"You may talk o' gin and beerWhen Rudyard Kipling published those words in 1892, the British Empire was in the midst of its greatest glory. This oughtn't come as a new fact to anyone.
When you're quartered safe out 'ere,
An' you're sent to penny-fights an' Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.
Now in Injia's sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin' of 'Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din."
I'd much rather not get into the whole "Kipling: indefensibly colonialist/racist or not?" conversation. My sole intent is to remind us all of the author's position as one of the chief chroniclers of the face of Imperial Britain, particularly as it functioned in India, the country of Kipling's birth. In the 1890s, and into the beginning years of the First World War, the empire was a foregone, immutable Thing - not a good thing, not a bad thing, just a fact that defined daily life for hundreds of millions of people, with no apparent end in sight.
Flash forward to 1939. Kipling's "Gunga Din" was not the first nor last poem adapted into a movie, but adapted it was. A project initiated by the grand adventure director Howard Hawks, who was unceremoniously removed in retaliation for the box office disaster that was Bringing Up Baby, the feature Gunga Din ultimately found itself in the capable hands of George Stevens, a director of known rapport with actors and a solid eye for cinema (by this point, he'd already made Swing Time, arguably the finest of all Astaire & Rogers pictures), and while he had never made an action-adventure, he proved quite handy with the form, turning out a finished product that, while probably not as great as whatever Hawks might have done (for the record, he went from Gunga Din to the masterly Only Angels Have Wings), there's still little arguing that it's not one of the better adventure movies from the 1930s.
Doubtlessly, there were many differences between 1892 and 1939 - more, I'd wager, than between 1939 and 2009 - but one in particular matters for us right now. In 1892, the British Empire was the unquestioned dominant force in the world, the mightiest superpower than humankind had known for centuries, if not forever. It was a time of stability, relative peace, and Western supremacy over all other cultures. In 1939, the West was collapsing for the second time in 25 years; Britain herself had never truly recovered from the ravages of the Great War, and the empire was clearly starting to disintegrate. As for Great Britain's vaunted military power, that country had been reduced to hoping like hell that the Hitler would just stay put, and that the Americans would react a little bit faster this time if he didn't.
You've likely figured out where I'm taking this, so I won't stretch it out: in 1939, with the world still wheezing from an incomprehensibly terrible depression and most of the industrial nations starting to openly talk about the possibility of a new war, the film version of Gunga Din was, I think, a deliberate throwback, a perhaps dangerously naïve but entirely well-meant attempt to find some measure of comfort in a romanticised past. And romantic it certainly is, something that Kipling's writing greatly lacks, for all his purported imperialist views. The film's blithe corruption of history, its gung-ho racism and its "boy's own adventure" approach to the British Army are all very present, very problematic, and I think completely explained by assuming that the film was a piece of flat-out, unrepentant nostalgia for people who could recall the Good Aul' Days when Britannia ruled the waves.
The film doesn't follow the poem's fairly vague plot except in minor touches. Nor does it center around the water-bearer Gunga Din (the young Indian man is played by 47-year-old Jewish actor Sam Jaffe in brownface), but around three British soldiers stationed in the Indian countryside: Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). The last of these men is readying to leave the army, return to England, and open up a tea shop with his fiancée Emmy (Joan Fontaine), something that his comrades - and, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the film itself - view as a patently foolish idea. Nearly the whole first half of the movie centers around the increasing tension between the men over this very issue, with Cutter and MacChesney concocting various schemes to trick Ballantine into staying.
Then comes the second half, in which Cutter and Din, seeking gold, stumble across a remote temple where the long-dead Thuggee cult has been reborn, worshipping the death goddess Kali and preparing to sweep across India and kill all Britons. From here on out, Gunga Din tightens its focus and ramps up its intensity, following our four heroes as they attempt to fight off hundreds of murderous Thuggees all by themselves.
At the end of the opening credits, the producers happily proclaim that their film depicts with perfect accuracy the details of Kali worship. Which isn't the most indefensible statement to make, in the same way that one could argue that Left Behind depicts with perfect accuracy the details of Christianity. That is, every religion has its marginalised crazies. And at any rate, the film makes all the usual mistakes about the Thuggee, who were probably not a religious cult in any real way, and whose mythic nastiness is almost certainly the result of alarmed Englishmen with overheated imaginations.
Such brazen claims are part and parcel of the whole Hollywood beast, of course, so why bother bringing it up? Simply because I think it matters, in this particular case, that the film insists so urgently on creating a false idea of history, and a false idea of Indians themselves (during the time when India's independence movement was really picking up steam). It needs, urgently and completely, to validate the colonial experience of the late 19th Century, not for any nefarious reason but because to a certain slice of humanity, colonialism worked - it was in a very real way the last time that the West had been mostly happy. So if RKO had to make shit up, that's fine. The result was a rosy portrait of a time when everything made sense: hence its archetypal treatment of the quintessentially British leads (Cary Grant in particular never seemed more English than he does in this film), its insistence on praising their every action.
Mind you, I'm not trying to criticise the movie, simply poke at what seems to be to make it tick. I love Gunga Din, for it is well and truly a great action movie, and quite possibly the height of Stevens's ability as a director. After all, the point of the thing, if I'm right about my postcolonial musings, is that we need to be absolutely enthralled by the action and adventure, and damn me if that's not the case. The final assault on the Thuggee, with the help of a convenient troop of Scottish soldiers, is one of the finest battle sequences I've encountered in a sound film up to this era. A boy's own adventure it may be, but a tremendously good one; the film is an obvious influence on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a significantly weaker film, and the same spirit that infects the best moments of Lucas and Spielberg's series is found all over Gunga Din. There are better adventure films from the '30s, but not many, and as popcorn entertainment goes, Gunga Din is a treasure for anyone who isn't reflexively turned-off by black and white.
Anyway, it's hard to blame a movie for being a security blanket. People needed the modern world to go away; some filmmakers did that with lavish musicals, some did it by regressing to the splendors of a lost era of manliness. Though I think it's telling, when all is said and done, that the film was made by Americans, not British; we who'd ourselves been the first people to put a chink in the empire's armor. For Americans, there was only romance to be had; for the Europeans who'd been watching their several empires fall apart, even the mere reminder of former glories was likely its own kind of sorrow. It's what allows Gunga Din to retain its sweet swashbuckling air: an American, separated from the world by two huge oceans, could sigh and say "oh, for the world to be that much fun again!" while a Briton, staring Europe's decay in the face, could never have that kind of comforting thought. Even escapism has its limits.