Gunga Din

 

 

I’m trying to move on from Kipling at the moment, actually, but having managed to retrieve my Gunga Din video from my daughter (a Cary Grant fan) I whiled away the afternoon watching it.The film was made in 1939, so is one of the bunch that came out in the years immediately following Kipling’s death. The ever-interesting IMDB tells us that there had been no Kipling films since well into the silent era – when there had been various versions of The Light that Failed, two of The Vampire and various other oddities. Does this mean that RK had placed an embargo on films of his wor? And that the estate reversed this after his death and allowed more or less anything, including the Shirley Temple version of Wee Willie Winkie?Anyway, the film made me feel once again what I’ve felt when reading wartime stories and poems that imitate Kipling – that the Kiplingesque is always very unlike Kipling. The story of this film is about a group of intrepid British soldiers going into the hills to defeat a vast army of fanatical worshippers of Kali. There is a self-important caption at the start of the film telling us that the depiction of Kali-worship is based on fact, and probably the writers got their inspiration from Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug, which was often accepted as a true story, though stretching the facts like anything. This book was published in 1839, long fifty years before the period when this film was set, and it’s very unlike anything Kipling wrote. Kipling always had a deep interest in Indian religions, and prided himself on getting them right; I think he’d have been pretty scornful of the treatment of religion in this film.Considered purely as an action movie, though, this film is unbeatable – one spectacular sequence after another and the sort of male banter that John Ford would use to similar effect in his post-war westerns. (This film has ten writers in addition to Kipling, who is responsible for a few quoted lines of Gunga Din and not much else. William Faulkner and Dudley Nichols are among the posse.)The three sergeants are played very well by Grant, McLaglen and Fairbanks Jr, who have a terrific rapport together. I suppose the trio were supposed to evoke memories of Kipling’s Soldiers Three, but there is none of the melancholy subtext that takes their stories beyond the level of mere anecdote. And the storytelling is Hollywood-direct, of course, with none of Kipling’s devious craft.The evil Kali-worshipping guru is played by Eduardo Ciannelli (an Italian) and Gunga Din is played by Sam Jaffe (Jewish, I think). The film’s budget must have included a vast amount of blackface make-up. A reporter with glasses and a big moustache turns up with the cavalry in the last reel, and writes the poem about Gunga Din in time for it to be recited at the bhisti’s funeral. This may not be entirely historically accurate.

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