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GUNGA DIN


Ray Faiola
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Several years ago I ran GUNGA DIN - the uncut version - to my Chelsea Rialto crowd.  Most had never seen the picture and many were decidedly underwhelmed by it.  A friend of mine who has lately taken to watching classic films and is a huge Cary Grant fan watched GUNGA DIN on TCM.  When I asked him for his reaction he replied "Not a fan".

 

I think GUNGA DIN is one of the great adventure films of all time with outstanding performances, great photography, fabulous music.  What is it about the film by which some folks seemed to be turned off?

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In these politically correct times, the paternalistic attitude that the genre of British Empire epics have towards their native people can be offensive for many today. Victor McLaglen's insensitive attitude toward the title character may rub many the wrong way, I'm guessing. (He makes me cringe, at times). On the other hand, by contrast, Cary Grant treats him quite well.  Eduardo Ciannelli's fanatic to some (as was intended for '30s audiences) may be seen as a patriot to others today. (Though his ready-to-die-for-his-cause fanaticism is still uncomfortably close to that seen in the headlines today).

 

But, in the film's defense, it does provide Ciannelli with that scene in which he has a speech at the end to the soldiers three, expressing the dedication and passion for his cause against the imperialist interlopers in his land. The film DOES give him his say.

 

The film is dated in the political sense, as are all films of that genre. Aside from those considerations, however, I think Gunga Din is a wonderful action comedy which works splendidly on both levels. The action scenes were second to none for adventure films of its era, and still work impressively well today. The soldiers three are all an engaging, likable lot, played by three personable actors (even McLaglen, bull in the china shop that his character may be).

 

I think that Cary Grant's performance is quite wonderful (not that the rest of the cast isn't impressive, as well). As a matter, of fact, watching the childlike excitement and greed of Grant as he leaps up and down in anticipation of reaping a fortune in gold and jewels when he arrives at the Indian temple makes me, in turn, think of the way that Daffy Duck would later react in similar circumstances (such as in Ali Baba Bunny) when he thought he was going to grab a fortune.

 

I wonder if Cary Grant's broad physical comedy antics in this film had an effect on Daffy's later characterization to some degree?

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Nah, nothing political about it.  For some reason the film just didn't connect with these folks.  I wonder if earlier generations grew up seeing the 93 minute reissue instead of the 119 minute original release (which was only unearthed in the 1980's) and that the shorter version is what attained such adoration during the 50's, 60's and 70's.

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Gunga Din was one of those movies I loved watching on TV as a child, but have a tough time with now, with my adult understanding of colonialism.  It's a great action picture, but one that I do have to turn my brain and sensibilities off for me to enjoy it.  I recently saw Lives of a Bengal Lancer for the first time in many years, and felt that it is a superior movie of that type.   My own favorite of the genre is John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, which shows the "shadow" side of this type of story.

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Several years ago I ran GUNGA DIN - the uncut version - to my Chelsea Rialto crowd.  Most had never seen the picture and many were decidedly underwhelmed by it.  A friend of mine who has lately taken to watching classic films and is a huge Cary Grant fan watched GUNGA DIN on TCM.  When I asked him for his reaction he replied "Not a fan".

 

I think GUNGA DIN is one of the great adventure films of all time with outstanding performances, great photography, fabulous music.  What is it about the film by which some folks seemed to be turned off?

I think maybe they don't know much about the subject?

 

I remember the poem in a high school textbook.  Younger members of my family never HEARD of it!

 

Sepiatone

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I think maybe they don't know much about the subject?

 

I remember the poem in a high school textbook.  Younger members of my family never HEARD of it!

 

Sepiatone

 

Now Sepia, you're not suggestion here that you're a..ahem.."better man than they are" just because you know the history of it, now are ya?! ;) 

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Nah, nothing political about it.  For some reason the film just didn't connect with these folks.  I wonder if earlier generations grew up seeing the 93 minute reissue instead of the 119 minute original release (which was only unearthed in the 1980's) and that the shorter version is what attained such adoration during the 50's, 60's and 70's.

