Was Gunga Din a temple toy?

Projections of Gunga Din on Temple of Doom


My best friend once wrote a song that started with the lines: Was Gunga Din a water boy? Or was he a temple toy?

He wasn’t talking about the relationship between the 1939 film staring Cary Grant and the 1984 film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” but he might well have been.

In researching my parody of the Raiders series, I went back to three older films from which the Raiders series seemed most influenced: Casablanca, Gunga Din, and Lawrence of Arabia.

While you can find influences from each of these movies in all three (and most likely the upcoming fourth) Raiders movies, no two films seem so closely related as Gunga Din and the Temple of Doom.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas seem to have deliberately drawn on the 1939 classic for their ideas in Temple, although you can see the influence of all classic films in all three of the Raiders movies.

For instance some of the arches in the cafes in the first Raiders movie comes straight out of Casablanca, particularly the drunk scene in which Jones mourns the death of his lover. The sun scenes over the diggers who uncover the room with the Ark comes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. The snake pit scene, which shortly follows comes out of Gunga Din (we won’t mention the dark thunderous sky scene in-between these two comes which alludes to the Ten Commandments and Moses getting of the stone tablets).

Spielberg and Lucas constantly make allusions to other films that have some relation to the characters, plot or actors in these films. Such as the use of imagery from the Sean Connery James Bonds movies in the third Indiana Jones films – in particular the boat chase and the rats in the sewers, scenes which both come out of From Russia with Love.

I’ll go into some of these other allusions in later essays.

Gunga Din and Temple of Doom have roughly the same story line: the return of the same murderous cult after many years, who does blood worship to Kali, and which intends to take over all of India if not the world if not stopped.

Although Indiana Jones comes to India by accident, he is driven by the same greed that the Cary Grant character is in Gunga Din. Grant seeks out the temple of doom in search of rumors of gold. Like Indiana, the Grant character is consumed with finding secret treasures and has often wasted time and money in the purchase of maps to secret places and other schemes. When he finally discovers the temple of gold, he becomes the captive of the cult – just as Jones does later.

Jones in some ways rushes from one failed scheme into another and like the Grant character is seeking “fame and fortune” in the halls of the temple.

While Temple of Doom is dressed up in more spectacular special effects than its 1939 counterpart, both films share the same elements and the same geography, and the same plot.

We get some of the same elephant humor in both films, and the same chasm over which the heroes must travel – over the same rope and wood bridge (which is later cut sending many of the evil cult members to their doom).

The villain leaders in both films are remarkably similar, although the villain in Gunga Din tends to be deeper and more motivated, and in some ways more sympathetic than the villain Temple of Doom presents us with. The evil leader in Gunga Din gives up his life intentionally for his cause, while the evil in Temple of Doom clings to life until he is dumped into a river filled with alligators.

In both films, the hero is whipped – giving some evidence that the Jones is tied symbolically to the Grant character through what is clearly Christian reference to the hours leading up to the moment when Christ gives up his life just as Gunga Din does. In some sense, this lack in Temple of Doom may explain why the film seems less satisfying than the first and third films in the Raiders series.

This is not to say that Temple of Doom does not try to make a social commentary. We get the comparison between the poor diet of the villagers and the exotic even outrageous food eaten by the elite at the Temple. This has no counterpart in Gunga Din unless you consider the elephant medicine in the punch bowl.

In some ways, Indiana’s pursuit of the sacred stones ties into the more comic efforts we get in the Beatles’ film Help where the scared ring is pursued. Help, in its own way, is also a retelling of Gunga Din.

While the boy in the Temple of Doom many go through some of the same motions as the character Gunga Din – even imitating Jones the way Gunga Din did the soldiers, the boy fails to live up to the same high standards as Gunga Din, and only barely managed to have the same impact in his aid to Jones. The boy becomes Jones’ helper, but does not make the same sacrifice Gunga Din does, warning the good troops of the impending attack.

While both films have British troops sweeping in to rescue the heroes in the end, the end scenes in Temple seem a bit contrived because of the lack of build up we get in the film Gunga Din.

Also Gunga Din’s death helps justify the change in the Grant character. Jones changes, too, but we feel less satisfied despite the glorious change in the landscape when he returns to the village with the sacred stone. Down deep, we understand that rebirth requires the sacrifice of one of the heroes we do not get.

In the end, we get the same story acted out on the same landscape in Temple, but without the intensity of emotion we get in Gunga Din – although Temple gives us much greater action sequences.

But this comparison may shed light on the creative process that went into shaping the Jones character in each film. If Cary Grant is the model for Jones in Temple, was Rick of Casablanca the model in the first Raiders movie, and James Bond the model in the third? Who then will the forth movie be modeled after?


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