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Realism in Movies: Oxymoron ('Gunga Din')

Graduated NYU 1963. Worked in NYC in public relations 2 years then as reporter/news editor 32 years at The Hour newspapers. Retired in 2000.

Carry Grant and Sam Jaffe as Sergeant Cutter and Gunga Din


My favorite movie of all time -- not counting a dozen or so of Bing Crosby's best films -- is the 1939 classic "Gunga Din," based on the Rudyard Kipling poem.

In the film, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Victor McLaglen play British soldiers fighting a fanatical religious sect in India that sacrificed (strangled) people for their god, Kali. Gunga Din, an Indian water carrier who yearned to be a soldier himself, is the hero of the epic. He sacrifices his life to save thousands of British soldiers about to walk into a deadly military ambush.

Action-filled Drama

The movie is filled with action, and the bravado of the three British soldiers is accompanied by the injury and death of hundreds of Kali followers and British soldiers. Many were shot, some were strangled, others died amid blasts of dynamite, still others were tossed off rooftops, and a long line of natives fell to their deaths attempting to cross a rope bridge.

Nonviolent Action?

Despite all this killing, all these injuries, all these deaths, I say the movie was nonviolent.

How could such blood, guts and gore be described as nonviolent?

The inquiry, I confess, is a trick question. You see, the movie contains no blood, no guts, no gore. That's just my point! People die, sure, but not so graphically as to make the observer wince. They just fall to the ground, and even the most impressionable child is aware the fallen actor will arise to live again when the scene has ended.

In fact, Gunga Din, the movie, parodies the violence found in many other films. But, remember, this was 1939, and the fictional "violence" you saw in that era was tame compared to the way it's depicted today.

Gratuitous Violence

In movies today, the violence is often gratuitous, obviously for the same reason that gratuitous sexual scenes are found in so many of today's films: prurient interest and box office returns.

Filmmakers like to say they are trying to attain realism and that such realism is demanded in the '90s, but the truth is realism in movies is an oxymoron. You can't put "real" life on a two-dimensional screen.

Hyperbole, Not Realism

Graphic violence, of course, elicits strong reactions, but, as I see it, they're negative reactions. Audiences, I believe, would prefer not to see this kind of so-called realism, which more often than not is hyperbole rather than realism.

Perhaps the frequency of gratuitous violence, and sex, in today's movies is more properly attributed to a lack of talent among writers, producers and directors rather than prurient interests or greed.

Unquestionably, it would put great pressure on the talent of today's writers if producers were to demand well-written scripts without the use of such crutches as gratuitous violence and eroticism.

Movies like Casablanca, for instance, may not have been literary works of art, but they at least told a captivating story with a romantic interest without resorting to outright trash.

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Censorship Not Required

To keep our movies wholesome, we don't need censorship; if we refuse to support the trashy fare offered by filmmakers, it will find its way to the junk pile on its own.

Personally, I cannot understand why people would want to see some of the trash that Hollywood's been putting out over the last few decades.

If you understand, you're a better man than I am.

Other Great 1939 Movies

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on Feb. 14, 1998.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in character as 19th Century British soldiers in "Gunga Din," in my opinion the best movie in perhaps the greatest movie year ever.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in character as 19th Century British soldiers in "Gunga Din," in my opinion the best movie in perhaps the greatest movie year ever.

Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling

Trailer for the Re-release of 'Gunga Din'


William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 27, 2016:

Wow! I must have missed your comment, Catchings. Pardon me for being a little late in responding. Let's just say, "Bing Crosby" is Number One!"

Catchings on September 22, 2010:

I agree, pennies from heaven is wonderful film,and Bing Crosby is great and that voice of his proves he is the greatest singer America has ever produced.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on November 14, 2009:

I know you'll greatly enjoy "Gunga Din," gunsock. By the way, I'm looking forward to reading more of your hubs on Hollywood's most famous stars.

gunsock from South Coast of England on November 13, 2009:

Here's yet another movie that's slpped by my radar. Its on my list to watch now! Thanks for a very informative and interesting hub, William. I'm with you on some of the modern trash movies - all front and very little substance.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on September 30, 2009:

I'm sure, Boof, that I abhor racism as much as you do -- and there certainly was a great deal of racism reflected in "Gunga Din" as it was in society in those days (and continues today.) The Indians in the movie, however, were members of a murderous cult, not law abiding citizens. It's important to remember that the movie is a parody of those times, not a serious dissertation of Indian society. The movie itself must be viewed in its own time frame. It was -- and is -- very entertaining and well acted. We can and do oppose prejudice and racism, but we can't ignor history. Movies today are objectional for many different reasons. I appreciate your valuable comment.

