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Gunga Din (1939)

gunga_dinI can definitely see why people like this movie, and why it has endured as one of the great classic adventure tales and I can also definitely see why some people find it annoying. It really depends on how much you like adventure and the chemistry of the leads and how much you can overlook the blatant romanticization of British Colonialism in India.

The movie was inspired by the poem by Rudyard Kipling, also called “Gunga Din,” which recounts a soldier’s memories of a water carrier, Gunga Din, who is abused by all the army, but who faithfully brings them water, no matter the danger to himself. In the end, he dies saving the life of the solider who utters the line “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”

However, the movie is really less about Gunga Din and more about what we now call a bromance between the three main characters: Sergeant MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Sergeant Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr,) and Sergeant Cutter (Cary Grant). They are like the Three Musketeers, only in India, with the same high-spirits, mischief and utter loyalty to each other. They bicker and fight and always have each other’s backs.

MacChesney is the senior soldier and loves his elephant, Annie, and nurses her like he would a baby; Cutter is the class clown who has a thing for treasure, maps, and gold and seems to be an Indiana Jones in the making (without wishing to put any of the treasure in a museum); and Ballantine is dashing and in love, which threatens the entire bromance. He is in love with Emaline Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and as soon as his enlistment is up, he is going to get married and run a tea shop, much to the disgust of Cutter and MacChesney, who want him to enlist for another nine years.

Ballantine is helping Emmy to pick out curtains by wearing them while Cutter and MacChesney look on

Ballantine is helping Emmy to pick out curtains by wearing them while Cutter and MacChesney look on

Meanwhile, the Thuggee cult, which worships Kali and seems to believe rather generally in killing for killing’s sake, are on the move and are threatening to sweep through all of India. The three men are sent out, with Ballantine only having a few days left on his enlistment, to meet the Thuggee. Coming along with them is Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), who carries water and dreams of being a soldier. He also knows where there is a temple filled with gold, which very much interests Cutter. However, when he takes Cutter there, they find the Thuggee, and MacChesney, Ballantine and Gunga Din have to go rescue him.

The cast is almost all uniformly excellent. Eduardo Ciannelli makes a suitably creepy, if massively politically incorrect, guru who leads the Thugs and comes across as rather educated, despite his death cult. The British commanding officer is played by Montagu Love, who, whenever he opens his mouth, reminds me of his other role as the Bishop of the Black Cannon in The Adventures of Robin. Joan Fontaine also does well in a tiny role as the female obstacle to all that joshing brotherly love. After all, women and a tea shop! Soft!

GungaDinJaffeThe one bit of casting I do not agree with is Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din. I am not really sure how old Gunga Din is supposed to be in the poem, but in the movie he is middle aged and plays him as such a simple guy that he comes across as mentally challenged, especially in the way he reacts in gratitude to the other men’s condescending attitude towards him and it feels very awkward. Perhaps it would have worked better if he had actually been a child instead of a grown man.

As I said, this movie is really just an adventurous romp and there is zero character development. The movie seems like three-fifths action sequences. It actually brings irresistibly to mind the Indiana Jones movies, especially the second one. There are elephants, a rickety rope bridge, treasure, a gold temple, snakes, native peoples chasing the heroes. It also has the kind of light-hearted adventure characteristic of Indiana Jones.

The movie was filmed on location in the Sierra Mountains, which stand in for the Khyber Pass, and really looks good. It took much longer to shoot than was originally intended, however, and they went so far over budget that even though the movie was a hit, it still lost money.

MacChesney and Cutter

MacChesney and Cutter

The role of Cutter was originally going to be played by Fairbanks, Jr. and Grant was going to play Ballantine, but Grant wanted to play the comic and so they switched roles. Cary Grant also has what is supposed to be a Cockney accent, though most people comment that it sounds half-hearted. However, since Cary Grant (when he was still Archibald Leach) really did have a Cockney accent from working in music halls before he brushed his accent up along with his image as the most suave man ever living, I would think he would know how to speak with a genuine accent. Perhaps he lost the knack, or perhaps I’m just used to a broader movie accent than most people actually have.

The big issue that most people have with the movie is the celebration of colonialism and how Gunga Din, in saving the British army, is essentially a traitor to his own people. I can definitely see their point. The condescending attitude the British adopt is pretty hard to take and if the rather juvenile MacChesney, Ballantine and Cutter are anything to go by, it’s hard not to sympathize a little with the impulse of the Thuggee to kill them. Also, pretty much every Indian role is played by people in body paint, which was standard practice during those years. However, I feel that this movie is really not essentially about Colonialism; it is more an excuse for adventure, male bonding, courage, and lots of fighting.

Gunga Din 1939The movie was directed by George Stevens, who was known for his comedies before he joined the army and saw, first hand, the affects of the Holocaust. He made movies like Woman of the Year, with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Swing Time, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. However, after the war he was so affected by what he had seen that he never made another comedy or light-hearted film and instead made movies like Giant, Place in the Sun and Shane.

