Gunga Din is a rousing adventure yarn that details the exploits of three soldiers in the British Army.
Set in India, it stars Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Victor McLaglen. Magnificently directed by George Stevens it’s regarded as a classic.
It is also one of the most unapologetically racist films that I’ve ever seen and given Hollywood’s catalogue during the Golden Age that’s saying something.
By no means did the British invent colonialism. At that time in world history it just happened to be their turn. But like every other group before them the basic elements remained the same: Kill, oppress, enslave, steal and exploit.
Naturally they told themselves how much of a favor they were doing for these backwards inferior people because colonialism doesn’t work so well if the invading country doesn’t have the propaganda and self-delusion to go with it.
But something else was needed to make colonialism work. The cooperation of indigenous people. Not all not even a majority yet just enough to make the point that resistance is futile.
Call them collaborators who were mentally broken and accepted their defeat or people who were willing to side with the invaders because they had some tribal scores to settle and the only way to do so was to use the conqueror’s firepower.
Some had the foolhardy notion they could do the latter then drive the interlopers back across the sea or wherever they came from. It rarely if ever worked out that way. Once colonialism took hold the only thing that seemed to be able to break it’s grip was time and lots of it. Nowhere was this more evident than the British in India. Arriving there to do some trading it would take close to 200 years to drive them out.
Ripe For The Taking
The East India Company was created to compete in the lucrative trading business which flourished in the Southern regions of Asia. It didn’t take them long to realize they were sitting on a goldmine.
The East India Company’s trade was built on a sophisticated Indian economy. India offered foreign traders the skills of its artisans in weaving cloth and winding raw silk, agricultural products for export, such as sugar, the indigo dye or opium, and the services of substantial merchants and rich bankers.
At first the British along with the other European powers were content to limit their activities to just trading. And then the floodgates opened:
“The period of the Great Mughals, which began in 1526 with Babur’s accession to the throne, ended with the death of in 1707. Aurangzeb’s death marked the end of an era in Indian history. When Aurangzeb died, the empire of the Mughals was the largest in India. Yet, within about fifty years of his death, the Mughal Empire disintegrated.”
It had always been a balancing act to keep the various factions in India pacified. The Mughals did it quite well for a long time while making some extraordinary contributions to civilization.
That is until Aurangzeb took the throne. While he expanded the territory controlled by the Mughals, he completely abandoned anything that hinted at coexistence.
From the standpoint of Aurangzeb’s Hindu subjects, the real impact of his policies may have started to have been felt in 1668-69. Hindu religious fairs were outlawed in 1668, and an edict of the following year prohibited construction of Hindu temples as well as the repair of old ones.
Hindus, Sihks and anyone who wasn’t a Muslim felt his wrath. Aurangzeb compounded matters by taxing his subjects heavily in order to pay for his territorial expansion. This led to many revolts across India. Aurangzeb systematically built the powder keg then let the fuse.
Protecting What’s Theirs
With the collapse of Mughal rule the East India Company found itself in the crosshairs as they sought to fight off the various indigenous groups as well as their European rivals that either wanted to take control or run them out of India altogether. EIC made the decison to build their own private armies for security.
Then came the Black Hole:
In 1756, the Nawab of Bengal captured Fort William and imprisoned about 60 British soldiers overnight in an airless cell. About 40 soldiers subsequently suffocated and died. The incident, known as “The Black Hole of Calcutta,” confirmed British opinion that Indians were ruthless barbarians who needed to be taught civilized ways.
And teach them they did. The “ruthless barbarians” got a heavy dose of what “European barbarians” were capable of. From this point on India would belong to the British.
The Story Line
Hollywood or in this case RKO Studios needed some valid reason to gloss over as to why British soldiers were frolicking in a country not their own. The casual racism was more than likely not an issue but they couldn’t get too deep into colonialism.
Enter the Thugees.
They were called the world’s first mafia. The Thugees for several centuries blazed a deadly path across India
Although the thuggees may seem to be merely exotic villains in movies and novels, their actual historical significance remains a matter of controversy amongst historians. For decades from the early 19th century they were regarded as a bloodthirsty cult of stranglers and robbers whose victims were mainly travellers on Indian roads.
It was the British soldier and Administrator William Sleeman who supposedly ended their reign of terror.
In 1835, he captured “Feringhea” (also called Syeed Amir Ali, on whom the novel Confessions of a Thug is based) and got him to turn King’s evidence. He took Sleeman to a grave with a hundred bodies, told the circumstances of the killings, and named the Thugs who had done it.
After initial investigations confirmed what Feringhea had said, Sleeman started an extensive campaign, being appointed General Superintendent of the operations for the Suppression of Thuggee and in February 1839, he assumed charge of the office of Commissioner for the Suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity. During these operations, more than 1400 Thugs were hanged or transported for life.
The Thugees in Gunga Din are portrayed as psychotic freedom fighters driving the British Army from India.
Not quite. By all accounts they preyed solely on their fellow Indians and left the British alone.
The freedom fighter label was a tag for any Indian wanting to kick the British out. Which made them the “bad ones”.
The good ones were personified by Gunga Din. Sam Jaffee’s performance as the title character is truly as bad as all that. He obviously at this time had never ever met someone from India. You could almost overlook his childlike awe of the British but it borders on something akin to retarded. It’s not only hard watching him on screen it’s downright painful.
