This is the first of three guest posts I did for Ladd Ehlinger’s site back in late 2011. I’m reprinting them here (With Ladd’s permission) because I think the election of Donald Trump is a significant event in the culture wars and these posts (and the follow ups that I intend to write) serve to explain what happened to our friends on the left who are still pulling out their hair over the events of November. While Ladd’s old blog isn’t there you can find the original piece via the wayback machine.
“The trouble is you don’t want a man for a husband! You want a coward who will run out on his friends! Well, that’s not me, never was, and never will be. I don’t care how much I love you! And I do very much. I’m a soldi… I mean I’m a man first!”
Even a person with a casual knowledge of movies knows the number 1 movie of 1939, because “Gone with the Wind”is the highest grossing movie of all time. If you asked them what picture was number 2 that year, odds are they haven’t heard of RKO’s “Gunga Din”.
A 70 year old action picture is unlikely to generate a lot of interest from the denizens of the CGI-YouTube era and with the left practically owning film studios, a period piece depicting the British Empire suppressing a murderous cult in colonial India is not going to be high on the view lists of professors.
This is a shame because it’s a movie that deserves attention from viewers, not only for conservative themes, but on its technical merits, historical influence, strong cast and the story itself.
First, one can’t watch this movie without seeing shades of pictures from “Indiana Jones” to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. When viewed by the unaware, the reaction is much like that of a teen who has watched “Family Guy”for years who sees the opening of “All in the Family” for the first time.
Second, consider the scale of the film. Over and over you see groups of hundreds of men in formation, both marching and on horseback with great sweeping views over spectacular landscapes. For people used to CGI it’s quite a change to see real people and real animals reacting in real ways. This is 1939. What we would call “computers” were two to six years in the future and where they would exist was the size of Cuba. If you wanted a shot of a group of men charging on horseback, you needed…a group of men charging on horseback, if you wanted an incredible background vista, you either had to have incredible background paintings, or actually shoot at a such a location. And a fall off a roof meant someone actually had to take that fall or you needed good modeling. For the modern filmmaker or student used to manipulating massive groups with a click of a mouse, the concept of having to control hundreds of men and animals for a shot is way above their pay grade.
Third, check out this cast: Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; a legendary name who, in a few short years after this film would match his on screen valor in actual combat. Victor McLaglen; a two time Oscar winner who had faced two heavyweight champions in the ring and fought in Iraq before he ever appeared in front of a camera, and Cary Grant, acknowledged as one of the greatest actors who ever lived. Talk about holding three aces in a hand.
Finally there is the story, and what a story: After a patrol and a village drops off the map a force is needed to repair the telegraph lines and investigate. Three sergeants freshly pulled from a brawl are assigned to lead the party which includes a regimental bhisti (water bearer) named Gunga Din. While the troops begin repairing the line at the village the sergeants start searching the village and come across some suspicious characters whose arrest is a prelude to an ambush.
After a running fight the sergeants get their surviving troops out and report. Their commanding officer recognizes a captured weapon as a sign of the murderous thuggee cult that the British had suppressed decades ago (funny how things like the thuggee cult, the slave trade, Caribbean piracy and Suttee were all suppressed only by the actions of those evil colonial Brits)
A new advance force is prepared sans Ballantine, (Fairbanks Jr.) who is due to marry and leave the army in six days. In a hilarious scene, Cutter (Grant) & MacChesney (McLaglen) manage to temporarily incapacitate his replacement forcing Ballantine into the expedition. When they reach the village and set camp, Cutter, after being locked up to prevent it, sets off to find a temple of gold that Din, (Sam Jaffe) who dreams of being the company bugler, has told him is nearby. Din and Cutter find the temple beyond a mountain pass which turns out to be the base of a thuggee army they are looking for led by the cult leader (well played by Eduardo Ciannelli). Cutter prepares to send Din back to get with the exit blocked deliberately gets himself captured to clear the way.
With the prospect of his friend in deadly danger, MacChesney sets off with Din after him. Ballantine, end of enlistment or not, insists on joining them over the entreaties of his fiance. (Joan Fontaine, the only cast member still alive). They blunder right into the Guru’s trap hoping to lure the regiment to an ambush in the pass.
The following passages contain major spoilers, if you don’t wish to know how the movie ends, skip the following two paragraphs.
The heroes manage by means of a ruse to grab the guru and find themselves in a Mexican standoff that persists until the guru, after a speech that could have been made by any of the heroes in the pictures, sacrifices himself in order to allow the attack to go forward. With their hostage gone the thuggees take the Brits, bayonetting both Din and Cutter in the process.
The thuggees ignore the wounded Cutter and Din and drag Ballantine & MacChesney to the edge of the parapet to watch the ambush of their regiment. As the guards concentrate on their impending victory, Din, still bleeding from his wounds with bugle in hand slowly climbs to the top of the temple dome and blows “stand to arms”. He is shot down but he manages it long enough for the regiment to deploy, avoiding the trap and allowing the army to rout the thuggees. Din is given a hero’s burial and posthumously made a regimental corporal listed “on the rolls of our honored dead.”
Through the entire picture manly virtue is celebrated: It’s celebrated when the survivors of the first battle, after an arduous trek bearing their wounded, form to march into the camp parade in good order. It’s celebrated as Din, with Cutter’s support, dreams of being a soldier instead of a water bearer. It’s celebrated when Cutter allows himself to be taken so Din can give warning. Ballantine refuses to leave his friend in the lurch even for the woman he loves. Cutter and MacChesney endure torture, Din gives his life to warn the regiment, and even the villain of the piece sacrifices himself in the hope of victory for his cause.
These manly values are not only conservative values, but are instinctive human values that since 9/11 the left has been unable to suppress. It certainly isn’t matched by the left protestors who cry oppression if they are evicted from other people’s property at little personal risk.
But what about colonial cultural inequality? I’m glad you asked, let’s look at the first battle scene again.
While the men are repairing the telegraph wires (and given water by Gunga Din) the sergeants search the village for clue to what happened. Ballantine finds a first a single man then a group he is trying to conceal. When they fail to convince him they are poor villagers who survived the raid, one tries to jump him. He finds himself in an outnumbered brawl. Cutter and MacChesney enter, and rather than drawing weapons join in the brawl till the men are subdued. Our politically correct friends might point to this one might question one European handling a group alone, but only if they didn’t pay attention to the larger British group they handled at the film’s start. When they fail to provide adequate answers, they prepare to take them back when the leader lets out a cry signaling a group of snipers on rooftops to fire and a wave of riders to pounce upon them.
The entire British force other than the sergeants consists of Indian troops, yet nowhere in the scene from the start to the end is there any sense that these troops are different than any other. They fight as a unit, throughout the running battle and retreat through and over the rooftops the town against overwhelming odds. The sergeants lead from the front, take the biggest risks and you will note are the last to make the jump that predated Redford and Newman’s by 30 years. Just before the last of them jumps, he checks on a fallen private soldier to see if he’s can be saved, and when the survivors march into camp, they march in together with heads held high.
There was a time when this message was the norm, and it’s not a coincidence that it was also the time of the greatest generation. When we ceded the culture wars we ceded our message, the message of Judeo Christian values, the message of a shared culture and belief in not only right and wrong but what makes a culture and a people thrive as our forefathers did. If we are unwilling to fight the culture wars by supporting our own cultural message, then we need to remember those who already did so effectively in years gone by.