Gunga Din ultimately is a very well-done movie, despite my complaints. It’s just not quite my cup of tea.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Comedy, Historical Drama

 

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Propaganda in American Films During WWII: and a brief review of Five Came Back (2014) by Mark Harris

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver

I’ve always been fascinated by the presence of propaganda in Hollywood movies made during WWII. It fascinates me because the propaganda is supposed to be for a good cause (to defeat the Nazis – what could be better than that?), but it always faintly annoys me when I encounter it in movies. Is this because it doesn’t fit in the story? I’ll be watching a movie and then suddenly, from way out in left field, somebody will start preaching and I’ll nod my head and say, “Yes, this is so a WWII movie.” Is it because the propaganda is so heavy-handed, obvious, and poorly incorporated into the film? Is it because I do not connect with the message they are preaching because I didn’t live through the war? Or is it because propaganda is, in and of itself, a bad thing?

I haven’t decided. I do like the movie Mrs. Miniver (1942) and that movie was purposed expressly by director William Wyler to be a propaganda piece, all about the brave British resisting and standing firm, who are made stronger when attacked. Even Hitler’s Propaganda Minster, Goebbels, thought it was an excellent example of propaganda. Wyler himself seems to have been mildly embarrassed by it (partially because he later went to Britain and was embarrassed by certain inaccuracies in his portrayal of the British). It seems to have been a movie that resonated with the movie going public, however. Is propaganda necessary? Was it necessary to win the war, to keep the American people engaged throughout the war?

I suppose what complicates the propaganda issue is the clumsiness of it. Because, of course, America not just fighting the Nazis. They were fighting the Japanese. Caricatures of the enemy, especially the Japanese, could be quite crude, if not outright racist. Appeals to patriotism, although estimable, provide an often rosy and inaccurate view of warfare.

And then there’s the obvious question of aren’t all movies just a form of propaganda anyway? George Steven, I read in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, came to believe that was the case. If that is the case, is it merely a question of how obtrusive the propaganda is? Is it only obvious propaganda that is bad, or propaganda that we happen to disagree with? According to The American Heritage Dictionary propaganda is “the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause.”

In that sense, I think I disagree with Stevens. I do agree that there is no such thing as a movie free of bias, opinion, belief, doctrine, but I think a useful way of looking at it would be a movie that is about the characters (or even just about the story) as opposed to a movie that is about a doctrine or belief with characters to support it…or perhaps I’m simply falling into the trap of saying that if the propaganda is well done, you won’t notice because the characters make sense and therefore it’s okay.

Frank Capra

Frank Capra

I’ve always liked to think about this topic, but what made it slightly more urgent to consider was reading Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. It is about the way that Hollywood responded to the war, but mostly about five directors who put on hold their careers so they could enlist in the military. John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens all enlisted, though their jobs turned out to be a little different than what they had anticipated. It turned out that the military was also interested in propaganda. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it was meant to align with military goals (such as not blaming Emperor Hirohito too much for the war because they thought they might need to keep him as emperor after the war and they didn’t want Americans to hate him). The military didn’t want to show too much death and loss to the American public, or to dwell on military reversals. Compromises were repeatedly made and all of the directors found themselves staging reenactments of battles to present to the public as fact.

The war changed them all, though perhaps Frank Capra less so. He remained in Washington D.C. and put together his famous Why We Fight series. However, John Ford was at the Battle of Midway and at Normandy. John Huston made a documentary at the Aleutians and was in Italy some. William Wyler flew on bombing missions to get film and lost his hearing as a result. But no one was more affected than George Stevens. He was known for his delightful comedies, such as Woman of the Year, but when he returned he never made another comedy. He was at Normandy, as well, and he was there to film the liberation of Paris. But he was also there when America liberated Dachau and he was the one to put together the films that were shown during the Nuremberg trials as evidence of the atrocities committed against the Jews and also to show that the atrocities were part of long-established policies.

When he returned, he never talked much about what he saw and he could never go back and watch any of the footage that he had taken.

Although the book is mostly about the five directors, Harris does also deal a bit with the movie studio’s reaction to the coming war and to the war itself. Before WWII, Hollywood studio heads tended to avoid any reference to the European situation. This was partially because they sold a lot of movies overseas and they didn’t want to alienate any of their foreign markets (such as Nazi Germany) and also because many of the studio heads were Jewish and were leery of being accused of not being sufficiently American and dragging America into foreign affairs and only being interested in Jewish concerns – accusations that they had heard before.

Harris implies that the studios, actors and directors were essentially burying their heads in the sand because their movies did not reflect the very real international concerns, specifically regarding Nazism and their treatment of the Jews. There was virtually no mention of Nazism in any of the films until the war began. This, I thought, was an interesting question. Does the movie industry have a duty to address social issues or international issues or only certain issues that are particularly pressing and how do we judge which issues are particularly pressing? Should the movie industry have also addressed the Ukrainian Famine in 1932-1933 when millions of Ukrainians died during a famine that was caused deliberately by Stalin’s regime? Should they have addressed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931? Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936?

Of course, what most movies during WWII were doing was not highlighting world realities but attempting to rally Americans to the cause and pep them up with patriotism. They rarely ever saw any of the disturbing images that were taken by Steven’s team during the landing at Normandy or afterwards at Dachau. John Huston’s documentary about veterans returning from the war who were suffering from psychological trauma was also suppressed by the military.

Of course, it is also true that documentaries containing reality can be structured for propaganda purposes. Even George Stevens’ footage of the liberation of Dachau could be used for propaganda, thought it is not itself propaganda. It is reality; harsh, horrifying, inescapable reality.

 
 

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