Oct 7 2009

Gunga Din

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we take on our oldest film yet, the adventure classic Gunga Din.  This is not only a showcase for Cary Grant, but also a molder of the genre that inspired such classics as the Indiana Jones series.

Gunga Din
Year: 1939
Directed by: George Stevens
Written by:
Starring: Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr
Genre: Adventure

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

More so then any other film we’ve previously reviewed, Gunga Din brings up somewhat a dilemma in filmmaking.  Specifically, when judging a film that is no longer current, should one try and put themselves in the shoes of the audience who was first exposed to the film, with all their biases and expectations?  Cinema has certainly changed since 1939 when this film was released, and the way that action scenes, pacing, and adventure films as a genre are executed has changed with it.  To the modern viewer, this film is not nearly as exciting as it was to those of the past.  Similarly, should we search the film for facets that were later pilfered by movies we know and love, and give it credit for that?  Perhaps we should.  As an amateur critic, it is my feeling that the critics who truly have insight into the audience of the day have already done their work in the year it was released or shortly thereafter.  Therefore I will set out to review this film primarily based on the merits of modern viewers of all types (not just the MTV influenced, A.D.D. crowd, I promise).

Gunga Din is based on a Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name.  I have not read this poem, but I understand it doesn’t contain a whole lot of plot (and there is a good chunk of it in the last lines of the film), and therefore most of the story for this film is built from scratch.  It is noted as an influence on the Indiana Jones series of movies, among my favorite films of all time, so I was quite excited to see what led up to them.  Certainly there are traits here that molded the adventure genre, and even some direct parallels such as the Thuggee murder cult borrowed for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  But it lacks the energy and mystique that Steven Spielberg brought to the genre down the line.  Granted he had tools that George Stevens simply did not have, the influence of decades of advancement in cinema, and hell it’s Steven Spielberg, you can’t really compare much of anything to him at the top of his game.  Still, Gunga Din does have a lot of quality to back itself up, and while it’s not as exciting as later entries in the genre, it holds up surprisingly well.

The action scenes are not as common as perhaps I would’ve preferred, and are therefore spread out quite a bit.  The movie isn’t paced particularly well, in fact the whole first hour seems rather like setup for the actual conflict of the film, the encounter with the Indian natives.  There is a lot of unnecessary expositional moments early on, and quite a few of these are unclear as well, making you wonder why they had to be present at all.  Still, the film wisely uses this time to develop its trio of central characters and their relationships.  This trio is probably the film’s greatest achievement, as they have a great dynamic which is well displayed throughout many scenes.  Particular highlights include Cary Grant’s character Cutter and one of his partners MacChesney trying to concoct ways in which they can keep the third in their trio, Ballentine, from leaving the army to marry his fiancé and join the tea business.  It’s entertaining to watch them sneak about behind Ballentine’s back, and you get to see the way that Ballentine is the uptight foil to Cary Grant’s antics, while MacChesney is the concerned friend who thinks he knows what’s best.  You get to see each of these three characters put into various pairs to see how each interacts with the other by themselves, and then as part of the entire trio.  This is the grounds that makes you care about these characters when the final act comes around.  Of the three though, Cary Grant’s Cutter is by far the most charming and humorous on screen, and though Ballantine is the romantic protagonist, most modern audience’s familiarity with Grant makes him the one you root for and sympathize with in most situations.  This plays against some of the intention of the film, but he’s an interesting enough character (and probably the closest to Indiana Jones of the three) that it’s worth sacrificing the intended dynamic a little to showcase Grant’s chops.

When the action scenes do come around, they are surprisingly dynamic for the time.  A viewer with a keen eye may notice some old fashioned cinematographic tricks, such as the fast motion cameras used to make fight scenes feel quicker.  Since the fast cutting techniques were more than 60 years away, the pace still doesn’t feel as fast as we are used to, but a gunfight early on still feels action packed, and the battle finale is even more dynamic.  The downside to the final fight is that our main trio of characters gets lost in the mix a bit.

