Gunga Din is a 1939 adventure movie inspired by the works of Rudyard Kipling. It stars Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a trio of English soldiers stationed in 19th-century India, with Sam Jaffe as the native servant Gunga Din. It was directed by George Stevens.
It's the height of The Raj, and telegraph wires are the most important tool in maintaining order and keeping everything shipshape. So when telegraph wires to a remote outpost have been sabotaged — under mysterious circumstances, no less — it's up to a troublemaking trio of officers to investigate. Although hot-blooded and perhaps impetuous, Cutter, McChesney, and Ballantine are recognized for having a lot of smarts, plenty of courage, and a good gut instinct between them. So they're sent off in service of Queen and Country. But there's a time limit on this adventure, as Ballantine has to get married, and possibly end their camaraderie for good. So, obviously, Cutter and McChesney have to stop him!
Along the way, they'll meet with a slightly petulant elephant, cultists as mysterious as they are deadly, and an Untouchable native named Gunga Din, who, despite all odds, cherishes a dream of being a noble soldier.
Alfred Newman composed the score. A pre-stardom Joan Fontaine plays Emmy, Ballantine's bride-to-be. Semi-remade as the 1962 Western comedy Sergeants 3, which recasts the main characters as U.S. Cavalry sergeants in the 1870s and stars the members of the Rat Pack. Some of the plot points—a murderous Thuggee cult, bloodthirsty Kali worshippers, a Rope Bridge—were lifted for use in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
This film provides examples of:
- Abandoned Area: Tantrapur, when the British arrive, the whole outpost having been wiped out by the Thuggees.
- Bittersweet Ending: Gunga Din dies in a Heroic Sacrifice to save the army but is posthumously given a rank in the army, something that he always wanted, and a spot on the rolls of the honored dead. The last shot of the movie is of his spirit now in army uniform saluting.
- Black Dude Dies First: Who's the only one of the four main characters to be killed by the Thuggees? Gunga Din, of course.
- Brownface: All the Indian parts played by white people.
- Chekhov's Gun: Ballantine's re-enlistment papers. MacChesney uses them to bluff the guru into thinking they have the troop's marching orders.
- City of Gold: Much of the action is propelled by Cutter's greed for the gold topping a Hindu temple.
- Creepy Crows: A single crow is the only living thing the British find upon arrival in Tantrapur.
- Cultural Posturing: The Guru proclaims that "India was a mighty nation while Englishmen still dwelt in caves and painted themselves blue."
- The Dandy: Ballantine, at least compared to his friends. They routinely rib him for it. Higgenbotham could also qualify, being even more prim and proper than Ballantine.
- Deathbed Promotion: Throughout the movie, Gunga Din's dream is to become a real soldier. In recognition of his Heroic Sacrifice, he is posthumously inducted into the Army, with the rank of corporal, and honored alongside the other casualties of the battle.
- Disconnected by Death: A telegraph operator is corresponding with the operator at Tantrapur, the next station forward, about the loss of communications to the frontier. The Tantrapur operator is interrupted by Thuggees entering his office. He just has time to send the "emergency signal" to the operator down the line when he's killed by the Thuggees, who then raid the outpost.
- Discretion Shot: We don't actually see what happens to the Guru after he leaps into the Snake Pit.
- Disposable FiancÚ: A rare example in a non-romantic movie. Emmy isn't competing against another woman for Ballantine's affections but instead the loyalty he has to his friends. It turns out they win in the end as Ballantine signs up for another nine year hitch with them.
- Dressing as the Enemy: Cutter kills a Thug so Din can dress in his robes and slip away unnoticed.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Gunga Din blowing his bugle to alert the British troops to danger, at the cost of his own life.
- Hijacked by Jesus: The villains are worshipers of Kali, who is described as "the goddess of blood," who smiles at warfare, torture, and human sacrifice. Her cult that murders indiscriminately, as many as thirty thousand people per year! To rub in the salt, the movie is prefaced with a line saying that the depiction of her and her worship is "based on historical fact." When in fact, Kali has a terrifying aspect, but she is just another aspect of a greater feminine deity, and her realm is time and natural change as much as righteous destruction.
- Historical Domain Character: The young journalist Rudyard Kipling shows up near the end, to be told what's been up and be inspired to write about it, though at least one re-release of the film edited him out after complaints from Kipling's family.
- In-Series Nickname: Ballantine repeatedly calls McChesney "McCheesecake."
- Jungle Opera
- Multiple Gunshot Death: Gunga Din's death by Heroic Sacrifice.
- No Honor Among Thieves: One of the cult members shoots Cutter in the leg from outside the door in retaliation for the Guru's death. The cult leader becomes pissed because it gives them warning to prepare for the attack to come and orders the man strangled.
- Papa Wolf: McChesney where Annie is concerned. When he thinks the Thugs have kidnapped her (actually it was Cutter and Din) he flies into a furious rant and rallies the troops, vowing to "break every Thug's back in India" if they've hurt his beloved elephant.
- Refuge in Audacity: Cutter pretends to be drunk and stumble into the middle of the Thuggee ceremony, declaring that everyone is under arrest. Turns out it's just a distraction so Din can escape.
- Religion of Evil: The Thuggee cult, worshipers of Kali, "the goddess of blood."
- Rope Bridge: One spans a chasm on the way to the temple. On the way there, Cutter and Din have a moment of mortal terror when Annie the elephant tries to join them on the bridge. On the way back, the British troopers cut through the rope and send some Indian warriors to the bottom.
- Significant Background Event: As Cutter looks around, sensing that something is off, in the far distance a sentry on the rocks is attacked from behind and strangled.
- Snake Pit: There's a pit full of scary cobras in the Thug temple.
- A Taste of the Lash:
- Happens to Cutter.
- McChesney gets it, too, but manfully withstands it.
- Team Pet: Annie the elephant.
- Undying Loyalty: Surprisingly, the Thuggee cult towards their beloved Guru. When the trio holds him hostage and threaten to kill him if the cult goes through with their surprise blitz attack on the British army, the men refuse to move despite orders from their leaders. They only become inspired when the Guru gives his life to keep from holding them back.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There's a caption at the beginning of the film claiming that "Those portions of this picture dealing with the worship of the goddess Kali are based on historic fact". This should be trusted about as much as the one claiming that the plot is based on Kipling's poem "Gunga Din".
- Vitriolic Best Buds: The three main characters, but especially Ballantine and McChesney.
- You're Insane!: Cutter says as much to the Guru of the cult, who retorts that all the great conquerors of history have been told the same.