Ray, I don't quite know why you so dismiss the political aspect of Gunga Din as a factor. I can't speak to the film crowds with whom you've seen the production, of course, but I can say that the issue of political insensitivity regarding the film has been raised on these boards at least a few times.

 

It seems to me that years ago, Gunga Din and The Adventures of Robin Hood were probably the two films of the studio era that were most hailed as the models of the Hollywood adventure film by which others were to be measured. I have the impression now that, for whatever reason(s), Robin Hood's popularity is the more enduring of the two.

 

Again returning to the politics of the two films, Robin Hood's is rather simple. He is a protector of the oppressed and disadvantaged in society. While in the case of a film like Gunga Din, the imperialist heroes may be viewed today as part of the oppressors. I think that may be one of the reasons why Gunga Din may be regarded as the more dated of the two with modern audiences (not to mention another factor such as the splendid Technicolor of one film, as opposed to the black-and-while imagery of the other).

 

A friend of mine, who is no old movie buff, once watched Robin Hood, and said that it was 'okay." He admitted, though, that he wouldn't have stuck the film out if it hadn't been in colour. While I find that attitude (a very common one, unfortunately) dismaying, it's also the reality of many (probably most) modern viewers. On the other hand, Ray, perhaps the crowd that you saw Gunga Din with (and who didn't respond to it) didn't care about the lack of colour of the production, and had other reasons for shrugging their collective shoulders at the film.

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I just thought of another, perhaps key, difference between Gunga Din and Robin Hood: their endings.

 

Robin Hood's is uplifting, while Gunga Din's is melancholy. I've always found it a bit strange that such an upbeat, high spirited production as Gunga Din chose to end in that manner (even if they are paying tribute to the title character).

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A friend of mine, who is no old movie buff, once watched Robin Hood, and said that it was 'okay." He admitted, though, that he wouldn't have stuck the film out if it hadn't been in colour. While I find that attitude (a very common one, unfortunately) dismaying, it's also the reality of many (probably most) modern viewers. On the other hand, Ray, perhaps the crowd that you saw Gunga Din with (and who didn't respond to it) didn't care about the lack of colour of the production, and had other reasons for shrugging their collective shoulders at the film.

 

And which was, and besides all the other excellent points I believe you've brought up here Tom(especially the whole "anachronistic political" aspect to GUNGA DIN), was one of my first thoughts as to perhaps why some of Ray's "focus group" didn't think that much of the film.

 

(...'cause I gotta say my eyes are never dry by the end of this movie, and when I see that big "racist" lug McLaglen especially crying during Din being awarded his posthumous honor)  

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Most of the people I know are perfectly capable of enjoying classic movies in context without getting the heebie jeebies over un-pc topics.  Especially "colonialism".  Good lord.  We're talking Hollywood fantasies here.  Action, romance, villainy.  Not to mention uncouth demeanor towards punchbowls!

 

I think it may actually be the female factor.  Joan Fontaine's character is superflous and Fairbanks' re-enlistment is very much a red herring.

 

The Rialto crowd went ape over CHARGE OFTHE LIGHT BRIGADE.  Lots of PC baddies there.  But the female factor was different.

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Most of the people I know are perfectly capable of enjoying classic movies in context without getting the heebie jeebies over un-pc topics.  Especially "colonialism".  Good lord.  We're talking Hollywood fantasies here.  Action, romance, villainy.  Not to mention **** demeanor towards punchbowls!

 

I think it may actually be the female factor.  Joan Fontaine's character is superflous and Fairbanks' re-enlistment is very much a red herring.

 

The Rialto crowd went ape over CHARGE OFTHE LIGHT BRIGADE.  Lots of PC baddies there.  But the female factor was different.

Actually, I would argue that the triangular love angle of Charge is one of the weaknesses of a strong adventure film, and something of a distraction.

