The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Gunga Din

The 1939 classic has had a lasting impact on George Lucas, influencing everything from Indiana Jones to The Clone Wars.

Perhaps the first modern action/adventure movie, Gunga Din is a classic black-and-white film directed by George Stevens that came out in 1939. It stars Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Victor McLaglan, and Cary Grant as a trio of sergeants in the British Army during the 19th century occupation of India. They’re fun loving in their adventures and never want to see the group broken up, so when one of them decides he’s retiring to get married, the other two do their best to rope him into one last mission. Nothing goes according to plan and they find themselves battling the bloodthirsty hordes of Thugee cultists.

In all of their fighting, they’re still left for dead and the only person who can help them is a lowly water-bearer, discounted by everyone else. Gunga Din rises to the occasion, giving his life to save everyone else and stop the Thugee.

The film traces a few lines directly to Star Wars, but the most obvious comes by way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The action/adventure tone of the Indy films seem to be a modern perfection of the formula begun with Gunga Din. Temple of Doom borrows many story elements, including the crazed Kali blood-cults, and is a perfect unofficial sequel to the ’39 film. Thanks to the Lost Missions of The Clone Wars, we’re given “The Disappeared,” a two-part story that casts Jar Jar as Willie Scott and Mace Windu as Indiana Jones as they battle cultists looking to pull the life force out of their hapless victims. There are other Indiana Jones homages through the episodes, but the cultists can be traced directly back to Gunga Din.

Much of what the classic film brought to the filmmakers behind Star Wars were patterns for character relationships. The three sergeants in Gunga Din will do just about anything to save each other’s lives, but they do it with such wit and gusto that it’s impossible to watch them and not have a smile on your face. These tightly-knit friendships serve as the template for the friendship that develops between Han, Luke, and Chewie through the course of the original films. The formula is perfected through the prequel era, with the snark between Anakin and Obi-Wan rising through the end of Attack of the Clones and reaching it’s highest peak through the opening of Revenge of the Sith. If you watch Gunga Din, and then watch Revenge of the Sith, the influence it had on Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fraternal relationship through the first act is unmistakable.

There were more than a few episodes of The Clone Wars that built their relationship this way even further.

As for the titular character, Gunga Din, himself, one could very quickly draw parallels between he and Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar is a life form looked down upon, but only wants to be seen as an equal among the others in the story. When it comes down to bringing the armies together to defeat the Trade Federation, it’s Jar Jar who brings them together.

The most obvious influence from Gunga Din on Star Wars wouldn’t be seen until the Season Three premiere of The Clone Wars. In the episodes “Clone Cadets” and “Arc Troopers,” we’re introduced to the malformed clone, 99. He wants to be a soldier, just like the water-bearer from the film. He watches what the soldiers do and wishes he could do it as well. He’s dismissed as just a bad-batcher, unable to perform the duties of a soldier, but in the end proves as much or more heroic than any of the bravest of clones. His ending matches the tenor of Gunga Din’s both emotionally and story-wise.

At the Season Three premiere of The Clone Wars, supervising director Dave Filoni told me how the inspiration for the Gunga Din homages in those two episodes came directly from George Lucas. To which James Arnold Taylor, the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi, added, “The greatest thing about this show is that George Lucas is educating kids in movies and mythology.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

Gunga Din is suitable for people of all ages who enjoy Star Wars, with none of the action or tense situations exceeding anything seen in any of the Star Wars films. It’s an enjoyable movie for a Saturday matinee with the kids, and it’s become a favorite in my house among my children. They’ll love the banter between the stars, develop an intense fondness for Cary Grant, and be moved by the ending. I would recommend following it up with Temple of Doom and then all of the episodes of The Clone Wars listed above.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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