#574) Gunga Din (1939)

#574) Gunga Din (1939)

OR “The Waterboy”

Directed by George Stevens

Written by Joel Sayre & Fred Guiol. Story by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur. Based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Class of 1999

The Plot: As the British Army treks across India in the early 1890s, three Sergeants – Archibald Cutter, “Mac” MacChesney, and Tommy Ballantine (Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) – are assigned to visit Tantrapur and determine the fate of a missing British outpost. The three are accompanied by Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), an Indian bhisti (water carrier) who dreams of becoming a soldier. Their adventures include dangerous confrontations with the Thugs, as well as more comedic hijinks, such as keeping Ballantine enlisted so he doesn’t run off with fiancée Emaline (Joan Fontaine). During the climactic battle, Gunga Din shows real courage and proves that he is truly “a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mainly just a rehash of the plot. The closest this paragraph gets to a superlative is pointing out that the subplot of keeping Ballantine in the army is reminiscent of “The Front Page“.

But Does It Really?: On the one hand, “Gunga Din” is the kind of fun adventure picture associated with the studio era, with an impressive scale and a cast of thousands. On the other hand, the title character is played by Sam Jaffe in brownface. Plus it’s kind of hard nowadays to watch a movie where the British Army are the heroes and all Indians are double-crossing thieves and murderers. “Gunga Din” is remembered today as an important movie of the time, and part of the collection of films that make up the greats of 1939. I can justify the film’s NFR designation as “historical significance”, but I doubt a modern audience would enjoy or tolerate “Gunga Din” as originally intended.

Wow, That’s Dated: This movie doesn’t just have a BROWNFACE WARNING, it has a BROWNBODY WARNING. Russian Jewish actor Sam Jaffe is made up head to toe in brown makeup as Gunga Din, as is Italian actor Eduardo Ciannelli as the Guru. It’s…rough.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Gunga Din” missed out on any Oscar nominations, although a few online sources claim that Joseph August was nominated for his cinematography. While August was on the initial shortlist of potential nominees, he did not make the final nomination ballot. Truly it’s an honor just to be…considered?

Other notes 

  • “Gunga Din” was originally to be directed by none other than Howard Hawks (which explains why longtime Hawks collaborators MacArthur & Hecht get story credit). Following the box office disappointment of “Bringing Up Baby“, however, Hawks was fired and replaced by George Stevens, still a relative newcomer to film directing.
  • Now that’s how you open a movie! Every credit appears on a giant gong, which dissolves into the next set of credits every time they get banged on. It’s very impressive.
  • With a budget of $1.9 million, “Gunga Din” was RKO’s most expensive film at that time. And it shows: big vista shots with hundreds of extras, battle scenes with explosions, a recreation of Pakistan’s Khyber Pass; this movie is easily the most epic film of its day, and we won’t see another one like it until “Lawrence of Arabia“.
  • Everyone has a different story of how Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were cast. Most historians agree that Grant was originally cast as Ballantine with Fairbanks as Cutter, and that Grant preferred the role of Cutter. In some versions of this story, the switch happened because Grant won a coin toss. George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, as well as TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, believe that Grant switched to playing Cutter before Ballantine had been cast, and recommended Fairbanks for the part. According to Fairbanks himself, Howard Hawks originally cast him as Cutter, and then asked him to switch roles. As they say, success has many fathers.
  • As with many a problematic studio movie on this list, you’re all lucky Cary Grant is so damn charismatic. This also may be the rare Cary Grant performance where his character is actually British, complete with his old Cockney accent.
  • Joan Fontaine doesn’t get much to do in this movie, but it’s always nice seeing her in a part where she’s not being emotionally manipulated. Although it says a lot that she is second to Annie the elephant in terms of important female characters.
  • This movie doesn’t necessarily have padding, but each episode takes its time. Perhaps basing your movie off of a poem wasn’t the best idea.
  • The Thugs were an actual gang in India, and are the genesis of the slang term “thug” that we use today.
  • I always enjoy the Curly-esque noises Cary Grant sneaks into his comedic performances. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is full of them.
  • In the opening credits we are assured that “[t]hose portions of this picture dealing with the worship of the goddess Kali are based on historic fact.” Phew. For a minute I thought the filmmakers wouldn’t do their homework and offend a death cult.
  • I honestly don’t have too much else to say about “Gunga Din”. It has the DNA of a classic adventure movie, but Jesus all of that Brownface. It doesn’t help that Gunga Din is a variant of the “happy slave” trope. Apparently Sabu was unavailable.
  • In the final scene, a journalist named “Mr. Kipling” witnesses Gunga Din’s heroics and writes a poem about him. A bit meta, but there are worse ways to sneak the source material into your movie. Upon seeing “Gunga Din” in theaters, the Kipling family objected to Rudyard being a character in the film (Kipling had died three years earlier), and RKO removed the character from re-release prints for fear of a lawsuit. Thankfully, the current version of “Gunga Din” is restored to its original length.


  • “Gunga Din” was a hit upon release, and in a very crowded field managed to be the sixth highest grossing film of 1939. Praise for the film was almost universal…except in India. When “Gunga Din” was planning to be released in India, the Indian National Congress called for a boycott of the film and its “insensitive” portrayal of its people, which led to RKO cancelling the engagement.
  • The inevitable remake of “Gunga Din” was made in 1962, rewritten as a western vehicle for the Rat Pack. “Sergeants 3” starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford as three Cavalry sergeants, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave who wishes to join their ranks. The film was directed by John Sturges, one of the original editors of “Gunga Din”.
  • “Gunga Din” still gets referenced a surprising amount these days, mostly for the last line of the original poem. The most famous allusion to the film is the evil Thugee cult in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.
  • “Gonna see a movie called Gunga Din, pack up your money, pull up your tent McGuinn, you ain’t goin’ nowhere…”
  • But of course, the main legacy of “Gunga Din” is as an example of White actors playing people of color in mainstream media. We are finally getting around to acknowledging the poor, poor taste involved in these decisions; Hank Azaria is apparently determined to apologize to every Indian person in the world for playing Apu on “The Simpsons”.

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