Gunga Din vs. Indiana Jones

by Mark Butterworth (Oct. 2006)

Adventure stories have enormous appeal to men. Whole civilizations have grown up around them like Babylon, ancient Greece, Imperial Rome, and India. The litany of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Aeneid and Livy’s Histories, the Mahabarata and Ramayana are the short list of enduring classics that get masculine blood pumping.

Before movies came along to present these stories, there was theater and novels, of course. Popular American tales of adventure may have started with James Fenimore Cooper’s, The Last of the Mohicans, through the many iterations of penny dreadful cowboy and Indian books and culminating in Jack London’s stories as a certain high point of man against nature or other men. Now we have Tom Clancy’s techno thrillers for the armchair warriors who enjoy the idea of deadly gadgets and clever software to solve problems and kill bad guys.

We don’t get out and hunt so much, and so all those Reader’s Digests, the Rod and Reel, Field and Stream magazines which used to support a fair number of fiction and non-fiction writers have gone by the wayside. Not too many breathless accounts anymore of men trapped in blizzards with only two matches to start a fire and certain death if they failed.

There are the occasional real life stories such as the Australian man who sawed his own arm off to free himself from a boulder, or Mexican fishermen lost at sea for five months, but the best adventures are more than man against the elements. They must have romance in them. Not necessarily a female angle, but the romance of wanderlust, a quest for a great prize, a defiance of mortality, or a noble cause worth fighting for.

Unfortunately today, the word ‘action’ has replaced adventure in movies. Action movies mean what they say - lots of movement, motion, kinetic energy: explosions, chases, fights, battles; fast paced with quick cuts. These movies have come to resemble first person shooter, computer video games with sequences that never know when to stop rather than actual stories .

I’ve asked young male critics if the non-stop action wearies them or exhausts their patience (as it does mine). No, it all washes over them without processing; reminding me of autism where a child is entranced by repetitive objects in motion like a bicycle wheel or a spinning, sparkling crystal. That helps to explain, perhaps, why Pirates of the Caribbean Two did so well. There is not a single moment of character interest, but it has interminable action sequences.

These movies cannot even be said to be like roller coaster rides which movies like Aliens were once described as since the recent films don’t have the limits of a thrill ride that flies through curves, twists, goes up hills, plunges down and is done. The modern action sequence just keeps going. The roller coaster just keeps cycling with the audience on it.

The Best Adventure Movie of All

Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is the best adventure movie ever made. Watching it today, one marvels how entertaining and compelling it remains, and how little “action” there is in this quintessential for-the-boys narrative.

As a boy in Connecticut, we received the New York City TV stations. One of the non-network stations (Channel 9, I believe) used to have a show called Million Dollar Movie in the early evening. They would run the same movie all five week nights. One week they ran Gunga Din. My brothers and I watched it every night. My mother could hardly believe it.

Since then, I don’t know if I’ve ever refrained from viewing it when I’m channel surfing.

A commenter at IMDB echoes this:

“I first saw Gunga Din at 8 years old when it opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. [1939] For 65 years I have watched this, my favorite film, every chance I could get. At one point I had seen this flick 55 times, but I have stopped counting. I know most of the dialog by heart but I am still moved when I watch it. A fine acting job by all concerned, but I think particularly by Grant and McLaglen. . . Some years ago Fairbanks, Jr. was interviewed on TV. When the subject came around to Gunga Din, he had an interesting revelation. He had been scheduled to play Cutter. Grant was interested in the role and asked if Fairbanks would be willing to flip a coin to decide who got the role. Fairbanks agreed, and the rest is history.” - quidon7

To recall the story briefly, three British army sergeants in 19th century India are close friends. One of them, Fairbanks, is going to get married and leave the service. The other two scheme ways to make their friend re-enlist. Meanwhile we meet, Sam Jaffe as the Indian auxiliary, Gunga Din, the regimental water carrier who has dreams of being a uniformed soldier.

