Cary Tries a Kipling
I may be wrong but I suggest there are two types of people who would watch "Gunga Din" now, those who know Rudyard Kipling's poem on which the story is based and those who spot an actor they like and by that I pretty much mean Cary Grant. Now I am from the latter bunch, I watched "Gunga Din" because I am a Cary Grant fan and in fact have never read Rudyard Kipling's poem. What does that mean, well it means I have mixed feeling over the movie because it has this strange blend of being jokey then really dramatic which makes it a little uneasy. Having said that visually "Gunga Din" is impressive considering it was predominantly shot in California and the trio of stars Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. have great chemistry.
In 19th Century soldiers Cutter & MacChesney (Cary Grant & Victor McLaglen) learn that in 6 days their friend Bannatine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. - Sinbad, the Sailor) is leaving and plans to marry Emmy (Joan Fontaine - Letter from an Unknown Woman). Not overly keen on losing a friend Cutter & MacChesney come up with a variety of wheezes to try and get him to stay on. When gold mad Cutter manages to get himself taken prisoner by the Thugee cult MacChesney, Bannatine and the loyal Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe - Bedknobs and Broomsticks) come to his rescue although is it really a trap to lure out the entire British army.
So as already mentioned I have never read Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gunga Din" so have no idea how close the poem stays to his writing. I am also no historian so I have no idea how factually accurate director George Stevens' vision is of 19th century India. But I will say that visually Stevens has created a truly great looking movie, from the locations such as the temple to the atmosphere generated by seeing an army of soldiers marching across open country it has almost an epic look to it.
As for the storyline well it is quite simple as it starts with Cutter and MacChesney looking for ways to sop their friend Bannatine from leaving the army but in doing so, and through Cutter's love of Gold find themselves taken hostage by the entire Thugee cult. This really creates a movie of two halves with the first half having a very light hearted almost slapstick styling as we have brawls, pranks and various other little moments of comedy as Cutter and MacChesney do what they can to sop Bannatine leaving to get married. In many ways if you've watched "Gunga Din" because it stars Cary Grant it is what you will enjoy and Grant is great delivering Cutter the cocky cockney.
But then it almost feels like the second half when Cutter, MacChesney, Bannatine and the loyal Gunga Din end up trapped in a Thugee castle, has been written by someone else. The element of humour is dialled back as there is more drama as sacrifices and moments of heroism are called upon especially as they discover that the trap was there to get the entire army to come. It makes it an uneasy blend going from almost slapstick to drama and whilst there is still humour during the second half it is very different to the first.
Now alongside the already mentioned Cary Grant there is also Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who also deliver moments of humour. In fact the trio work well together sparring off of each other as 3 parts of a comedy trio all with their different characteristics. Add to this collection the delightful Joan Fontaine who plays Bannatine's wife to be Emmy but more importantly Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din and like the trio of Grant, McLaglen and Fairbanks Jr. Jaffe also delivers some humour but also and more significantly the drama come the second half.
What this all boils down to is that "Gunga Din" whether you watch it because of who it stars or for being an adaptation of Kipling's poem is a good movie. It does have a strange mix of humour and drama but good performances, epic scenes and both great comedy and powerful drama it is still entertaining.