 

But Charge falls into the same category for political insensitivity (though there's no one in Charge quite as bullying as Victor McLaglen), so if the same kind of crowd went for the Flynn film, then, perhaps the PC factors weren't involved for them with Gunga Din.

 

Having said that, I think that those PC factors ARE involved for other viewers (what percentage, though, I have no idea).

 

Joan Fontaine's part is window dressing in the film, that's true, but that's the case with so many male oriented adventure films. Nothing new there, really.

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Joan Fontaine's part is window dressing in the film, that's true, but that's the case with so many male oriented adventure films. Nothing new there, really.

 

Yeah, maybe, but personally I always thought Fontaine's "Yoko Ono Act"(you know, "breakin' up the lads") in this movie was a nice little touch and added to the idea of the "friction" between the three soldiers, and even though they were all basically brothers-in-arms to the core.

 

(...and besides the idea of this subplot affording the opportunity to intersperse the ongoing little jibes directed at Doug Jr. by the other two, because without that and because I've always felt Doug Jr.'s role was the least interesting of the three, this at least gives him some "distinction" in the film)

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Most of the people I know are perfectly capable of enjoying classic movies in context without getting the heebie jeebies over un-pc topics.  Especially "colonialism".  Good lord.  We're talking Hollywood fantasies here.  Action, romance, villainy.  Not to mention **** demeanor towards punchbowls!

 

I think it may actually be the female factor.  Joan Fontaine's character is superflous and Fairbanks' re-enlistment is very much a red herring.

 

The Rialto crowd went ape over CHARGE OFTHE LIGHT BRIGADE.  Lots of PC baddies there.  But the female factor was different.

 

After reading all of the post,  I would have to say what you're calling PC reasons would be a reason NOT to love this film over the fact the women part is superfluous.    But hey,  guessing why someone else might not love a film is, well, anybody's guess!

 

As for me,  what makes GD a second rate adventure film (as compared to say Robin Hood),  is the camp factor.    The film has action and people die (a lot in fact),  but this is played as some type of joke.    The speeding up of the film during the early fight scenes also adds a camp factor.    Then we have Grant;   he is way over the top.   Yea, that works in a film like Arsenic and Old Lace but it doesn't work as well here.   

 

I just don't see a very serious adventure film, well until that sad poignant ending.    But I still love the film and find Grant to be very funny.   All that energy and Grant charm.     But maybe others looking for a more 'true' adventure film don't like the camp aspects of this one.   

 

PS:  I asked Olivia and she agrees:  Joan ruined the movie!    Only Olivia could enhance adventure films by adding romance and that women's touch! 

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Yeah, maybe, but personally I always thought Fontaine's "Yoko Ono Act"(you know, "breakin' up the lads") in this movie was a nice little touch and added to the idea of the "friction" between the three soldiers, and even though they were all basically brothers-in-arms to the core.

 

(...and besides the idea of this subplot affording the opportunity to intersperse the ongoing little jibes directed at Doug Jr. by the other two, because without that and because I've always felt Doug Jr.'s role was the least interesting of the three, this at least gives him some "distinction" in the film)

I agree with you that Fairbanks' part is the least interesting of the three soldiers.

 

Yet, Fairbanks wrote in his autobiography that he and Grant decided who would play the romantic and who who play the funny Cockney on a coin toss. He said that Grant was so anxious to have him in the production that he was ready to accept either part. He also said that until Grant's death they called each other by their names in this film, Cutter and Ballantyne.

 

I can see Grant in the romantic role but, quite frankly, I have a difficult time thinking that Fairbanks would have been nearly as successful in the role of the at-times wildman greedy part of Cutter, as brought to the screen so brilliantly by Grant. I'm glad that coin toss went the way that it did.

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As for me,  what makes GD a second rate adventure film (as compared to say Robin Hood),  is the camp factor.    The film has action and people die (a lot in fact),  but this is played as some type of joke.    The speeding up of the film during the early fight scenes also adds a camp factor.    Then we have Grant;   he is way over the top.   Yea, that works in a film like Arsenic and Old Lace but it doesn't work as well here.   

