Gunga Din | You’re a Better Man Than I Am
Ask a film critic to pick the greatest year of American cinema and most likely you’ll hear “1939″ as the response. With good reason: Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dark Victory, and… Gunga Din.
Gunga Din, based (very) loosely on Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, follows three British sergeants in colonial India as they try to stop the resurrection of the Thuggee murder cult. Directed by George Stevens, and starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen, Gunga Din is the wellspring from which all dumb action movies flow (I mean that in the best possible way). It contains the following: action sequences that swerve into comedy, an exotic locale, wry dialogue during bouts of violence, the old “ambush a solitary enemy who’s standing away from the group and steal his clothes” bit, a shaky rope bridge, a pit of snakes, the evil mystical bad guy with a loose cannon son, a distinct “bros before hoes” ethos, nearly invincible protagonists, a total aversion to the domestic, the requisite massive battle set piece, and foreigners.
Obviously it’s my kind of movie. I just wish it wasn’t called Gunga Din.
It should’ve been called Cutter, Ballantine, and McChesney after the three characters the film is actually engaged with. Or Cary Grant Pulls Faces. Or Hurray, It’s Killing Time! Those would work.
Because the character Gunga Din (a water-carrier in film and poem) isn’t really at the core of the movie. The screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol (and a host of uncredited contributors including William Faulkner) is an expansion of the Kipling poem, but also a destructive simplification of it.
Narrated through the voice of a British soldier in vernacular, Kipling’s poem almost pulls itself apart trying to reconcile its opposite impulses. It describes Gunga Din as wretched and inferior while also praising his courage. The narrator can’t escape his loathing of Gunga Din as he beats and berates him, but he also reluctantly acknowledges that Gunga Din is a better man than he is. The waterboy carries the wounded narrator out of battle and is rewarded with a fatal gunshot wound of his own. His clothing is rags, his skin is filthy, and his water is squalid, but his bravery is sound. He’s a saintly heathen and although the narrator considers Gunga Din a better man than himself, he envisions them both ending up in hell.
But the film lamely attempts to portray this tension by framing Gunga Din in two convenient modes: as a simpleton clown aping the British soldiers and as tear-jerking casualty who saves his “friends” at the climax. Bizarrely, a reporter named “Kipling” materializes just in time to produce a poem that a British colonel reads over Din’s body. Cut to close-ups of our three stars crying.
The title character even has less depth (and fewer lines) than Guru, the thinly woven bad guy. Guru wants to bring back the Thuggee murder cult so he can destroy the British army and roll through India like Chandragupta Maurya. When our British heroes call him crazy, he invokes Hannibal, Ceasar, and Napoleon. Guru has a cunning plan to lure the British army to its ruin and even jumps to his grim death in the snake pit to ensure it happens.
Meanwhile, Gunga Din wants to be a play the bugle for unknown reasons.
It’s not like the source material is a novel or epic poem that needs simplification just to make a coherent screenplay–there are less than 100 lines of verse to work with. Here are the four main thrusts of the poem: (1) War is hell and (2) the British soldier feels superior but (3) Gunga Din saves the soldier’s life while losing his own, so the soldier finally (4) admits the Indian water-hauler is a better man than he is, which creates the tension.
The film addresses only the third item. Otherwise, war is a lark (so fun that Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s character cheerily destroys his marriage to sign up for another stint), Gunga Din is portrayed as an affable retard with Cary Grant as his big brother figure–they’re buddies, and we get the weird Kipling/tears tacked-on ending instead of any true revelation.
If only they would’ve just given up on forcing a super-simple trace of “Gunga Din” into the movie. Here’s a ret-conning suggestion: cut Gunga Din out entirely and have the already bayonetted Cary Grant save the day. Then those final tears would be earned. Or reboot the movie and hew closer to the poem.
Photo credit: bighollywood.