So I’ll meet ’im later on
At the place where ’e is gone—
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
(Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling)
Kipling’s poem celebrates the courage and loyalty of Indian water bearer Gunga Din. The 1939 film builds on the bare sketch of the poem and adds in the British soldiers from Kipling’s Soldiers Three stories. Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. portray Sergeants Cutter, MacChesney and Ballantine. The three sergeants are comedic partners in crime constantly in trouble for their off-duty brawling and ridiculous escapades. But they are also ferociously courageous and loyal to the British Army to their core. And attached to the regiment that the sergeants serve in is the regimental bhisti (or water carrier), Gunga Din. Gunga Din is also a minor partner in the sergeants’ syndicate. He convinces Cutter that they can cart off a temple made of solid gold that’s just there for the taking. Superimpose the sub-plot of Ballantine’s upcoming nuptials as a threat to the triumvirate and then top the whole thing off with a Thuggee Mutiny planning to drive the British out of India.
Sam Jaffe plays Gunga Din and along with the three co-stars they chew up the scenery and move the plot along smartly. By the climax we find out why Gunga Din is a better man they are. And we get to see the British Army (or the Hollywood version of it) unleashed on the Thugs.
The movie features a goodly amount of action adventure scenes but for me the stand out is the comedy. The exchanges between Cary Grant (featuring his most over the top cockney accent) and Victor McLaglen are very funny and make me wish they had co-starred in other action comedies.
It goes without saying that the movie could never be made today. It features language and plot elements that would be labelled, racist, sexist, colonialist and white supremacist. And if they got around to it, I’m sure the critics could come up with an angle that made it homophobic and transphobic too. But it is solid entertainment that creates a comedy adventure out of the reality of the British Raj. Of course, this is a Hollywood fantasy version of the Raj. In this version, the British Army is powerful and the generals are competent and all the good Indians are loyal subjects of the Queen-Empress and all the bad Indians are disloyal, murderous followers of Kali, the goddess of death. In this version the non-commissioned officers are anxious to re-enlist every 11 years without fail. But it’s got fight scenes, battle scenes, comedy, pathos, dynamite tossing and even an elephant-based jail break. What else could anybody ask for.