 

I just don't see a very serious adventure film, well until that sad poignant ending.    But I still love the film and find Grant to be very funny.   All that energy and Grant charm.     But maybe others looking for a more 'true' adventure film don't like the camp aspects of this one.   

 

I think you may have hit the proverbial nail.  It's a bit too musketeerish and cartoonish and then turns deadly serious. And Grant is a bit of a dolt.  Hmm. Very interesting.  Thanks James!

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Nah, nothing political about it.  For some reason the film just didn't connect with these folks.

 

 

Ray, I think it was just that particular audience. A couple of seasons ago, our local film society ran GUNGA DIN to a packed house. We were amazed at how many people had never seen it before. This really surprised me, as a kid, it seem like our local TV station was always running it and I guess I just figured that everybody had seen it as many times as I did.

 

Anyway, the crowd really got into the film and EVERYBODY enjoyed it. As folks were leaving with big smiles, the common remark was "Ya gotta show more like that one."

 

Having said that, I do believe that a lot of people today are so busy trying to find fault with older films, like  for not being PC, that they overlook the film's entertainment value. When I watch a film from another era, I try and see it from the point of view of the audience back then and not by today's technical or political standards.

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As for me,  what makes GD a second rate adventure film (as compared to say Robin Hood),  is the camp factor.    The film has action and people die (a lot in fact),  but this is played as some type of joke.    The speeding up of the film during the early fight scenes also adds a camp factor.    Then we have Grant;   he is way over the top.   Yea, that works in a film like Arsenic and Old Lace but it doesn't work as well here.   

 

I just don't see a very serious adventure film, well until that sad poignant ending.    But I still love the film and find Grant to be very funny.   All that energy and Grant charm.     But maybe others looking for a more 'true' adventure film don't like the camp aspects of this one.   

 

PS:  I asked Olivia and she agrees:  Joan ruined the movie!    Only Olivia could enhance adventure films by adding romance and that women's touch! 

Olivia and Flynn had a magical chemsitry that helped to bring a fairy tale quality to their films, with Robin Hood, among others, benefiting from it. Fontaine seems rather weak as a rather superfluous object of desire (for Fairbanks) and a source of aggravation, as pointed out succienctly by Dargo, for Grant and McLaglen.

 

But we really have a different take on Gunga Din, James. Grant's comedy in the film is broad but that falls in line with such a high spirited, physically vigorous production, which plays as a comedy almost as much as it does an adventure. And I think the film succeeds in both, as well, thanks to a past comedy master like George Stevens at the helm. I'm just surprised that the action scenes in the film play as well as they do. I assume that Stevens may have been assisted by some strong assistant directors (just as Mike Curtiz was with B. Reeves Eason during the making of the charge sequence in Charge of the Light Brigade, for example).

 

It's amusing that Fairbanks later wrote that when Gunga Din was made on location all the men tried to control their rough language (even McLaglen) because of the shy, ladylike presence of Joan Fontaine. Later they found out, though, that at night Fontaine and George Stevens were sneaking into each other's tents for late night romantic encounters.

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Olivia and Flynn had a magical chemsitry that helped to bring a fairy tale quality to their films, with Robin Hood, among others, benefiting from it. Fontaine seems rather weak as a rather superfluous object of desire (for Fairbanks) and a source of aggravation, as pointed out succienctly by Dargo, for Grant and McLaglen.

 

But we really have a different take on Gunga Din, James. Grant's comedy in the film is broad but that falls in line with such a high spirited, physically vigorous production, which plays as a comedy almost as much as it does an adventure. And I think the film succeeds in both, as well, thanks to a past comedy master like George Stevens at the helm. I'm just surprised that the action scenes in the film play as well as they do. I assume that Stevens may have been assisted by some strong assistant directors (just as Mike Curtiz was with B. Reeves Eason during the making of the charge sequence in Charge of the Light Brigade, for example).

