Gunga Din is one of the maddest films I’ve seen in a long time. Five minutes in I was wondering how I even came to watch it (answer: Cary Grant is in it, although wasted). Ten minutes and I wondered whether I’d make it through without automatically entering some sort of healing coma. I nearly turned it off at twenty. It’s quite hard to pigeon hole beyond the Big Pot of Barmy Stew genre… but perhaps it’s something of a comedy version of King Solomon’s Mines, although it fails in every(?) attempt to be deliberately funny. It’s not even unintentionally funny most of the time, two thirds of the film being rather dull and nonsensical in a not-particularly-interesting and even tiresome way. Worth watching? No. A curiosity? Maybe, although it’s perhaps best appreciated when stumbled upon accidentally while too full of Christmas dinner to bother turning it off. Missable, for sure.
Now that you probably should have stopped reading, what’s it all about? Well, Cary Grant and his chums are busy knocking some skulls together in a brawl when their superiors come in search of their skills on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen. They’re soldiers, you see, and the powers that be seem to believe that the best way of fighting trouble is with trouble. So off the three go to and they’re soon brawling again, taking on five or six guys each. That’s the kind of film this is. It’s all in the spirit of silly fun, although the script, acting and a lot of the rest of the implementation falls short of being that good. Cary Grant seems completely at sea, often indulging in the kind of physical comedy he gets up to in Arsenic and Old Lace, although it’s awkward and out-of-place… even in a film like this where it should fit. It lacks seeming spontaneity. The other actors seem similarly constrained by the poorness of the film – what they get up to and how they act and react seems randomly generated at times. When I watched it, their randomly-generated adventures included taking on an army of murder cultists and Yoko Ono while treasure hunting. Having to go curtain shopping with your beloved really is asking too much when it impinges on Bro Time. Not mad into curtains myself but they do need to be bought now and then. A sultry, seductive romance/comedy/adventure about curtain shopping might have made a better film. Exactly what happens in Gunga Din could have been much better if it was done well. That said, I did find myself enjoying it in the last third. Not hugely, but enough that I wouldn’t go asking for those minutes of my life back if given the chance. It’s dumb fun. “Fun” probably being too strong a word, but you never know. I’d expect enjoyment of this one to be hugely subjective.
Some other details: the setting is India – somewhere near mountains. The film is based on a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. It’s of the noble savage subgenre. Something I often find tiresome, but not here (where nothing really wants, needs or deserves analysis). Such a poem written in Kipling’s time may well have been astute observation rather than tired, patronising fantasy. Some of the acting isn’t that bad. Sam Jaffe, who plays Gunga Din, does a decent job and Eduardo Ciannelli is great as the cult guru. His turn is the best thing about the film and something that has compelled me to go on a treasure hunt of my own. First stop on that hunt is Mysterious Doctor Satan, a 1940 serial starring Ciannelli. It looks like just about the best thing ever: