Kipling, Belted and Flayed: GUNGA DIN on Film

Written by Stacy LeVine, as part of:

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Thus reads both the closing monologue to the 1939 RKO Pictures adventure film Gunga Din and the final stanza of the 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem from whence it comes. And so stands the extent to which the two works of art have anything in common.

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(Check out all five stanzas of the original Kipling poem here, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.)

Kipling’s rhyming narrative plays out as the nostalgia of a retired British soldier; as an old man’s yarn of glory days spent “A-servin’ of ’Er Majesty the Queen” in “Injia’s sunny clime.” But the glory of which he speaks is not his own. For “[t]he finest man [he] knew/Was [his] regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.” The Bhishti are a Sunni Muslim tribe of Northern India/Pakistan/Nepal whose traditional role in the regional caste system is that of water-bearers. And they were used as such (read: as slaves) by the occupying army of the British Raj (1858-1947). [1]

In Kipling’s poem, the water-bearer Gunga Din is shot dead in the brave act of saving his wounded master (the narrator) amidst a great battle. Said master/narrator is then left to live on with the curious feeling of having been his heathen slave’s moral inferior. Not the inferior (or equal) of all the heathen slaves, mind you. Just of the one who saved his ass; a very special man who was clearly an anomaly. It’s all very Noble Savage and Talented Tenth-ish and thus hard to take as a 21st-century liberal. But it’s also spectacular manipulation of the English language. The poetry itself is gorgeous. And, yes, content and language are mutually exclusive, just as are artist and art.

The George Stevens-directed film, on the other hand, is a de facto Three Musketeers in India. It’s very, very silly and replete with non-plot-advancing hijinks, most of which involve a headstrong elephant named Annie. But the “fourth horseman” to these goofy cinematic swashbucklers of the subcontinent, Gunga Din, is no d'Artagnan. And they feel neither inferior nor equal to him even after he [SPOILER ALERT!] is shot dead in the act of saving their entire regiment. It is “Mr. Kipling” himself, appearing out of nowhere at the end of the film for Gunga Din’s funeral in his capacity as reporter, who is presented as the “I” of the famous “better man than I am” line.

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Din himself actually has relatively little screen time. The brave bhisti of the title functions as but a B-plot deus ex machina, and he’s played by a Jew from New York (Shalom “Sam” Jaffe) in full-body, bizarrely shiny brown makeup that resembles the skin of exactly no human being ever. Oy, the now-rightly-embarrassing conventions of Old Hollywood!

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Alas, the first rule of Gunga Din is that we on the right side of history know patriarchy, orientalism, imperialism and brownface to be evil. The second rule of Gunga Din is that we love the movie anyway. Because it’s lots of fun, even as we cringe our 21st-century way through all two hours of it. Frankly, Rudyard Kipling is probably cringing over it from his Poets’ Corner grave in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey to this very day, though for entirely different reasons.

Having died in 1936, Kipling missed out on the explosion in cinematic adaptations of his writing by just one year. And while I believe that he’d have loved Captains Courageous [1937], I think the slapstick hilarity of Gunga Din would have irked him no end. The poem on which the silly latter film is so loosely based is very serious, and Kipling was a very serious and outspoken supporter of both the British Raj specifically and Western imperialism in general. He is, lest we forget, the white man who coined the phrase “white man’s burden” (sans irony).

Behold below, Gunga Din from the #StacyStills. Note who’s noticeably absent!
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Scholars still debate the point, but the sum total of Kipling’s work suggests strongly that he truly believed in the rightful dominion of white Christian men over exotic heathen savages. And, though the swashbuckling white heroes of the film are based on his own short story collection Soldiers Three and humor is pervasive throughout the Kipling oeuvre, I believe he intended neither Soldiers Three nor humor for this particular poem. It’s important to keep in mind that the Raj was still in power at the time of the film’s 1939 release. Independent India was still eight years from reality. Hollywood was busy churning out a steady stream of pro-British movies whilst Washington helped arm the UK against an ascendant Nazi Germany. And, make no mistake, Gunga Din is a pro-British movie.

The George Stevens film is not about British soldiers realizing how awful it is of them to be occupiers. It’s about British soldiers who grant the noblest of savages his only wish in death, which is to become a British soldier. Even Annie the elephant is portrayed as a loyal slave to her European masters! It all amounts to such shameless colonial propaganda that it would be utterly intolerable if it weren’t so much damn fun. But it’s totally legitimate to have fun with it, even in the 21st century. For, ultimately, it’s just a movie!

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ENDNOTE

[1] People of India Uttar Pradesh, Volume XLII. Hasan, A. and Das, J.C., eds. p. 285.

 
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