Besides soldiering, Cutter (Cary Grant) has dreams of getting rich quick by finding a temple full of gold he can loot. He is in league with Gunga Din, his scout, for that purpose.

One night, Gunga Din informs him that he has found such a temple covered in gold. They take off on an elephant to a remote place, across a tenuous rope bridge, and find the temple just as promised. They watch numbers of Indians enter the temple for a service, and sneak in after where they hear a man, a guru, instruct his followers how they will rebel against English rule, conquer India, and, “Rise, our new-made brothers. Rise and kill. Kill, lest you be killed yourselves. Kill for the love of killing. Kill for the love of Kali. Kill! Kill! Kill! “

Cutter realizes that they are the outlawed Thuggees, a murderous cult, and they plan to ambush the regiment. Can’t let that happen, and so Cutter sends Gunga Din back to get help while he distracts them.

Cutter marches forward singing a song and places the Guru under arrest. It doesn’t quite work out that way. The Guru doesn’t come along quietly but takes Archie into custody.

Gunga Din hurries back, informs the other two sergeants -- guess who needs help? Mac (McLaglen) won’t let Tommy (Fairbanks) come along to rescue their buddy until he signs a re-up paper. Have to go by the book, you know.

Rather than informing the Colonel, though, they take off by themselves. They find the temple, manage to take the Guru hostage, and hole up in one of the towers near the roof where they find Cutter lashed to a wall, his back cut in stripes from a whipping.

The Guru has a nice talk with the boys revealing his Napoleonic dreams.

Cutter: You're mad!

Guru: Mad? Mad. Hannibal was mad, Caesar was mad, and Napoleon surely was the maddest of the lot. Ever since time began, they've called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. For this is but the spring that precedes the flood. From here we roll on. From village to town. From town to mighty city. Ever mounting, ever widening, until at last my wave engulfs all India!

His men won’t break down the door to the room while he is in danger, and so the Guru hops into a pit filled with poisonous snakes that his plan may be fulfilled (a pit of snakes being a handy feature of Indian temples and torture chambers).

Mayhem ensues, the good guys flee to the roof (“Gold! Gold, I tell you!” Archie exclaims.); they have a chance to save the regiment and Gunga Din gets to be the hero. One is killed, one is wounded, and one’s heart is in one’s throat.

At the end, we hear a few lines from Kipling’s poem (“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”) upon which the movie was inspired, bagpipes play, that lump in the throat gets bigger, and you go out into the world to love your pals and slay dragons. All for one and one for all! Hooah. Oorah.

The movie retold like this makes it seem ridiculous, of course, but if you’ve never seen the film, it should whet your appetite because the story is very funny, told with dash, delight, and panache. Something we won’t see again until the 70’s and from another Kipling narrative.

What is it that makes this beloved by boys and men? (I do wonder, though, if boys now would love it as my brothers and I did then.)

This commenter at IMDB didn’t think much of it, though:

“This film was on its way to a high rating when it bogged down halfway through and never really recovered. It wasn't boring overall but the second half just wasn't what it should have been after such a rousing start and the action scenes were just hokey. The final action scene looks really dated with not much credibility. It's so corny it's almost laughable, but then again, the film is almost 70 years old and special-effects were primitive in 1939.” - ccthemovieman-1

There aren’t many “action” sequences in the movie. One is when Cutter escapes from the brig. That takes five seconds; another when Mac and Tommy capture the Guru and manage to get his followers to retreat. That takes about twenty seconds. The last is after the Guru hops into the pit, they flee to the roof and fight it out while trying to warn the approaching regiment which then springs into formation and is able to defend itself and win the battle. That may last a few minutes.

Otherwise, there is little “action” in this movie. It is all about the characters, their personalities, their affections, friendship, and behavior. You fall in love with each of them, although Cutter and Gunga Din become the most fond to us, being the most endearing and jeopardized.