Execution wise it’s hard to compare the cinematography to that of the day.  The black and white certainly has some nice tones and contrast, and there’s some interesting composition that differs greatly to that of today due to the 4:3 aspect ratio.  The way they fit three or four people in a frame is often more creative than the widescreen format, and the square frame is also more condusive to close-ups.  The scenes in the temple offer some great shadows to play with as well.  For something of the time period, there’s quite a bit of dynamicism here.  One of the downsides though is location.  Rather than shooting on location in India, it is blatantly obvious that they shot in central California (primarily Lone Pine).  They can’t be faulted much for making a practical choice, but for someone native to California it truly takes away the illusion that we are in another country.  Part of what makes films like Lawrence of Arabia and Slumdog Millionaire is the way they pull you into a foreign land quite literally, instead of trying their best to recreate it on home turf.

Finally, one of the big dilemmas with this film is the fact that it presents itself as a moralistic tale proclaiming that the natives can often be more noble than we are, and warning of interference in worlds that are not our own.  This is all well and good, though notably heavy handed, yet the casting director made several fatal mistakes in this area.  Casting actors who were not only America, but not even of remotely correct dissent makes the whole thing demeaning too other races.  Gunga Din, the titular character himself, is played by a New Yorker with dark makeup on, only a step away from blackface.  Gunga Din, who is supposedly a young neophyte is also played by a man in his fifties, making the Indian race appear “simple” do to the conflict of his age and intelligence.  The central Indian villain is played by an Italian who can’t disguise his accent, also with dark makeup.  It’s hard to take their message of honoring other cultures seriously when their simultaneously mocking them.  This type of thing was likely pretty common during the time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be accepted by ours without note.  There’s a reason India banned the film for its cultural insensitivities.

Gunga Din is a film that has some very entertaining moments, but it also has long dull swaths as well.  Overall it isn’t a waste of time, and is more enjoyable than not, but I do feel that is a film that’s better left to the cinema enthusiasts, or at least someone who really knows they enjoy pre-50s cinema.  It’s an important step in understanding the development of cinema, particularly within the action/adventure genre, but on its own it doesn’t make for the most entertaining film out there.

Benn says:

George Steven’s 1939 classic Gunga Din is, without a doubt, the quintessential classic adventure epic. Few films have been able to capture the same energetic spirit (see Raiders of the Lost Ark), and too many have brought forth cheap imitations that rely on special effects, action sequence after hackneyed action sequence, and forced, unconvincing chemistry between two-dimensional characters (Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).  Gunga Din, based on Rudyard Kipling’s epic poem of the same name, tells the story of three British soldiers in India during the peak of British Imperialism. When a local cult attacks a British outpost, the military powers-that-be assign Sergeants Cutter (Cary Grant), Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and McChesney (Victor McLaglen) to lead a troop of soldiers to the outpost to investigate. Among this group is the enthusiastic, if not dim-witted Indian waster bearer to the trio’s group, who wishes to become a British soldier and befriends Cutter.

The plot itself takes a while to get moving, as the inevitable showdown between the British army and Indian cult doesn’t take place until the last thirty minutes of the film. However, this doesn’t turn out to be such a problem since the film is carried by the charm and antics of the film’s three leads.

The three Sergeants’ introduction not only sets the tone for the film, but stands as one of the best introductions for any character in film history. We are introduced to our heroes in the middle of a brawl with the Scottish branch of the military after the Scots sold the Cutter, Balantine and McChesney a false map that was to lead to a pile of exotic jewels. The intro sums up the film quite well, in that it is not a military drama, or anything particularly serious in the first place. The film focuses on the romance and wonder of the adventures we dreamed of in our boyhood, full of exotic lands, unsympathetic villains, the promise of treasure and the opportunity to solve all problems with over-the-top violence that is both fun and effective. And of course, as is with boys of all ages, the various tricks, jokes and pranks that occur throughout the film add to the youthful appeal of the film and it’s characters. In one particular scene, Cutter and McChesney attend a fancy officer’s party and spike a punch bowl with a laxative, than procede to give it to a boorish, rule-abiding fellow officer with a stiff upper lip towards any kind of Tom Foolery. It has nothing to do with the central plot of the film, but it allows the true intentions and spirits of the characters to shine through, and it connects with the audience on a very basic, honest level.

