1939 was a bumper crop year for cinema magic and George Steven’s Gunga Din (1939) is no exception to that rule. A sprawling, sweeping, comedy/action/adventure yarn with few equals; it is a masterful example of Hollywood’s studio system hard at work. Usually penny wise, RKO pulled out all the stops on this lavishly produced production; casting Cary Grant (Archibald Cutter), Victor McLaglen (MacChesney) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.(Thomas Ballantine) as a trio of mischievous knockabout British officers who stumble upon the murderous Thugee cult in 19th century India (…one can see where Steven Spielberg borrowed for his idea in ‘Temple of Doom’ five decades later).
When the inhabitance of a nearby village to the British outpost mysteriously vanish - and a troupe of British soldiers are slaughtered while on a routine trek - the bombastic trio of musketeers set out for truth, justice and revenge – not necessarily in that order. The film is justly remembered, celebrated (and sadly, occasionally maligned by the politically correct) for its outstanding and poignant performance by Sam Jaffe as the turban and loin clothed title character. In point of fact, Jaffe’s portrait of Gunga Din does occasionally waver dangerously near a naïve and imperialist incarnation, but he carries off his shtick with such panache that it’s hard to resist. Joan Fontaine gets the thankless role of Emmy Stebbins, the romantically frustrated ideal for Ballantine. A handsome and enthralling screen spectacle, Gunga Din defines Hollywood’s grand entertainment!
Warner’s DVD transfer is a mixed blessing. Though much of the film looked far younger and is more perfectly realized than it ever has on any home video format, the print source material is riddled throughout with age related artifacts (dirt, scratches, tears and a slight misregistration in some scenes) and a considerable amount of film grain. The gray scale has been sufficiently contrasted with solid blacks and whites. There are no digital anomalies (aliasing, pixelization, edge enhancement) for an image that is otherwise smooth. The audio is mono and, at times, somewhat muffled. Extras include a brief ‘making of’ documentary with fascinating home movie footage shot in Technicolor (odd, for a movie produced in B&W), a fine and comprehensive audio commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer and two theatrical trailers.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)