There were quite a few movies at this time and later where the most important relationship in the stories were friendships between men, and no one sneered about male bonding or called them “buddy” flicks. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ushered in the pejorative term which was suspicious of male friendship and loyalty and began to first hint at latent homosexuality as the locus of such a bond, and then became overt by insisting that it really is homosexuality that makes men close as Brokeback Mountain being the ultimate modern commentary on buddies.

Can anyone other than innocent children watch a tale about two males who are the best of friends and not read a subversive subtext that Hollywood and homosexuals have insinuated can never be non-sexual? We have been re-conditioned to be wary. Those two friends may be something else by the time the film is over. Better not invest any trust in their apparently straight natures.

That helps explain a preponderance of the loner anti-hero and/or his posse of misfits which now includes kick-ass, petite, size one, little girls.

The idea of Rick and Capt. Renault walking off on the tarmac today as “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” in a movie is unimaginable and ludicrous. The perverted have had such enormous success in mainstreaming perversion, that an innocent cigar can never be merely a cigar again.

I would say that our preoccupation with sex has tainted everything, but I don’t know that we are preoccupied so much as we are deluged with messages of sex like never before. I saw a TV commercial about something as mundane as floor polish the other day which was built around a woman making obvious sexual double entendres. Wink wink. Nudge nudge. I never asked for that.

Many people insist that times were simpler, people more innocent, and life was repressive back in the old days. How they can make such judgments when a survey of a newspaper from any era would disabuse them of such notions is amazing. Nevertheless, it might be worth considering that when there is less dust in the air people don’t sneeze as much.

Gunga Din, like so many movies of 1939 (Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz) are emblems of the end of an age. Soon there would be the war, and then the post-war in which a huge generation would grow up in an America that suffered no great hardships. An era of health, wealth, and great expectations could only lead to nihilism, narcissism, and hedonism. There was nothing to keep such things in check. There was no demand to hold the centrifugal forces of human selfishness and pride in bondage to a greater good of family, friends, and society. Not when little depended on such things to get by and prosper.

John Huston single handedly attempted to revive Gunga Din, its spirit, delight, and zest with his 1975, The Man Who Would Be King. This movie was entirely derived from a Kipling story rather than merely inspired by a poem, and succeeds beautifully as a companion piece to that earlier era of storytelling since the first movie he directed was in 1941, The Maltese Falcon.

Yet, as perfect and charming as that movie is, as well as it holds up like Gunga Din, it is out of place and time, never attracting that large an audience, nor remembered as fondly as one of the great adventure movies of all time, which it certainly is. Perhaps it seemed too British for Americans. Apart from David Lean’s epics, English stories never fared as well after the war.

There were a number of genres that began to fade in the late 60’s and continued to do so until recently. Westerns began to die to be replaced by science fiction. Adventure stories began to morph into action films with Steve McQueen’s Bullit (1969). Chases lengthened in The French Connection (1971) until today’s The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and its hyper highway extravaganza and the many repetitions as such movies strive to outdo one another.

War movies suffered, too, except for the exceptional Patton. Every war movie became anti-war, by and large. Military men were portrayed as either psychotic rage-aholics, bureaucratic war mongers, or the casual detritus of an indifferent nation.

The epic also seemed to have died with Dr. Zhivago (1965) until revived by The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 (1972, 74), and then momentarily with Gandhi (1982), and more successfully with the recent The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

The Matrix as a trilogy mentioned above failed past its first part to succeed and should be regarded for the first film alone. Star Wars, despite its effect and influence, exists as a very bad series of B movies strung out over a ridiculously long period of time, and not as good as Tarzan and only slightly better than Flash Gordon.

Yet, into this mix of genres gaining or fading, comes Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), one of the most popular movies ever made.

Hatched by youthful directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg sitting around a pool one afternoon while musing affectionately about B movie, Saturday matinee serials, as the story goes, they concocted the germ of an idea which would become the best loved adventure film for the last twenty-five years.