Boof on September 28, 2009:

So you like Gunga Din, an incredibly racist portrayal of Colonial India and the 3 white men who try to kill as many of those "murderous" Indians as possible, but movies today are objectionable?

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on February 25, 2009:

Thank you, Aya. My grandson is a big fan of Japanese animation. For the most part, I'll stick to old movies. Although lots of violence is portrayed, some of the WW II movies are among my favorites. Two of my biggest favorites are "Sahara" with Humphrey Bogart and "Five Graves to Cairo" with Franchot Tone, both 1943 movies.

Aya Katz from The Ozarks on February 25, 2009:

William F. Torpey, well said. I especially agree with this part:

"To keep our movies wholesome, we don't need censorship; if we refuse to support the trashy fare offered by filmmakers, it will find its way to the junk pile on its own."

My daughter and I like to watch Japanese animation where there is plenty of adventure and heroism and derring-do, but the violence is stylized.

Sheila from The Other Bangor on February 25, 2009:

I don't blame you, William, for avoiding newer movies in the least. And Pulp Fiction is as the title suggests -- formulaic rendering of predictable material including violence -- but in a way that parodies the genre. I'm not trying to defend Pulp Fiction, but I did think at the time that it was a kind of cinematic watering-down of something Pinteresque with added self-awareness that makes for good parody of itself. But that does not make it enjoyable to watch. And I doubt I'll ever watch it again, whereas I'd watch Gunga Din with real enjoyment.

LondonGirl from London on February 25, 2009:

I know what you mean Teresa, about violence making a film in some respects, but it's not for me, I just don't enjoy it.

I remember going to see Pulp Fiction with some mates when I was about about 18 or 19, and I hated every minute of it. I could see it was a good film - I just didn't enjoy it.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on February 24, 2009:

Thanks, Teresa, for your interesting comment. They don't make movies any better than "Gunga Din." I was so disappointed by the last three movies I saw three or four years ago that I no longer have any interest in seeing contemporary films. It seems movie directories have become entranced by psychedelic quick scene changes and phony action at the expense of good storytelling. I haven't seen the movies you mention, but movies are not and can not be "realistic." It's not so much violence that's objectionable, but more often it's the way the violence is portrayed.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on February 24, 2009:

I'm with you, LondonGirl. Violence is not only objectionable, it's unnecessary -- even detrimental to any good movie (or TV program.) I only wish they made movies like "Gunga Din" today. Thank you for commenting.

Sheila from The Other Bangor on February 24, 2009:

I have to admit that I was skeptical, one Sunday afternoon, when I started watching Gunga Din -- and then I was riveted. It's a great movie.

The question of violence is an interesting one, though. I find movies such as Goodfellas objectionable, but I do find, however, that good movies of any genre are just that -- good movies, that I will watch. So Reservoir Dogs is a good movie in its own right, because of the violence. If it weren't so violent, it wouldn't be as good a movie. There's a scene in an old Hitchcock movie -- I think it's in Torn Curtain? And Paul Newman is trying to kill someone in a kitchen -- takes him ages, because it's so difficult to do. We are used to the "short-hand" of instantaneous deaths that seeing the "reality" of a difficult murder is horribly fascinating.

LondonGirl from London on February 24, 2009:

Fantastic hub.

I never watch gore-ridden films or TV programmes - it's just not remotely my idea of fun. Gunga Din is brilliant, though.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on November 23, 2008:

I have an extremely high regard for Bogart, Christoph. He's been one of my favorites for a long time, in fact, since I saw "Angels With Dirty Faces." (1938) I love many of his movies, but none more than "Sahara." (1943) I knew Casablanca was expected to be a sort of "B" movie, but I didn't know the about the cast making fun of it. It sure was a great movie, as was "The African Queen," which I saw after I read the book (with zero disappointment.)

