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Gunga Doom
by Michael French - posted on January 18, 2005

In Memory of Amrish Puri, The man who gave Indiana Jones his most sinister villain.


As this website’s resident writer and researcher of adventure films, both past and present, that have influenced or been influenced by Indiana Jones, I have seen a lot of movies. I have spent more than a few dollars questing for these often hard to find films and countless hours watching them.
Some of them are wonderful, many of them leave much to be desired. Some of them are immediately recognizable as deeply influential films on the Indiana Jones series, like Secret of the Incas. Some of them are easily seen as obvious Indiana Jones imitators with no identity of their own, like the 1985 version of King Solomon’s Mines. Then there are more than a few, like The Mummy Returns, in which their relationship with Indiana Jones is thin at best, being merely a fedora in one scene or the simple fact that the characters might be in Egypt.

My first encounters with both Gunga Din and the Indy sequel it inspired are as unique as these films. I grew up as a little boy at the movie theatre in the 1980s. I was a little too young for Raiders of the Lost Ark when it hit theatres, but by 1982 I had my very own VHS copy and ran it to death. In 1989, I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at the theatre twice. It would be 1994 before I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
When Temple of Doom appeared in theatres in the summer of 1984, I wanted to see it desperately. I saw all the commercials and collected all the Wendy’s posters. I even had the cassette soundtrack. However, it was deemed too gruesome for a boy of only six years old by my parents, but I would finally see the film of my own accord ten years later.
Gunga Din eluded me in a similar fashion. I devoured adventure films from all eras as a child, and even did a double take one lazy Sunday afternoon in 1995 when I encountered Secret of the Incas on the then commercial-free American Movie Classics channel. I had never heard of the film before, but I instantly knew it for what it was: Indy’s inspiration.

Gunga Din poster.

However, the one film I actually had heard about for years that was supposedly a major Indy inspiration, Gunga Din, I could not find to save my life. No video stores had it in the 1980s, and all my efforts to locate the laserdisc in the 1990s failed. Then in 2000, while in film school, a friend revealed to me that Gunga Din was playing on Turner Classic Movies that evening.
I couldn’t be there, but I almost went feverish in coercing my friend to tape it for me. What I beheld on that grainy, mono, VHS tape absolutely captivated me as Temple of Doom had six years before.

Of all the films I have encountered in my research, Gunga Din is by far the most intriguing cinematic influence on the Indiana Jones series. While it can be argued all day as to which film truly inspired Indy’s hat and jacket, with the debate bouncing between China and the aforementioned Secret of the Incas, Gunga Din is the only film that can boast to having an entire adventure story that is so solid and so exciting that it was transplanted directly into the Indiana Jones series virtually untouched.
Certainly, Temple of Doom is unique on many surface levels. There are no Nazis in the film, no deserts, nor does Indy quest for an artifact of Biblical significance. However, beyond these obvious examples is the fact that Temple of Doom shares a very close relationship with a film outside the Indiana Jones series.

It is my firm belief that once the relationship between these two films is understood, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom will be more appreciated as a true entertainment and shrug off its underdog status to become a unique experience for Indy fans.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an elegant combination of conventions from many past adventure films. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a cinematic echo of this original adventure. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, however, is a sequel that establishes an identity all its own, and a special legacy it shares only with George Stevens’ 1939 adventure classic, Gunga Din.

Part I: Temple of Doom

Indy’s Black Sheep

The adventure films and serials of the 1930s were entertainments with a signature feel and pacing. As with most films in the Golden Age of cinema, these studio-driven productions were mainly filmed on grand soundstages in the studios. Entire castles, temples, and western towns were fabricated in grand wooden and plaster illusions. It was in this environment that Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, Gunga Din, was produced for the big screen.
Gunga Din was released in 1939, a watershed year for Hollywood, and arguably the greatest year in movie history, seeing the release of both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The previous year saw the release of The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and the Frank Capra classic, You Can’t Take It With You. In other words, Gunga Din was born at the apex of cinema’s Golden Age.