After all the rather grim Dirty Harrys, Death Wishes, and Charles Bronson films, this brought a great deal of fun and excitement back onto the theater. No small thing if you remember the time of Jimmy Carter and our people held hostage in Iran, gas lines, and inflation.

Indiana Jones is a cheerful film as the theme music illustrates John Williams harkening back to his Star Wars which meets The Bridge Over the River Kwai’s whistling song.

I was twenty nine when I first saw the movie with friends, all of whom came out of the theater with that slightly dizzy, bright eyed glow of getting off an amusement park ride.

Wow. How great was that!? was the universal response.

Except from me.

“Y’all understand that this was a B movie? The Perils of Pauline meets Jungle Jim? You know, hokum, silliness, kid’s stuff and hey, Indy, look out behind you! You do know that, don’t you?”

No, they didn’t get that at all, and so I explained.

“Look, they set out to make a B movie with great production quality and they succeeded, but it’s just a kid’s movie when all is said and done.”

Never mind, though. They still loved it and still do. It’s a movie that gets to have its cake and eat it to. Everything about the film is arch, a put on, a couple of guys sitting around the pool figuring how to create a character.

“I know. He’s like Jungle Jim, but get this, he’s afraid of snakes, and a treasure hunter. Yeah, but not just that, wait. . . wait, a professor! He’s a professor of archeology who fights running battles with mercenary treasure hunters. Now get this. We put in some Nazis.”

“Okay, that’s cool, really cool, but the treasure he’s after has to really count for something. It can’t be run of the mill Spanish bullion or something. Uh, what if he finds. . . wait! I know! The corpse of Jesus! Yeah, imagine that! That would shake up the world.”

“Okay, I can go with that, but that takes the Nazis out of things then and we have to make the Church the bad guy. I don’t know if we want to go there. Nazis are really the stuff of good 1930’s melodrama, all that, vee haf veys to make you talk, or those hissing Jap army colonels who went to UCLA.”

Thus, they brain stormed up a character and the rest of the cast based on Casablanca, and a host of other films demanding loyal side kicks, international friends, old girlfriends, international bad guys and their henchmen, and changing locations.

Indiana Jones was as contrived as the Gilligan’s Island cast, but that was part of the in joke. To use every cliché and plot formula in the book so that you know it and we know it, and we’ll still give it a whirl and you’ll gladly thank us. We will play on all of our nostalgia for lost childhood movie moments with this toy. That’s supposed to be the charm of it, that the movie is camp.

One problem, though, was that it’s a movie completely lacking in conviction. B movies took themselves seriously just as A movies did. Johnny Weissmuller was never caught winking at the camera anymore than Cary Grant would do such a thing.

But that problem may stem from the fact that Harrison Ford can’t act very well. We know he’s pretending and peeking at the director for approval. Was that grin silly enough? This grimace what you’re looking for?

Are we really expected to believe a wispy little woman, Karen Allen, can drink any man under the table, for example? No, but we’re supposed to go along with it because we’d be spoilsports if we didn’t.

Jungle Jim would never have had a drunken heroine, but this is the 1981. Women are not only just like men, they’re better in both virtue and vice.

The only sensible scene in the entire movie is when Indy is running around Cairo for the girl, fighting bad guys when some turban headed, bare and barrel chested, harem pantsed, sword swinging Ali Baba is about to challenge Jones. Out of weariness and exhaustion, the hero simply pulls out a gun and shoots the menacing Arab ruffian. Up to that point we were led to believe that firearms were out of the question. Now we wonder, well, if it’s all right to simply shoot Egyptians, what was up with all the fisticuffs?

Unquestionably, Spielberg stages actions scenes better than anyone else. The perils are excitingly exploited whether it’s the opening scenes in the Meso-American jungle temple, the Cairo market chase and fighting, the fight under the moving airplane. the bit of Jones sliding under the racing truck, and so forth.

Plus, the conclusion when the Ark of the Covenant is opened is perfectly satisfying with marvelous special effects.