Christoph Reilly from St. Louis on November 23, 2008:

Gunga Din is indeed a fine film. Speaking of Casablanca, I regard Bogart the way you regard Crosby and I have lost count of how many times I have seen Casablanca. An interesting side note to the film, the cast thought the script - which changed everyday - was the silliest thing they had ever done. While off-camera, they continually laughed at the script and made fun of the - they thought - overly dramatic lighting and camera work. Just goes to show you.

Great hub!

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on November 21, 2008:

It's truly a magnificent, entertaining movie, Zsuzsy. I don't think you'll have much trouble finding a copy. Just to whet your appetite, here's the URL for a teaser to Gunga Din:

Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on November 21, 2008:

William It has been a million years since I watched that movie and forever since I even thought of it. It was my first Gary Grant movie. My cousin was visiting us in Belgium and the two of us went to the movies. I just loved it. I need to find a copy of it now, I wonder how hard that's going to be.

Thanks for reminding me of a great flick regards Zsuzsy

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on June 27, 2008:

"Casablanca" was a wonderful movie, indeed, CJStone. The script was excellent as was the direction by Michael Curtiz. But look at the cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre -- and Dooley Wilson with his wonderful version of "As Time Goes By." Every actor a consummate pro. Where do you find that kind of cast today?

Christopher James Stone from Whitstable, UK on June 27, 2008:

Actually I would rate Casablanca as a great work of art, with depth and scope, real character and a wonderful script. not to say, the greatest movie song of all time: As Time Goes By. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on June 14, 2008:

The subjects and stories of the three movies I refer to above, Curdman, were all excellent. The problem with the movies were, primarily, the constant two-second scene changes that were so psychedelic that it was difficult for me to keep looking at the screen. The movies were: "Cinderalla Man," "The Interpreter" and "Aviator." I had been tempted to see the movie about Edward R. Murrow, but I saw a commercial that made clear that the movie used the same idiotic quick scene changes so it just further cemented my commitment not to go to any more modern movies. Needless to say I don't find them "entertaining" at all. It's a shame because if these movies were produced properly they could be great.

Curdman from Lawrence, KS on June 13, 2008:

I'm curious on which three movie you have seen recently you found so diplorable? And i'd have to say that there are movies just as good as the 30's and 40's you speak of, they are just few and far between and unfortunately trying to find them ends up being more work they they are worth unfortunately. Movies have morfed from art to entertainment, and as long as the order remains, we'll get the big blockbusters that they couldn't create before computers and $200 million budgets. Its very unfortunate.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on June 13, 2008:

I find the "sensational, fast paced and realistic" efforts of current day producers generally unrewarding, Curdman. The last three modern movies I saw were more psychedelic than fast-paced, so much so that it was nearly impossible to follow the story line. I have vowed never to subject myself to this type of torture again. I don't believe I've ever seen a movie from the '30s or '40s that I didn't at least enjoy the acting and plotline -- and this includes the "B" movies. On the other hand, I can list scores of movies I believe to be superb. In my view, the profit motive is destroying the movie industry.

Curdman from Lawrence, KS on June 13, 2008:

I have a mixed reaction to your article. Movies of the past where done more as an art, and played to a much different audience and time period. The world we live in, which we created for ourselves (people like to forget this) moves so fast, its a surprise we can 'find' the time to sit through a 90 minute movie, just forget about a 180 minute epic. This is perpetuated by producers demanding that things be more sensational, fast paced, and 'realistic' and this causes us to expect and accept such trash as modern day art. Just look at this years comedies, male nudity is the new thing, ignore the pun, and what does it achieve? an uncomfortable laugh. People in hollywood demand so much money for so little that it is almost impossible to make something that is well written, directed, acted and produced because the price for that kind of quality team is to large to allow the movie to slid into some small niche. Independent movies made a rise to fame in the early 2000's but in the last two years, a high percentage of movies released as independents were made by big budget production companies that have eatin up any small relatively succesful production company, causing almost anything to be classified as an independent and small budgeted film when it has stars who take pay cuts out of their $15 million salary (a meager $5 million), a respected director, and a script that resembles little of the original writers intentions.

