Gunga Din: Review
Gunga Din is a masterful adventure tale of three British, Victorian-age brothers-in-arms who place friendship and mother England above all else. Based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, director George Stevens pulled off one of the most astounding adaptations when he transformed a modest but moving ode to a loyal native water bearer into an epic adventure story. Neither the side story of a minor romance nor the constant boisterous shenanigans of male bonding forsake the touching tribute to a true, yet humble comrade.
Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. star as the three virile soldiers who pal around together, get drunk together, and fight battles together. Grant is in rare form as the gregarious Cockney always on the lookout for a get-rich-quick scheme. McLaglen plays the role he was born to as the rugged Irish officer who barks orders to his men but shows a softer side as he tenderly cares for a sick elephant. And Fairbanks (son of silent film star Douglas Sr.) stays true to his cinematic lineage in his role as the gallant Romantic whose engagement threatens to break up the team.
A very young Joan Fontaine breathes a sweet elegance into what otherwise may have been a thankless role as the love interest. As the fiancé to Fairbanks, she is required to do nothing more than increase the tension among the bosom friends, but she does so with the natural jealousy a woman in love has for the friends of her beloved. She does this without condescending to shrew ness, making the mutual dislike palpable and real. Her scenes here are an early indication of the talents she would later utilize to earn the Academy Award for Best Actress in Suspicion.
Sam Jaffe (nominated years later for Best Supporting Actor in The Asphalt Jungle) plays the title role of the lower caste servant who befriends Grant. In an era when people of ethnic diversity were often depicted in broad strokes, Jaffe manages to pull off an enviable performance. He is a fully realized individual who struggles to rise above his lot in life, ultimately saving the day by offering the greatest sacrifice. With a verve and gusto for honor above all else, Jaffe truly makes you believe the final words of Kipling’s poem, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din”.
Gunga Din is the mold from which every action/adventure film has aimed to emulate from King Solomon’s Mines to Raiders of the Lost Ark and especially Three Kings. Although director George Stevens did not set out to craft the perfect example of the genre, he did achieve that goal by shear fortitude, imagination, and an inability to settle for good enough, which exemplifies the characteristics of the 1939 filmmaker as well as the coming of age of the film industry and the hard times of the nation.
If you’ve ever seen the film I need not explain further. If you have not, why deny yourself the pleasure? You must see Gunga Din. I envy your first experience.