#127. Gunga Din (1939)

Here’s another one that, while fun and exciting and clever and charming, is hard to talk about from a purely technical or aesthetic perspective because, funny and exciting as it is, just about every depiction in Gunga Din of literally anything having to do with the interaction of different-race characters is cringe-worthy (which is to say the whole thing).


The movie’s based on a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling and although that title is also the name of the story’s self-sacrificing Indian waterboy, who for the most part is a designated servant of and mascot for our heroes, the premise follows three officers of the British Indian Army (played by Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen) who go to check out a village where a cult, the Thuggees, have taken over. An enormous traveling gunfight erupts from their visit — which is pretty exciting (a modern perspective, however, does put a dent in our stars’ heroic luster as they, too, are invaders; probably no worse than their opponents here).

michael bay
Actual real-life unedited photo of Michael Bay.

Michael Bay, director of the Transformers franchise, gets a lot of shit for being puerile, and style-over-substance, and racially insensitive, aloof, misogynistic — he’s rabidly denounced among critics and within the twittersphere, but his movies are hugely successful all over the world. The man himself has an estimated networth of a half billion. Bay deflects all of this criticism by saying, probably with a shrug, that he makes movies for thirteen-year-old boys. This doesn’t absolve him of every accusation that gets thrown his way, but ti does take some strides toward explaining his sensibility.

And the reason he comes to mind now is because all while watching Gunga Din, much as I cringed or rolled my eyes, I was also mindful, by the end of the first act, of how exalting this must have been for a (white) thirteen-year-old boy in 1939. How much I personally would have loved it when I was in middle school.

Maybe not so much for boys of color.

My roommate in my senior year of college grew up in Azerbaijan, speaking Russian, and he said that he and his friends and family would watch American movies and just roll their eyes or laugh at the depiction of Russians as uniformly devious, villainous, smug. He said it didn’t really fuck with him as a kid because he was watching it within a culture that had its own media to inform his sense of self, his place in the world, his worth and potential.

A conversation I’ve never had, though, is one with an American who’s skin is black or brown and who grew up in the early or mid-20th century, a time when there was TV and cinema, a boom of magazines and comics and newspapers, but little or no popular media depicting characters who looked like them. And whether there’s a difference, if you grow up consuming the standard amount of American media, between seeing yourself crudely depicted on those screens versus just not seeing yourself at all. Same question could be asked of the physically disabled. [Editor’s note from the future: The Best Years of Our Lives will give a fairly all’s-peachy Hollywood approach to depicting handicapped veterans (physically and emotionally) that isn’t terribly insightful, but it’s a change of pace, and opens the door to a new kind of conversation.]


It was clear while watching the first few titles from the Project that Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, a film by a black director with a nearly all-black cast, was a unique and valuable and influential addition tot he movie landscape (tedious though it is in the first 2/3 of its runtime), but it’s only as I’ve gotten farther away from it, in the List’s chronology, that I realize how impressive it was. Because that was 1920. here I am in fucking 1939 and there’s hardly been a single black actor to grace the screen in any but a role of servility. Asian actors just aren’t in the picture. They’re creatures of the mystical Orient, depicted by squinting white actors (Broken Blossoms, The Bitter Tea of General Yen) with slouched walks and strange facial hair — with what I think is the single exception of Anna May Wong’s terrifically subtle, tormented, and ultimately heroic performance in Shanghai Express. (Other obvious exceptions are films from overseas: Storm Over Asia, The Goddessand Midnight Song.)

Actually seeing this conspicuous omission firsthand, over the course of cinema’s first 40 years [editor’s note from the future: 50 years] has gone a long way toward illustrating the legitimacy of recent and powerfully influential discourse, pioneered by social media, about race and gender representation in Hollywood.

Or maybe it doesn’t and I still have no idea what I’m talking about. What I know is that I might have a chip on my shoulder if I belonged to a society wherein, decade after decade, the most popular, sprawling, pandering storytelling medium didn’t represent people who look like me, or who belong to my culture.

Anyway. Quite a digression there.

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Gunga Din is a really good action/adventure story with some ethically sour parts. It was originally a creative baby of director Howard Hawks, who got fired after Bringing Up Baby flopped at the box office, and the action seems do seem to bear his touch, reminiscent of the great, gritty gun battles and chases of Scarface.

I don’t think it would corrupt your adventure-loving grandkid or nephew, if you wanted to show it to em (it’s probably one of few black and white movies that’ll hold a modern kid’s attention), but it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a conversation with him afterward like, “Hey, know what’s fucked up here?”

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