my point i guess is that realism is only an oxymoron if you define something that is created by actors as real. i let the movies opperate in their own world, fully understanding that 99% of the activities and actions of these characters is insane, but cover a subtle point, or critism of life. unfortunately the cover is so thick the point is indiscernible by any casual watcher, and difficult to detect by the one hunting for it.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 07, 2008:

Thanks, Phil. My favorite Bing Crosby movie is "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949) with Rhonda Fleming, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and William Bendix. I'm certain this is not the favorite of most dedicated Crosby fans (which I communicate with on the Bing Crosby Internet Museum) but it's the best in my view because his voice was so mellow in the late '40s and his personality was so well developed by then. Most fans like his early '30s best -- and I love those days, too. My favorite Crosby song is the last song he recorded, just three days before he died, "Once in a While." I love so many of his songs and movies, though, it's difficult to choose just one. I appreciate your interest.

Phil on May 07, 2008:

What's your favorite Bing Crosby movie and what did you like about it?

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 06, 2008:

Thanks for the comment, Bob. Because there are few really good movies these days, I wish the theaters would run some of the many great movies of the '30s, '40s and '50s -- like Gunga Din and Bing Crosby's great movies, like "Pennies From Heaven."

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 06, 2008:

It sure is a shame, compu-smart, that the market accepts the violence in movies and games. Personally, I think the graphic violence detracts from the movie, but maybe the younger generations simply don't know any better. Movie directors and game entrepreneurs should use better judgment. Thanks for the compliment Your Birthday and technical hubs are also always great -- not to mention those featuring all those pretty girls.

Bob on May 06, 2008:

Bill..How right you are about that movie. It's a shame that there are no more GOOD movies coming out of Hollywood these days.

Tony Sky from London UK on May 06, 2008:

Things are becoming more realistic from violence to films and games, which now have to have all the realistic, blood and gore which the market seems to want which is a shame!!.

I too have enjoyed many a movie or tv show such as the A team where graphical violence, blood, guts and gore is not detailed and is just as enjoyable!!

For kids to want to watch violent films and all the unpleasant trappings is one thing, but to actually play games and be part of the violence is another!!

Great article as always William..

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 05, 2008:

The history of the world, Sandra, is replete with war and violence. Violence is often glorified to promote patriotism among citizens. Unfortunately, it's no different today. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan -- and many other countries around the world -- can not escape violence by turning off their TVs or staying away from theaters. They face it every day, except those victims who have not survived. People are fascinated by violence, but there's no need for movies, or television, to show inappropriate details. I don't want to see violence on TV either, but I also don't want our country to send our young men and women off to war when it isn't necessary.

sandra rinck on May 05, 2008:

You know...I see what you are saying, but as my reality goes, I certainly know that violence does go on. I know that wars are more violent that what tv portrays and I know that I would much rather see it on tv then in reality.

In certain ways, I do want to know it, but I would rather know it on tv then in reality, because in reality I know that once it is done it can not be taken it back.

I think the only think tv doesn't do is, in a sence, really drill it into our heads that it does happen and glorifying violence is not a reality, but violence and people are.

In some ways I would hope that people would get in realitsic tune with what is real and what is not real, but it does happen, the good and the bad.

William F Torpey (author) from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 05, 2008:

I'll never understand, Donna, why anyone would want to watch the kind of violent, psychodelic movies they show today. But, then, I feel the same way about most of today's music as well. I'm thankful that I grew up in the 1940's and '50's when movies and music favored quality. Thank you for your kind words.

donnaleemason from North Dakota, USA on May 05, 2008:

You are right William. The people hold the power. If they would choose not to attend these graphically violent shows then the movie moguls would be forced to change the types of movies that they produce.

Unfortunately, I don't think there are enough of us to make a difference but, I know which movies I choose to see and the ones I choose to let my children watch.

Thank you for this hub. Maybe it will make some people more aware of the power that they do have.


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