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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gunga Din (1939): A classic movie of war and bonding

Rudyard Kipling has a famous poem by the name of Gunga Din, and although this movie cannot be called to represent the poem, it does have elements of the poem along with parts from another of his novels called 'Soldiers Three'. The movie is cited as a classic, a tale of a man's quest to become a honorable soldier while he is currently just a helper to the army. It is also a tale of the comradeship between soldiers, their friendship and dedication to each other. The movie was directed by George Stevens, and was written principally by Fred Guiol and Joel Sayre with contributions from many others. The movie earned one Oscar nomination, with cinematographer Joseph H. August having been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

Gunga Din (1939) starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The movie is set in 1880, near the Kyber Pass in Northwest India (currently the area where there is an extreme amount of tension due to the Taleban); this has been an area where historically, it has been hard to conquer and keep under control. The British had a lot of problem in controlling this area, and fought frequently to keep the rebels at bay. The movie starts with a outpost at Tandipur having been lost, and the Colonel in charge, Colonel Weed (Montagu Love), sends out a team for investigation headed by 3 sergeants MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Cutter (Cary Grant), and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). All 3 of them belong to the Royal Engineers, and are veterans of the campaign. They are not exactly the most disciplined officers, but in a situation of such uncertainty, they would have been the best people to send. They are accompanied by a local water-bearer, the character bearing the name of the movie, Gunga Din (played by Sam Jaffe). He aspiration is also to become a soldier of the British Indian Army, and serve the queen.
This detail reaches Tandipur, and finds it deserted - their immediate aim is to secure the place and repair the telegraph. However, they are actually in a trap, and are soon surrounded by attackers, through whom the detail has to fight its way out, and they are successful in that. Back at their base, one of the captured weapons is identified as belonging to the Thuggees (a cult that had been suppressed in the recent past, but apparently is again resurgent).
These 3 sergeants are the key to the movie, and one of the 3 is Ballantine who is doing the unthinkable, leaving the army to marry Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and go into the tea business. The other 2 sergeants cannot fathom as to how he can do this. Combine this with the fact that Gunga Din reports about a temple made of gold to Cutter (getting Cutter terribly interested), something that gets Cutter put in the stockade to prevent him from running away. Cutter however does manage to run away, helped by Gunga Din, heading to the temple where he is caught by the Thugs; Gunga Din escapes to get the rescue team.
The detail now goes to the rescue of Cutter, entering into a fight with the Thugs; the fight eventually costs Gunga Din his life, but not before he has sounded the alarm and got the Army to come in and defeat the Thugs. In death, Gunga Din manages to be inducted as a soldier, something that he always wanted.
The movie is a classic, full of action, adventure, comedy, male bonding, and a movie that is bound to be seen as a throwback to the past in these politically correct times.

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