Of course, the element of fun and wonderment comes from the three lead actors. Cary Grant acts as the group’s de facto leader, and is the most idealistic and opportunistic of the bunch. Grant’s charisma sets him apart from the other actors in the film, and his swashbuckling prowess makes him a very entertaining hero. Douglas Fairbanks Jr has just as much charm and charisma as Grant, yet his prescence has a very much needed subtlty and sophistication about it. The more mild-mannered of the three soldiers, Fairbank’s sub-plot involving his decision to get married and settle down or continue brawling his way to potential adventures around India with his friends plays a major part in the film’s humor, as a bulk of the film involves Grant and McLaglen trying all kinds of tricks to keep him in military service. Although the more brash and straightforward of the bunch, McLaglen holds the trio together as the gruff ole’ war horse, and shows signs of sensitivity in the film that is unexpected, yet adds real heart and depth in the story.

The only real trouble with the film is that the titular character, Gunga Din, only plays a small role in the film. When he does show up, he’s portrayed as being a bit dim-witted, and doesn’t really do anything for the film. By the time Din begins to have promanance in the film’s narrative, you wish that the film would return to the adventures of Cutter, Balantine and McChesney. Furthermore, though the film is the furthest thing from being a statement on British Imperialism, one cannot help but see Gunga Din as a characture of parody of Indian culture; the actor, Sam Jaffe, is not an Indian, but an American actor in body paint. I will say this now; Gunga Din is not a rascist film, and the attitudes towards race held by Rudyard Kipling have been debated by literary scholars since the publications of his first works, and as such, are up to debate by the viewer. Racial sensibilities aside, the character is not one to be taken seriously, and distracts from the better elements of the film, which is odd, since the title of the film is not Cutter, Balantine and McChesney, but Gunga Din. One would think that the titular character, who is supposed to be a hero, should be shown in a more dignified light.

Despite it’s flaws, Gunga Din is a classic and a masterpiece in its own right.  Granted, the established villians don’t play as large a part as one would expect, but then again, the plot is, more or less, a red herring to begin with.  Sure, we’d like to see Cutter, Balantine and McLaglen fight the evil Indian cult, but we’re happy just to see them together running about in the desert, searching for fabled treasure, getting in fistfights and keeping one another from settling down.  Few films can convey such natural, honest wonder and fun through a film, and Stevens’ film manages to succeed in a way that has yet to be matched.

Benn’s rebuttal:

Although I agree that the final battle scene is out of place in context to the rest of the film, I found all the seemingly non sequiter, expositional moments to be extremely fun, and I had a blast watching the three leads interact with one another and find themselves in the middle of a brawl.  True, the continuity of narative and racial issues are prevelant, but I really didn’t care because I found the leads (Cary and Fairbanks Jr) to be that charismatic.  If keeping to the true spirit of adventure and glory means forgetting the central plot, I suppose I’m all for it.  At least, in Gunga Din.

James’ rebuttal:

I’m seeing a lot of echoes between our two reviews this time.  In my opinion you may have oversold the excitement of the film, for it does play like an older movie.  Things do pick up eventually, but it’s truly the trio that make it work at all.  I think the racial insensitivity is pretty strong actually, but it’s a product of the times and what they had to work with in terms of budget and reputable actors I suppose, and I also don’t believe it’s intentional.  It’s sad that in trying to make a film that warns against neglecting a man of another culture, they simultaneously neglected the titular character and their portrayal of the Indian race.

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