Screenwriter William Goldman ascribes the enduring appeal of George Stevens' Gunga Din (1939) to its consistent and gleeful championing of "stupid courage." It's a phenomenon that's gripped many of the cinema's most beloved heroes from Buster Keaton's solo mission to retrieve his train and his girl in The General to Han Solo going head-to-head with an Imperial Cruiser in The Empire Strikes Back and though its depiction may seem inextricably linked to the American propensity to root for the underdog, its roots in this particular case are planted deep in the rich (and troublingly racist) literature of Rudyard Kipling. In the poem that suggested the film, its titular protagonist, a water boy for a British regiment fighting the not-so-good colonizing fight in India, stirs the admiration of the narrator for not knowing "the use o' fear" (a few lines later, however, he's commended for transcending his low breeding by being "white, clear white inside"). Such senseless bravery is present in much of Kipling's work, reaching a boldly satirical apex in his masterful The Man Who Would Be King, and it's the way Stevens and his several screenwriters, including Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, wisely harness the narrative to this peculiar attribute that helps it overcome its ethnic insensitivity to reach genuinely noble heights.
Interestingly, in Stevens' telling of the story, Din (played by a darkened Sam Jaffe) doesn't receive a proper introduction until a half-hour in. Most of the preceding screen time is spent setting up the trio of adventuring British sergeants whose stupid courage leads them into one pinch after another. Sgt. Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is the almost sensible semi-leader of the group, a dashing operator on the verge of returning to civilian life to marry his sweetheart Emmy (Joan Fontaine). Sgt. Mac MacChesney (Victor McLagen) is the muscle of the threesome, though his rough exterior masks his gentle nature evinced in his doting dealings with the regiment's most beloved pachyderm, Annie. Finally, there's the irresponsible, fortune hunting Sgt. Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant), whose selfish preoccupation with finding a temple of gold lands them all in the tightest of tight spots, one that may very well spell doom for the entire outfit. This occurs when Din busts Cutter out of the brig to lead him to the storied temple, which is currently being used as a place of worship/base of operations for a bloodthirsty, Kali-worshipping cult of Thuggees bent on killing off every last British officer on Indian soil. When Cutter and Din are captured, Mac and Ballantine ride off to rescue them, only to get captured themselves. This, it turns out, is all part of the cult leader's master plan to lure their entire regiment into an ambush, which only these four misfits can halt.
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Gunga Din is Hollywood adventure at his highest and most grandly entertaining. Never the most stylish of filmmakers, Stevens was, in his pre-WWII phase, an able wrangler of chaos, a skill put to thrilling effect in the picture's numerous action set-pieces. The first attempted ambush in a deserted village is hardly elegant with its rapid cutting and undercranked fistfights, but Stevens' ability to capture the madness with a clear sense of geography and character puts to shame most multiple-camera action specialists working today. Unsurprisingly, given his tutelage under Hal Roach, Stevens is equally adept in staging the film's comedic moments, though he gets invaluable assists from his peerless company of actors and writers. With Hecht and MacArthur cannibalizing their structure for The Front Page, it's amusing to watch Grant essentially audition for the part of Walter Burns in His Girl Friday (1940). But good as Grant is, the film's emotional core is instilled by Sam Jaffe, who, in his late forties, couldn't have been a more curious choice for an Indian waterboy (even if he had just played the part of High Llama in Capra's Lost Horizon ). Perhaps Stevens was on to something in the way he gradually sneaks Din into the picture; thus, giving the director time to so enthrall the audience with spectacle that they'd even buy a wheelchair-bound FDR in the title role. Whatever his methodology, the casting works, with Jaffe helping matters by avoiding offensive caricature in fleshing out the role of a young boy who yearns to fight alongside the British. This is where, thematically, the story should get sticky, if not downright insulting. But Stevens and his writers have driven out the overt Anglophila and focused the narrative instead on a broader notion of sacrificing for one's friends. Finally, it's not about aspiring to be white or British, but to simply be brave. It may be that "stupid" variant of courage that drags them into their predicament, but, in the film's most unforgettable scene, it's Din's exhibition of the quality in its purest, most selfless state that drives the film to its deeply resonant climax. By the time the poem's final line, "You're a braver man than I am, Gunga Din," is delivered in tribute, the film has transcended the poem's racist origins and fully earned the audience's tears.
Warner Home Video presents Gunga Din in a brilliant full-screen transfer (1.33:1) with muscular Dolby Digital monaural audio. The film's most ardent fans may quibble that the studio did not deem it worthy of the two-disc treatment lavished on many of their other classics, but what's here is top shelf. The featurette "On Location with Gunga Din" (11 min.) is a breezy primer on the picture's rancorous production, the travails of which are elucidated by film historian Rudy Behlmer on a solid feature-length commentary. Also on board is a terrific Looney Tunes short, "The Film Fan," featuring Porky Pig as a dallying youth lured away from his chores by the call of the cinema. Trailers for the initial 1939 theatrical release and later re-release are also included. Keep-case.