The year 1939 was undoubtedly a big year in movie history. Movies such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka, premiered in 1939 and continue to be talked about nearly eight decades later. But there’s another movie that came out that year. A timeless swashbuckler that takes you on an journey you’ll never forget and one that has also stood the test of time. Of course, I am referring to the swashbuckling adventure of Gunga Din.
The movie’s overpowering themes of friendship and adventure are what have allowed Gunga Din to stand the test of time despite any of its outmoded racism. The movie is a good old-fashioned adventure in the best sense of the word. There’s good guys and bad guys, a treasure map that leads to gold, and even a little romance. And what would a swashbuckler be without its sword fights, gun battles, and impressive stunts? Gunga Din has it all.
Gunga Din is loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling’s story Soldiers Three and his poem Gunga Din. It is the story of three British soldiers (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Cary Grant, and Victor McLaglen) who must fight to save civilization from the dangerous Thuggee cult who are known to terrorize and murder those who are not like them. The three soldiers also learn there is a temple of gold in the possession of the cult and decide they must have it. They use this adventure as a last ditch effort to keep Ballantine from leaving the service for a girl (Joan Fontaine). With the help of Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), a native who wishes only to do good by helping the British, the three soldiers take on the Thuggee cult and attempt to capture the temple of gold.
Initially, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was set to play Cary Grant’s character, Sgt. Cutter, and Grant was set to play Fairbanks’ character, Sgt. Ballantine. From here we get two conflicting stories about how these two roles came to be. According to an interview on On Location with Gunga Din, when Grant was approached to play Ballantine he exclaimed that Ballantine was a dull, flat character and insisted he and Fairbanks switch roles. Fairbanks tells the story a little differently in his autobiography The Salad Days. He remembers Cary Grant reached out to him about starring in the movie together and that they tossed a coin to decide who would play Cutter and who would play Ballantine. Either way, Grant ended up playing Cutter with Fairbanks as Ballantine and Victor McLaglen was cast in the third role as MacChesny. The roles worked out beautifully.
By 1939, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., had only dabbled in swashbuckling, something he thought he would never do earlier in his career, but his skills as a swordsmen are apparent here. He had taken fencing lessons for years and did not require stunt doubles for sword fighting scenes, which may explain why Fairbanks has an extended sword fighting scene during one of the fight scenes. At this point in his career, he was still fighting comparisons to his father. He did not wish to be made into a “type” or to become a personality like Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. had been. He wanted to be a versatile actor who could play in all types of roles and genres without being put in a box. Fairbanks, Jr., later wrote, “I cringed whenever anyone compared my quite routine stunts in the picture with my father’s improbable athletic fantasies.”1
Even though Fairbanks had swashed his way through Prisoner of Zenda just two years prior to 1939, he was still hesitant to take on another swashbuckling role. When Cary Grant approached him about the role, Fairbanks was skeptical because the role Grant offered was better than his own. He was also nervous about having to pull off a cockney accent with his British co-stars. He was sure that British audiences would scoff at his attempt (and they apparently did). He decided to wait until there was a rough draft of the script before committing to the role. When he finally did read it, he knew how great of a movie it could be. He wrote, “I could see at once what a boisterous, exciting, and funny picture it could be.”2 And indeed it is.
The overwhelming theme of this film is the importance of friendship. The three soldiers, Sgt. Cutter, Sgt. Ballantine, and Sgt. McChesny, are fiercely loyal to one another and always have each other’s backs no matter the cost. Even Ballantine’s romance isn’t enough to pull him away from his friends. When Emmy, Ballantine’s girlfriend, gives him an ultimatum to leave the service or leave her, Ballantine declares, “The trouble is you don’t want a man for a husband! You want a coward who will run out on his friends! Well, thats not me, never was, and never will be. I don’t care how much I love you! And I do very much. I’m a soldi… I mean I’m a man first!” In this story, friendship is clearly prioritized over romance.
Friendship and loyalty are also on display when Cutter seeks out the temple of gold on his own with the help of Gunga Din. It is Ballantine and MacChesny that come to his rescue and who put their own lives on the line to save their friend. But it isn’t only Ballantine and MacChesny who put their lives on the line. Gunga Din also makes sacrifices for the three soldiers, making his friendship just as invaluable to them. In the beginning, the soldiers tend to brush him aside despite his efforts to always lend a helping hand. But Gunga Din is determined to become a good British soldier and prove his worth. He watches the military drills carefully and emulates the soldiers, even catching the eye of Sgt. Cutter. Gunga Din becomes a trusted ally of Cutter’s and the two set off for the temple of gold alone. When Cutter finds himself in a tight spot, Gunga Din warns the others and they come to Cutter’s rescue. In the end, because of his steadfast loyalty to the three soldiers and to the British army, Gunga Din pays the ultimate sacrifice.
The movie’s only major flaw comes with its depiction of the natives as “barbarians.” Even the people who are on the side of the British army are regarded as being beneath the British soldiers. However, it does redeems itself in some ways with the character of Gunga Din (besides the fact that he’s played by a white man in brown face). Gunga Din is heroic and without his character the British soldiers would likely be toast. It is also redeeming that Gunga Din is ultimately honored by the British and named a corporal for his bravery and heroism. The ending revolves around his character and the impact he had on the three soldiers. Unfortunately this does not make up for its flaws entirely.
While the movie ultimately falls prey to stereotypes and clichés about “uncivilized” people, which makes it feel outdated at times, it remains an exciting and timeless adventure. Any list of swashbuckling movies would be incomplete without it. It’s themes of friendship and adventure are what keep you coming back for more. It’s Hollywood adventure at its best and never disappoints!
***This piece was written for the Swashathon blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, click below to read all the wonderful posts!
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Salad Days (Doubleday: New York City), 288.
- Ibid, 285.