The only conclusion I could arrive at is Din (Jaffe’s interpretation) was suffering from some serious and I mean in need of a mental health professional serious self-hatred. He aspired not to be the equal of these soldiers but only to be like them.
In a twisted way it’s almost understandable. Seeing people come to your home country and take total control to do what they want anytime they want is to witness power in its purest form. The effect can be intoxicating and Gunga Din had it bad for his occupiers.
British soldiers. Soldiers who had open contempt for the indigenous people and were doing everything in their power to oppress them because that’s what colonialism is.
The key here are the scenes with Thugee leader Guru played by Eduardo Ciannelli.
Ciannelli is another painted actor who doesn’t even bother with any sort of accent. And while his wild-eyed killing philosophy ensures audiences will root against him there are moments when he delivers some powerful lines that go straight to the heart of why they’re trying to get rid of the British.
The Thugees deserve what they get but the true Indian freedom fighters bundled along with them are the real heroes. An invader has come into their country to enslave them, steal their resources and if necessary or just for sheer sport send them to their deaths. What else could they do but fight back in order to drive Cary and company out?
No matter how much Stevens (and Kipling) try to flip the universe the reality is The British Army were the villains.
Indian life to them was cheap because in their eyes these people (if that) were totally inferior and deserved to be treated as such.
If they ever doubted that for a second all Grant (Cutter), McLaglen (MacChesney), and Fairbanks (Ballantine) had to do was take one look at their over eager water bearer. That act alone would have quieted any dissenting voices.
And this is the insanity of Gunga Din in full view. He’s willing to betray his own people to save the people who consider him something less than human. Racism on a frightening level and Din is so warped he laps up every bit of it and ask for more.
It’s remarkable and sickening at the same time yet not hard to figure when the poem Gunga Din was written by the ultimate British imperialism apologist Rudyard Kipling
Because Stevens was a great filmmaker some have deluded themselves into thinking you can separate this movie from what the British Empire was all about. This is sheer folly. Trying to separate Gunga Din from what it’s based on is like trying to separate Gone With The Wind from slavery and the Confederacy. Nice try but epic fail.
Gunga Din has some nice comedic touches and strong action sequences. The chemistry among the starring trio is good although Cary Grant gets utterly lazy sometimes with his accent that seems to keep fading in and out. Also at times he’s playing it too comical.
But it can’t disguise the obvious. With it’s focus on the oppressors and their brutal racism towards indigenous people this is a movie that is hard to stomach. It reaches for a nobility which doesn’t exist. Kipling himself tells us why.
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the living Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
Better in death. Inferior in life. There’s nothing noble about that.
Which one? After all this is Hollywood we’re talking about. This one
Anne Helen Petersen of Buzzfeed wrote an extraordinary article regarding the Loretta Young Clark Gable affair. Young got pregnant and had a daughter which Gable would never acknowledge.
Unfortunately there were something else that went unspoken for too long.
Young loved to watch Larry King Live, which is most likely what prompted her to first ask her friend, frequent houseguest, and would-be biographer, Edward Funk, and then her daughter-in-law, Linda Lewis, to explain the term “date rape.” As Lewis recalled from her Jensen Beach, Florida, home this April, sitting next to her husband, Chris — Young’s second born — and flanked by Young’s Oscar and Golden Globe, it took a tact to explain, in language that an 85-year-old could understand, what “date rape” meant. “I did the best I could to make her understand,” Lewis said. “You have to remember, this was a very proper lady.”
When Lewis was finished describing the act, Young’s response was a revelation: “That’s what happened between me and Clark.”
After my extensive interviews with Young’s son, daughter-in-law, and longtime biographer, it seems clear to me that by keeping the secret of her daughter’s conception, Young was doing what millions of women have done before and since: using what little power she had to take back control of her life after it had been wrested from her.
I understand not knowing what that term meant and Young’s legendary protection of her onscreen image. Proper lady? Depends on how you define it. Grace, class, style. Yes she had that in spades. But Young by this time in her life knew very much how the world worked. Three marriages and numerous affairs tend to ground you in reality about the human experience.
Still this is a must read.
“Every time she ‘sins,’ she builds a church. That’s why there are so many Catholic churches in Hollywood.”.-Marlene Dietrich
Starting as a child actress, she had a long and varied career in film from 1917 to 1953. She won the 1948 best actress Academy Award for her role in the 1947 film The Farmer’s Daughter, and received an Oscar nomination for her role in Come to the Stable, in 1949. Young moved to the relatively new medium of television, where she had a dramatic anthology series, The Loretta Young Show, from 1953 to 1961. The series earned three Emmy Awards, and reran successfully on daytime TV and later in syndication.
Wearing the correct dress for any occasion is a matter of good manners.
Loretta Young had a reputation of tightly controlling her image and being very guarded while giving interviews. That all changed in her relationship with Mr. Funk. In the first year of their collaboration, Mr. Funk taped over one hundred hours of interviews with Miss Young that netted twenty-five hundred pages of typed transcripts. She became even more candid during the following years.
The original intent was to write a biography of Miss Young. There was much to tell, including giving birth to a secret baby fathered by a married Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy being the love of her life, and an expected proposal from Tyrone Power that never came. Plus, so much more about her relationships with the most important people in her life.