All in all, what’s not to like?

Only the fact that none of it touches the heart, none of it is inspiring (except to those who wish to make culturally ironic movies), and there is nothing or no one to emulate as any kind of model for boys or men. In fact, it is about this time that we start hearing the phrase, “popcorn movie” begin to pepper reviews.

We are no longer expected to take anything out of such a movie except a belly full of popcorn and soda. Heroism is simply a ploy to amuse, not a suggestion of actual virtue.

This is in sharp contrast to Gunga Din where the sergeants are martial and brave, but a lowly native water carrier desires to be equal to those he admires; and does so.

A boy admires the sergeants, men who are naturally heroic, while identifying with Gunga Din. He is aspirational whose courage is uncertain. It’s also true for most men who don’t know how they would do in battle.

Samuel Johnson once said, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for having never been a soldier.”

Gunga Din inspires a hope in males that they might rise to the occasion just as World War Two and its tests would challenge so many millions to do just that. They have been prepared for honor.

Indiana Jones, though, mocks masculine virtues. The Nazis are Saturday morning cartoon villains, like a Skeletor or some other silly thing, thoroughly trivialized. The woman is tough as any man except for her size, and Jones only cares about material objects when all is said and done. There is never any hint that he has an overwhelming romantic attachment to Marion Ravenwood, the imperiled Pauline. She is treated as more pain than pleasure, more hindrance than help, and certainly used goods.

Indy is a loner and no one’s true pal. He’s a nerd, a bit of a sissy, and a complainer; no one a man would want as a friend. That he has one in the shape of John Rhys-Davies as Sallah is a mystery explained by the script’s plot necessities: provide buddy here. Exit buddy there.

The character is shallow and phony; no one that anyone has ever met invented by nancy-boy, ambitious film schoolers who have plenty of childish imagination, but little experience in the world beyond the suburbs and Hollywood; sheltered and isolated adolescents with the literary skills of second rate, comic book writers.

What are boys and men being prepared for here? Nothing but a fantasy life.

Oddly enough, IJ and the Temple of Doom attempts something of a replay of the Thuggee scenes from Gunga Din but much overblown. It fails miserably as the entire movie fails. It is this movie which highlights exactly all the flaws in the Indiana Jones series altogether. Bad dialog, bad plotting, bad acting, bad action sequences that are tedious. Everything strains in this movie until it bursts with its stupidity and calculated concept. It is artless in every possible way.

Gunga Din is an example of the perfect adventure movie. Indiana Jones is the example of the new action film. It is interesting to note that the third in the series, IJ and The Last Crusade works much better as an adventure because Sean Connery takes away the movie from Ford.

Occasionally we get a good adventure movie such as Huston’s previously mentioned, and more recently, The Last of the Mohicans. Another film which works exceptionally well and was sadly overlooked is 2005’s Serenity; a sci-fi western.

The adventure movie has faded from modern entertainment culture because it is about masculinity, friendship, loyalty, and risk taking. It tends toward a boys will be boys attitude, is not sensitive about feelings, and suggests there’s nothing like a little scrape to get into and out of. Hardly the stuff of today’s metrosexual urban elites or artist and producer types. The movie Fight Club, though, subsequent things like the TV show Jackass, and the formation of real fight clubs in a number of suburbs demonstrate a compelling male need to perform stunts, to take dares, to risk life and limb. As puerile as some of these things are as opposed to actual tasks that once involved real danger such as bear hunting or herding livestock through difficult terrain and across water barriers represent an irrepressible need of the male sex.

Gunga Din shows where societies take that energy and channel it into esprit de corps and positive good. Indiana Jones suggests instead that nerds can be men, too, if obsessed enough and even as loners. Gunga Din is natural and fun. Indiana Jones is artificial and forced.

Does it say something about someone which they prefer? I don’t know, but are you a Gunga Din guy or an Indiana Jones fellow?

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