What’s Gunga Din you ask? A poem by Bombay born Rudyard Kipling that we read in school 50 years ago (“flayed you” — “made you”) that is probably illegal or at the very least terribly un-PC today? Or an RKO movie from 1939 that is strange and without accessible context? That’s so two years ago dude. Snooze material back then when we watched it occasionally and were bored to tears, but it’s suddenly fascinating now.
Gunga Din was just on TCM. (We comment only on the movie, not on whatever the underlying history might be.) Story: in India, a revolutionary religious/military movement is violently opposed not only to the dreaded British imperialists, but also to the Indian authoritarian establishment. They have a special religion which is superior to all others. They have no fear of death, but have an eschatological goal. The radical religious movement is both smart and merciless. After a long narrative, at times highlighting British battles with insurgents, they lure the western army into a battle deathtrap devised by clever military strategy, and their leader’s command is to cut off the heads of their captured British imperialists. (Sounds like ISIS? — hey, ISIS is in India now!)
One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is the inner peace of the ISIS, er, radical leader. He knows they will defeat the idolaters of Britain and the Indian establishment because his religion is supreme. His tactical advantage is that his troops will fight in new ways that the established military does not anticipate, and that even his own death, should it occur, is but a call to the faithful to heed his lessons with greater fury and abandon. His strategic advantage is the he has truth and destiny on his side.
Unfortunately for him, events don’t work out so well. Here things become a little complicated. Gunga Din, a bhisti regarded as a nonentity by most of the British officers (racists!), is well respected by the Cary Grant character (note Sergeants 3 parallel). He wants to be a bugler, but that’s a far off dream, not going to happen in the English army. Still he perseveres and at the critical moment in the movie saves the day. He’s not an establishment Indian, but he is certainly a death-deserving apostate in the way the ISIS guys see the world.
In the end, the religious maniacs are defeated by the combining of old and new. A mortally wounded Gunga Din blows a bugle call to alert the British troops that there’s a trap ahead, and the British respond by radically altering their march into the valley of death, and all-of-a-sudden unleash heretofore unknown superior technology using gatling guns to blow the enemy away. So technology plus apostasy plus superior military tactics plus opposing inhumane radicalism turn out to be a winning strategy. (Better keep that tech edge lest IS stumbles into nukes, EMP, etc.)
We had regarded the film Gunga Din as strictly a period piece with not much relevance to today. Suddenly it’s not, reminding us that human nature does not change and that death-worshipping head-chopping religious cults will be with us from time to time, and must be systematically, and if necessary, ruthlessly eliminated from the face of the earth.
Final fun point: Gunga Din was played by Dr. Zorba! Do not underestimate God’s sense of humor…