over a fake treasure map, the three soldiers are punished by leading an expedition to the small village where the British telegraph operator and army base was stationed. There, their group is slowly picked off by the Indian residents who led the original assault only to be done in by the expert brawling of the three. They uncover the presence of a dangerous rebellion that will settle for nothing but the utter destruction of the British army. Their plans are further enhanced when Cutter goes off with Din in search of a temple of gold where they hope to find the impetus to encourage Ballantine to re-join, leading to his capture.

Grant gives one of my favorite performances here. He’s charming and energetic without the need to be the center of attention, which he shares equally with his co-stars. McLaglen is a dominating presence and Fairbanks Jr. stands mostly in the background. The three work quite well together, which adds a level of camaraderie important to the story. Much like other films of the period, Jaffe’s performance is festooned with tics and stereotypes that convey the character without adding much depth. Yet, in spite of that, he injects passion and vigor into the role that enables the audience to form an empathetic link to his desires to succeed and become a real soldier.

Eduardo Ciannelli is overly-bronzed and aggressively overzealous as the Guru in charge of the rebellion. He speaks English almost better than his contemporaries and in a lexicon that would be surprising for that type of person at the time of the film. Fontaine is barely in the film, so comparing her minimal performance to the rest of the cast seems unnecessary.

Drawing on the influence of popular films of the time, the musical score is slavishly adventurous. When it needs to be more exotic or subdued, it becomes more traditional and bombastic. Far from Alfred Newman’s best score, it has a few moments that work quite well; however, there are a few segments of silence that work more effectively than more than half of the score. This influence from other films also impacts Gunga Din‘s pacing and humor. The film feels very much like a hodge podge of common motifs that never express themselves originally. Director George Stevens was obviously trying to make this in the spirit of a high seas adventure and less a war drama. He tries hard to create a level of excitement that only works in certain situations (like the final scenes of the film) but not in others (the rooftop combat scene).

Had Gunga Din been drawn more as a historical drama and less like an action/adventure serial, it might have been better. It’s still quite an involving picture that becomes more emotionally enjoyable in the last third of the film, but causes a bit of frustration early on while you’re trying to figure out just what kind of film the producers were hoping it would be.
Review Written
May 1, 2011

1 Comment

Add a Comment
  1. You review this as though it came out yesterday, without putting 1930s cinematic conventions in their context. The weight of American film history bears down on this one, which makes lists of “greatest action adventure films.” For a movie barely 90 minutes long – and seen by many people of my generation as simply cut to shreds to fit a 90 minutes TV slot, interrupted by commercials – in hurtles forward at a relentless pace, aided and abetted by an effervescent sense of humor, handsome production and set location, sparkling performances by McLaglen and Grant (and I’ve always liked Abner Biberman better than Ciannelli in this), and an effective score, composed by a master. What could “Drawing on the influence of popular films of the time, the musical score is slavishly adventurous” mean? Newman, Max Steiner, and Dmitri Tiomkin defined the conventions of film scoring, they didn’t obey any amorphous “influence.”

    This reads as though it were written for a high school English assignment, and as though the young writer had to press himself, hard, to come up with something “insightful” to offer.

    My apologies for being churlish. It’s not my customary style – I generally just walk on by when I disagree. But the Newman business got up my nose.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.