Apologies to Gunga Din fans, but George Stevens' classic just doesn’t survive too well over the years. The revered action/adventure yarn set in India, once one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones movies, at one time looked like a rousing and exotic escapism entertainment, but with today’s eyes, it’s still a big spectacle picture, though now mostly dull and limp.
Gunga Din (1939) dir. George Stevens
Starring: Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen
By Alan Bacchus
Over the past year Turner Classic Movies & Warner Bros Home Video have packaged a number of surprisingly decent movie 4-pks of specific genres as a single DVD purchase. Normally, when I see distributors packaging two or three movies together for a volume discount there’s little value added. But there’s something about these TCM packages that feels like a surprisingly astound programming. For example, their ‘Sci-Fi’ package a few months ago, packaged together a quartet of interesting selections, including Them and The Beast From 10,000 Fathoms. Not all the films were great, but as a program of four films to watch it gave a good broad overview of sci-fi B-movies.
In their ‘War’ package Warner puts together: Battle of the Bulge (1961), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Operation Pacific (1951) and Gunga Din (1939). For me Gunga Din was the main attraction to this package – one of the revered classics from ‘Hollywood’s Greatest Year’ – 1939.
Here in Gunga Din, the Indian legend of the Kali warriors gets its first cinematic treatment. This story has been done a little bit better in The Stranglers of Bombay, the 1960 Hammer picture starring Guy Rolfe, and of course Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In this picture, the infamous ‘Thugs’, sadistic killers and bloodthirsty worshippers of the goddess Kali has just attacked a British outpost, thus breaking the line in communication for the occupying colonists. British Colonel Weed dispatches a trio of soldiers to investigate.
There’s Cutter (Cary Grant) a fist-fighting rabble-rouser, the muscle-man sweetheart MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and the reluctant softy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) whose recently been engaged but desperately wants to join his buddies on the adventure. Tagging along is their affable Indian guide and wannabe soldier Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). The team discovers an old Indian cult called the Thugees who worship a goddess named Kali who strangle their victims to death.
While the film does features a number of big sprawling action scenes, the forward movement of the journey and thus the intensity of the action is stifled at every turn with its rather silly comedic side plotting. Sure some decent banter between Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, but the amount of running time devoted to these scenes diffuses the excitement of the adventure. Specifically Ballantine troubles with his fiancé is given much too much attention, and feels like a romantic comedy dynamic shoehorned into a disposable b-movie cliff hanger serial.