GUNGA DIN (George Stevens, 1939)

Howard Hawks’s punishment by RKO for the financial failure of Bringing Up Baby (1938) starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, which today is cherished as one of the funniest comedies ever, is that the studio snatched away from Hawks the project he coveted that had been promised him: Gunga Din. Although this rousing adventure film proved a colossal hit (and the inspiration for Steven Speilberg’s Indiana Jones films, with one of these, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984, a virtual remake), George Stevens’s punishment would be its eventual misinterpretation by some as a pro-colonialist, pro-imperialist, racist, outdatedly jingoistic entertainment. Stevens has never been one of my favorite filmmakers, but such a “reading” of his politics amounts to stupidity and slander. (Four years earlier Stevens had made Alice Adams, and the progressive The Talk of the Town, 1942, and Giant, 1956, were in his future.) While Stevens is busy parodying Rudyard Kipling and his 1892 poem (the restored bit of Kipling’s appearance as a character in the film is unmercifully derisive and absurdist), those not quite up to speed find Stevens suiting the intent of his film to that of the poem, perhaps because Stevens fails to marshal more than the smallest amount of Brechtian distancing. John Ford George Stevens is not.
     Where does one begin to refute such vast, shapeless stupidity? The three adventurous sergeants in the colonialist British army in India—Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant, terrifically funny), “Mac” MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.)—sidestep their appointed mission in order to mount their attempt to steal the Indian gold that the Thuggee cult endeavors to protect. All the killing they do as a result, at the very least, mirror-images what the Thuggee do; but consider whose treasure it is, whose efforts in relation to the gold are the more offensive. Some note, bewildered, that the sergeants aren’t particularly punished for their actions. Well, but this is a bit of pointed distancing, isn’t it? None of the British soldiers belong there, that is, in India, and the greed for gold of the three protagonists underscores the point, providing a microcosm of the ravenous British incursion that it, ironically, magnifies and identifies. The flippant attitude of our three “heroes” sharply contrasts with the pure sincerity of the fanatical leader of the Thuggee, Khan (Eduardo Ciannelli, brilliant), at once a monstrous criminal and, in context, perhaps the most admirable figure in the film.
     Khan’s dark skin provides an ironical link to the sentimentalized “regimental beastie,” Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), and both their deaths assume a grandly self-sacrificial form. However, while Khan to the end opposes the imperialist army that has enslaved India, Gunga Din’s dream is to serve the British army to the utmost. Well, isn’t this awful! Well, yes, but that’s the point! By his identification with India’s captors and colonizers, Gunga Din exemplifies a variant of the “Stockholm syndrome.” And no wonder, for, as an “untouchable” within India’s caste system, perhaps he feels he has nothing to lose, no place else to go. All this is pathetic, and it turns bathetic when Colonel Weed—note the name, which refers to plants that wildly grow where they do not belong—canonizes Gunga Din upon his death in servile service to the British. Weed isn’t speaking for Stevens; on the contrary, Stevens is pointing ironically to the unctuousness and hypocrisy of Weed’s position. Some don’t know what to make of the fact that the character Gunga Din hardly participates at all in the action of the film. Well, again, that’s the point. This absence of his correlates to his invisibility to the British until he can be safely appropriated for the uses of their self-flattering military propaganda and rationalization of imperialism. Stevens is targeting the historical mindset that some, incredibly, see Stevens as promoting.
     Annie the Elephant is an extension of this. Some note to the film’s detriment that the Indian animal and Gunga Din are continually juxtaposed, that each is associated with the other. How can the film do such a thing! Well, the film doesn’t; rather, its identification of “beastie” with beast again exposes—exposes—the contumelious, condescending, dehumanizing tendency that supports the colonialist outlook and spirit. Perhaps Stevens could have been clearer; but not much clearer!
     Indeed, there is another bit of juxtaposition that conveys the progressive nature of Stevens’s film. Exquisitely played by Joan Fontaine with a piercing touch of fierce pride (Stevens’s and Fontaine’s splendid fourth film together, Something to Live for, 1952, contains one of her most beautiful performances), Emmy Stebbins is the fiancée of one of the three sergeants; the other two sabotage their relationship. Like Gunga Din, Emmy is marginalized—but, in her case, to the extent that she vanishes altogether from the film. Form expresses content; Stevens thus relates misogynism and gender inequality to the colonial mindset: racial and ethnic inequality.
     Finally, the charge has been leveled against this film that it trivializes the deaths of civilians and soldiers that violent confrontations cause. Here again certain individuals may be missing the irony, and with it the point, by looking through the wrong end of their critical telescope.
     There’s no question that Stevens has fashioned a commercial entertainment, and it may well be that he tried to do too much and, as a consequence, the film’s manifold ironies may have been lost to the sweep of a thrilling adventure headed by three more or less likeable blokes. But not to my eyes.

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