Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Gunga Din


William Goldman, the great screenwriter, names this as his favorite film of all time. The title of his first novel, The Temple of Gold, came from this movie. There are others who say this is the best adventure movie ever made. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s probably in my Top Twenty, if I ever made such a list. It was a huge production, the most expensive film RKO Radio had made up to that time. Quite large sets were constructed in the Sierras of California, subbing for the mountains of India. And it was certainly a “cast of thousands.” Many of them were on horseback, and there were at least four elephants. Feeding, costuming, rehearsing, and sheltering so many people in a remote Sierra valley must have been quite expensive, not to mention that those horse riders could not have been your run-of-the-mill extras. They needed considerable skill to pull off the precision drills we see here.

It seems that they wanted Cary Grant to play the romantic lead. I mean, who wouldn’t? But he was tired of that, and wanted to play the rascal, Sgt. Cutter. Not the sharpest bayonet in the regiment, was Cutter. He kept getting into trouble, but was always jaunty in the face of danger. The romantic lead went to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Rounding out the three Sergeants was Victor McLaglan, as reliable an actor as ever worked in Hollywood. He could only play one character, but he was terrific at it. This being 1939, the character of Din (pronounced “Deen”) was played by a white man, Sam Jaffe, in brown make-up.

This movie is so much better than any movie made from a fairly short poem has any right to be. You can see the idea of “white man’s burden” that Kipling espoused, and in almost any other story I would have been rooting for the locals to sock it to the imperialist British. But in this case, fighting against the Kali-worshipping, robbing and strangling cult of thuggee (pronounced “tug-ee”) that had plagued India for hundreds of years, I have to go with the limeys. Estimates vary wildly, from two million to only 50,000 or so, but they murdered many, many people. They were a scourge, and I’m glad they were wiped out.

The story was re-made as a comedy in 1962 with the Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop. I don’t think I’m too eager to see it.