George Stevens' Gunga Din was not only the best of Hollywood's forays into colonialist adventure yarns, it served as the blueprint for many action-adventure movies for years after its release. It is a tribute to Stevens' direction and the uniformly superb cast that the film was a rousing success upon its release, and has endured as a popular favorite for decades since. Americans have always had problematic relationships with stories of British colonialism, but we also love a good adventure yarn, and the usual Hollywood compromise is to ignore the particulars, hold one's nose at the worst elements of subjugation, and just tell the story. That was the approach of the five screenwriters (including Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and the uncredited William Faulkner) involved in the project, and director Stevens adhered to their work to the letter in telling Rudyard Kipling's story of life, love, and adventure on the frontier of the Indian subcontinent. In the film, the British army is a peace-keeping force, protecting the native populace from a murderous cult of religious fanatics who kill anyone in their way, including their own people. If the paternalistic attitude of the British seems heavy-handed, the oversight is more than outweighed by the savagery of the characters they're fighting. The pacing includes room for ample roughhousing, some of it bordering on slapstick, and rich character development. The actors play their parts as though they were born for them: Victor McLaglen, in particular, cuts a surprisingly dashing figure as Sergeant McChesney; the actor was nearly a decade away from settling into the more comical and jovial character roles that he played in John Ford's films. Cary Grant displays a larcenous side to his screen persona which in many ways anticipates his most compelling dramatic performance, in None But the Lonely Heart. Ironically, for a film that introduced author Kipling to the mass public than any other adaptation of his work, Gunga Din ran afoul of the sensibilities of the author's widow, who objected to the scenes depicting an unnamed, Kipling-like journalist, and those shots were cut at her request after the first run of the movie. These scenes would remain unseen until the late 1980s, when they were restored under the auspices of Turner Entertainment, the company that purchased the RKO film library.
by Bruce Eder review