Years ago, in my AP World History class, we read “White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling and I can remember how unbelievably upset I was to find out that the author of the Jungle Book was beyond racist. Even though there are some terrible moments with brown-face and yes, Kipling was incredibly racist, but Gunga Din was his redeeming moment for me.
In this 100-line poem, the flawed character is the white, British soldier and the overall hero? An Indian water-bearer for the Imperial Army. The poem doesn’t have a narrative, only two characters and basically nothing to help create a strong adaptation.
But the 1939 Cary Grant film continues with the central theme of the poem, the sacrifices the Indians made on behalf of British Imperialism.
The filmmakers added more characters, including two other soldiers to match the dynamics of Grant’s Sergeant Cutter. The three sergeants play off each other, occasionally with slapstick humor, to create a friendship ripe with entertainment. The true friendship, however, is between Cutter and Gunga Din.
Gunga Din, who has dreamed of one day being a regimental soldier for the Queen, forms a connection with Cutter after Cutter spots him practicing commands behind a building. Together, they find a temple filled with gold and the desire to have it takes over.
Naturally, for plot purposes, the evil villains have to thwart their plans and the three soldiers and Gunga Din are all trapped. They are forced to watch the Scottish army walk right into a trap set by the villains.
Beyond the name, the only evidence of the screenwriters using the original source text comes at the end. In the poem, Din is killed trying to help a wounded British soldier. In the movie (spoiler alert), Din sacrifices himself to warn the Scottish army of the impending attack. Both characters are beyond selfless and willing to do whatever is necessary for the greater good, something the “white” soldiers couldn’t or wouldn’t do.
Of course, at the end of the movie, Rudyard Kipling makes an appearance, with this poem he has just written called “Gunga Din” – the final lines of which are read over Din’s body.
Gunga Din is an interesting adaptation because the source text is so small. The screenwriters had to create more than usual so there is a plot to carry the viewers through the movie, and it’s pulled off well.
- My favorite we’ve viewed so far
- That might also have to do with Cary Grant’s dashing face all over the screen… I’m easily pleased.
- We’re just going to ignore the incredibly terrible brown-face that permeates this movie. Obviously back in the 1930s, this was more common in film-making, so I can’t fault the director. But W O W.