 

It's amusing that Fairbanks later wrote that when Gunga Din was made on location all the men tried to control their rough language (even McLaglen) because of the shy, ladylike presence of Joan Fontaine. Later they found out, though, that at night Fontaine and George Stevens were sneaking into each other's tents for late night romantic encounters.

 

We don't have a different take at all..    I said that MAYBE the reason the film isn't loved by everyone is that they don't like (or get),  that mix of comedy and adventure.     I get it and therefore I love the film for what it is.    But clearly there is a camp factor to the film.   Tom, maybe in your view camp = bad,  but not to me.    e.g. Johnny Guitar.  That film is very camp but I love that film as well (but it did take me a while to 'get it' and I didn't like it the first time I saw it). 

 

But clearly GD isn't played as straight as Robin Hood.    Another adventure film that is similar to GD where the joke is pushed just as hard as the adventure would be the Mark of Zorro.   But as I have said before,  while I enjoy both films I do rank them below Robin Hood,  which to me is the greatest adventure film of all time. 

 

As for the actions scenes in GD.  Well my friend has a house right where all those scenes were filmed in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine CA.    Great place for a hike in the spring and fall.    But that first action scene is really out there.  e.g.  the bad guys running and raising their weapons in their arms and making a funny movement.   Then going back (to avoid the dynamite) and then doing the same funny movement again.     This looks very staged and like a dance routine from a Gene Kelly movie!   

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It's amusing that Fairbanks later wrote that when Gunga Din was made on location all the men tried to control their rough language (even McLaglen) because of the shy, ladylike presence of Joan Fontaine. Later they found out, though, that at night Fontaine and George Stevens were sneaking into each other's tents for late night romantic encounters.

 

Sooooo, all those late night cries of passion and nasty talk coming from a woman's voice and emanating from those nearby tents didn't give the fellas ANY clue at ALL about this?!

 

(...and here I had heard the canyon that Lone Pine California is situated within was noted for its excellent acoustics???!!!)

 

;)

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Sooooo, all those late night cries of passion and nasty talk coming from a woman's voice and emanating from those nearby tents didn't give the fellas ANY clue at ALL about this?!

 

Ohh, Dargo, all that midnight nasty tent talk. And screams of ecstasy, from the lady, too, eh? Fairbanks didn't mention that part in his autobiography. Too much the gentleman, I'm sure. ;)

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We don't have a different take at all..    I said that MAYBE the reason the film isn't loved by everyone is that they don't like (or get),  that mix of comedy and adventure.     I get it and therefore I love the film for what it is.    But clearly there is a camp factor to the film.   Tom, maybe in your view camp = bad,  but not to me.    e.g. Johnny Guitar.  That film is very camp but I love that film as well (but it did take me a while to 'get it' and I didn't like it the first time I saw it). 

 

But clearly GD isn't played as straight as Robin Hood.    Another adventure film that is similar to GD where the joke is pushed just as hard as the adventure would be the Mark of Zorro.   But as I have said before,  while I enjoy both films I do rank them below Robin Hood,  which to me is the greatest adventure film of all time. 

 

As for the actions scenes in GD.  Well my friend has a house right where all those scenes were filmed in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine CA.    Great place for a hike in the spring and fall.    But that first action scene is really out there.  e.g.  the bad guys running and raising their weapons in their arms and making a funny movement.   Then going back (to avoid the dynamite) and then doing the same funny movement again.     This looks very staged and like a dance routine from a Gene Kelly movie!   

Well, James, I don't want to get hung up on a word - camp - and decide wheteher or not that word accurately reflects the high spirited antics (and they are very broad, at times) in Gunga Din. I happen to very much like the broadstroke humour to be found in the film very much.

 

While humour is often to be found in many types of adventure films, I can't think of any other in the '30s or '40s that placed quite as much emphasis upon it as Gunga Din. Some might not take the film as seriously as an adventure film because of that, and I can understand that. To me, however, it only adds to the enjoyment of this particular production.

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