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Warner Home Video presents
"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."
DVD ReviewPolitical correctness aside, it's hard to think of a better rip-roaring good time at the movies than Gunga Din. Admittedly that's a significant caveat, as this is a movie that very much believes in God, Queen and Empire; but you don't have to share that nostalgic fondness for the days when the sun never set on Her Majesty's territory to enjoy this movie, any more than you have to endorse or approve of slavery to have a fine old time watching another movie made in this same glorious year, 1939: Gone With The Wind. There's a time and place for revisionist history, but when you're watching Gunga Din isn't one of those times, for it's a movie designed to make you cheer, hiss, boo, laugh, all the things we love to do in the dark with a group of strangers.
Based very loosely on verse by Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din may also have the distinction of being the best movie ever based on a poem. (Somehow, I don't see a screen version of The Waste Land packing them in at the multiplex.) It's a movie big enough for not one, not two, but three heroes, swashbuckling figures in Her Majesty's service in India. Cutter is the cut-up of the group; Ballantine keeps talking about leaving the boys behind and getting married; MacChesney is the cranky one. They and we are on a grand adventure: a murderous sect of Indians are on a rampage, and they want to inflict as much damage and mayhem as possible on the occupying armies of Britain. Watching this in our post-colonial time, it's hard not to wince a little at the portrayal of the Indians, who are shown principally as craven and crazed (though the title character is the notable exception—see below); also, in our new century, it's difficult too to avoid drawing parallels to the ongoing violence against American troops in Iraq, who are just as much an occupying army as were the Britons in India. But goodness knows, this is no precursor to The Battle of Algiers; it's really just a thrilling sort of ride.
In large measure that's due to the charisma and magnetism of the very winning cast. Perhaps first among equals is Cary Grant, as Cutter, in one of his first opportunities to display his comic chops on screen; it's a different sort of movie, obviously, but there are obvious affinities to Grant's seemingly throwaway work here and his similar nuanced comic performances in movies like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. Victor McLaglen as MacChesney was never more charming; he was never a great comedian, I don't think, and his best work often came in more earnest, downbeat roles in John Ford pictures like The Informer and The Quiet Man, but he's got a marvelous, garrulous quality here that makes him very good company. (His sentimental weakness for Annie the elephant, for instance, might seem sugary if handled by a different actor; instead, here it's genuinely charming.) And perhaps best of all is Douglas Fairbanks Jr., as Ballantine; he's got the right bloodlines, and he can buckle a swash with the best of them, his famous father included. In a far more thankless role is Joan Fontaine; she plays Ballantine's intended, and serves as little more than a plot device to keep him oh so briefly from his comrades. (Fontaine would come into her own shortly thereafter, and only two years later would team up again with Grant, in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion.)
And of course a word or two must be said about Sam Jaffe, who plays the title character, an Indian water carrier who wants to cover himself with glory in the military. It's wrong in all kinds of ways: Jaffe wasn't Indian; he was probably too old for the part by decades; and his character embodies all the worst attributes of colonialism, the slave who lives to serve, and does so with a smile, a sort of Indian Uncle Tom. (Consider, for instance, the last lines of Kipling's poem, with its thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another sense: "Though I've belted you and flayed you / By the living God that made you / You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." Bully.) Despite all that, Jaffe is very, very good, perhaps because there's nothing winking in his earnestness.
The movie is loaded up with just enough story to allow the boys to pull plenty of hijinks (spiking the punch, for instance), while leading us to the inevitable and glorious climactic battle scene. George Stevens' movie in many respects is the Rosetta stone of action adventure pictures, and all those that followed owe it a debt. But that's not to say that this is a musty old museum piece; in fact, all these years later, it remains a marvelously good yarn.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The image quality is frequently fuzzy, and the print is full of scratches. For a film that's regarded so highly, and given the quality of other recent classic Warner releases, this one looks far too slapdash.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: Some scattershot dynamics on the mono track; it's not atypical of its time, but it doesn't sound especially good or clear, either.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Rudy Behlmer
Extras Review: The always reliable Rudy Behlmer provides another thorough commentary track; he's a true pro at this, both erudite and enthusiastic. He provides biographical sketches not just for the stars and Stevens, but for these behind the camera, too, including composer Alfred Newman and cinematographer Joseph August. He also gives a fascinating production history—Howard Hawks was set to direct at one point, and among those considered for the leading roles were Ronald Colman, Robert Donat, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Especially interesting are his observations on Hawks' work with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, two of the credited screenwriters; Ballantine's storyline bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of their play The Front Page. Behlmer also discusses the severe edits made to the film for its 1954 re-release; close to thirty minutes were cut, but happily, they're all restored here.
You'll also find trailers for both the original and the re-release; and On Location with Gunga Din (11m:15s), featuring interviews with producer Pandro Berman; screenwriter and Din devotee William Goldman; Fairbanks, still dashing in his advanced years; and the director's son, George Stevens Jr. Perhaps most interesting of all are brief silent clips, in color, from the set, with the actors in costume, and California passing as the Khyber Pass. You'll also find a Looney Tunes short (06m:50s), with Porky Pig getting himself a big bag of popcorn and hunkering down for a good time at the movies as he stars as The Film Fan.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsEspecially given the stellar quality of some other recent Warner catalog releases, the technical values on this DVD are a modest disappointment. But that aside, Gunga Din remains a paragon of an action picture, with great big movie stars cutting wide swaths through the celluloid jungle.
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