by Heath Holland
Steven Spielberg have always been very clear that the character of Indiana Jones was rooted in the adventure films and serials of their childhood and that they were paying tribute to their matinee heroes by creating a new one of their own. From time to time, I’ll take a look at those silver-screen adventures from the 1930s through the 1950s, both classic and forgotten, as we delve into the stories that influenced Indy. This week, Cary Grant stars in George Stevens’ 1939 classic, Gunga Din.
To my knowledge, the people involved directly with the creation of Indiana Jones have never come out and explicitly revealed in any depth exactly which films, serials, comics, etc, spawned the character we love so much (trust me, I’ve searched for such a list); this is probably because Indy comes from many sources, and is likely more a style of film than any particular films themselves. That being said, I’ve selected Gunga Din for this first entry into Indy’s influences because a) the film is still easily accessible, which is something that I’ve discovered can’t be said of most of these old adventure movies, and b) its influence on the Indiana Jones film series is blatant. It’s not just between the lines; it’s EVERYWHERE.
Tell me if the plot of Gunga Din sounds familiar: our trio of protagonists are in India, far from home, surrounded by elephants, snakes, and unforgiving terrain that’s difficult to navigate. Soon they cross paths with an ancient, murderous cult known as the Thuggee. The Thuggee worship Kali, the goddess of blood, and are led by a bald high priest who believes that soon Kali’s faithful servants will destroy those who don’t believe and eventually will take over all of India. Along the way, our three heroes face assassins, are captured and held prisoner in the temple of Kali (which contains a huge idol of the goddess), and must eventually escape to safety over the long rope bridge that is just one machete cut away from dropping them to certain death.
The Mummy has, and it was born in movies like Gunga Din. This time period is often called “the golden age of adventure,” and it really was.
Our heroes are three dimensional and flawed. Cary Grant is outstanding as a cockney soldier who loves fighting and drinking. Victor McLaglen is the spitting image of English actor Ray Winstone (or the other way around), which I only bring up because Winstone was in the fourth Indiana Jones film. McLaglen’s plays the tough guy with a heart of gold, and if he and Winstone weren’t separated by 70 years, I’d swear they were the same person. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. has slightly less to do, and is the soldier who is going to be retiring from service soon in order to get married and settle down with his own tea business. He has just days to go before his relief of duty when the Thuggee rear their heads; he’s like Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon franchise: time is never on his side. Joan Fontaine is given the absolute bare minimum as Fairbanks’ fiancé, and is relegated to waiting for his adventures to be over so the can finally marry and live the quiet life. She needs more to do in the film.
The film opens with a pretty spectacular battle between the British and the Thuggee in the village of Tantrapur, and the adventurous tone is immediately set. There are massive gunfights that take place in the streets and buildings of India, sticks of dynamite flying and things blowing up left and right. We’re treated to fist fights, gun fights, and sword fights, and I’m pretty sure that the actors are shooting real guns with live ammunition in some of the scenes: for example, when Victor McLaglen shoots the lid off a box of dynamite, he takes several REALLY authentic looking shots. Maybe I just buy into the movie in the same way that I buy into the casting of Sam Jaffe. I also thought the film had wonderful location cinematography in India and the Himalayas until I read that the entire movie filmed in California.
Howard Hawks was originally scheduled to direct the film, and he and future-Nobel-Prize-winning author William Faulkner started working on the story in 1938, but he lost the gig after his film Bringing Up Baby received a tepid reception. George Stevens was brought in as his replacement. The scope of the film was wide, and it cost almost 2 million dollars. There are as many as 600 extras in some scenes, but Stevens manages to keep the film grounded in adventure and excitement without it venturing into epic territory. There’s no lush, sweeping score, and there are no long, lingering shots of our heroes. The movie maintains a brisk, fun pace and never takes itself too seriously. There’s a story that reflects the casual approach of the film, which says that Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. flipped a coin to determine who would get the lead role. Fairbanks lost the toss, and Grant took top billing.
In case I’ve minced my words, I’m a BIG fan of this movie. Gunga Din is a ton of fun, and has had a long-reaching influence. Cary Grant is a lovable good-timer who doesn’t have everything figured out, and Victor McLaglen is a tough guy with a heart of gold. Douglas Fairbanks is…um….well, he’s not important to what we’re talking about. It’s easy to see how both Grant’s and McLaglen’s characters and their adventures against the evil cult of Kali in Colonial India would have made an indelible impression on George Lucas all those years ago because it still makes quite an impression today.