Gunga Din: The Savagery Of Colonialism

gunga din
French poster advertising Gunga Din.

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.

The British were on quest for global domination and at this point in time no one could stop them

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 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 travelers on Indian roads.

The Thugees made traveling in India a dangerous proposition.

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 the middle of being retarded. Sam Jaffe in the title role and yes his performance is that offensive.
Sam Jaffe in the title role and yes his performance is that offensive.

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?

Eduardo Cianelli as the Thugee leader. Amidst the unaccented wild eyed fanaticism throwing some hard truths.
Eduardo Cianelli as the Thugee leader. Amidst the unaccented wild eyed fanaticism throwing some hard truths.

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

Cartoonist William Walker’s response to Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden.

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.



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