Temple of Doom poster.

This epic adventure starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen contained the conventions of the classic adventure film in spades. Spectacular landscapes, massive sets, suspenseful action sequences, daring escapes, epic battles, snappy dialogue, and a cavalier, zany sense of humor were all contained within George Stevens’ film.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom also contains these elements in such a unique blend. Unlike the Indy films on either side of it, Temple of Doom juxtaposes an extremely serious, dark story with zany humor, just like Gunga Din. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a very serious story, but the humor is less frequent and of a much dryer variety. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is almost all humor of a goofier nature, with a semi-serious plot to connect the hilarious gags.
Whereas Raiders and Last Crusade were both shot on location in deserts and exotic exterior locales such as Venice and the jungles of Hawaii, the bulk of Temple of Doom’s story relied on enormous interior sets such as the temple of Kali and the slave mines. This reliance on fabricated sets creates an aesthetic quite different from the other Indy films, but very similar to classic adventure movies and serials.

Classic adventure serials and films also featured simple, but well-defined villains and almost over-the-top henchmen. In Raiders and Last Crusade, while the Nazis as a concept define evil very well, the actual villains of Belloq and Donovan are rather complex nemeses with goals and ambitions that go beyond mere domination of others. At the same time, their Nazi henchmen, the numerous soldiers, are rather faceless with the exception of Vogel and Dietrich.
Temple of Doom’s villain, Mola Ram, is a true "black hat" villain with purely evil intentions, no personal complications or background, and certainly no formerly established relationship with Indy, as Belloq and Donovan did. At the same time, Mola Ram’s henchmen are almost over-the-top characters, with the massive taskmaster Thuggee the best example of this. These elements of Temple of Doom make it a truer representation of classic adventure cinema.

As evidence, look at Gunga Din’s villain, the evil Guru. He is also deliciously one-dimensional in the grand tradition of classic adventure. His goal is simple: to kill all who do not convert to Kali, and Mola Ram’s character follows this same path. Archibald Cutter, one of the main heroes of Gunga Din and the one who parallels Indy the most, has no prior relationship or association with the Guru. The Guru’s minions are wild fanatics with a single ringleader, who is as blindly devoted to the Guru as the taskmaster is to Mola Ram.
These overarching narrative similarities are mainly aesthetic and dramatic facets in the most generic sense. Let us now take a close look at the real details and see, in both words and pictures, how undeniably intertwined Gunga Din and Temple of Doom really are.

Part II: From Din to Doom

Plot for Plot, Shot by Shot

Gunga Din and Temple of Doom both begin with the exact same image under the titles. As the screen fades in, we are confronted with a massive gong and man hitting the gong with the traditional mallet.

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In both films, the heroes begin their adventures at the end of other adventures. Both films commence with the heroes, Archibald Cutter and Indiana Jones, in brawls in a public establishments. Cutter is in fisticuffs with men at a local tavern in a dispute over being sold a phony treasure map. Indy is fist fighting for the antidote that will save him from lethal poison in an upscale nightclub.

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From there, Cutter and Indy, through various misadventures find themselves forced into the path of the Thuggee. Cutter’s commanding officer sends he and his companions out to a village they have lost communication with. Indy falls out of an airplane with his companions and is led to a troubled village as well. In both films, the village is a place of despair, desertion, and sadness.

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Cutter and his friends find a strange axe along with a fanatical group of Kali worshippers who escape by force. Indy is told by the village wise man of the troubles plaguing the community. In Cutter's story, the Thuggee have emptied the entire village. In Indy’s story, only the children have been taken. Cutter's superior tells him of the Thuggee cult and their apparent resurgence, even though they were taken care of previously by the British army some years before.

Interestingly, in Temple of Doom, Mola Ram eventually tells Indy that the British Army "butchered" his people a century before. Subtracting a century from 1935, the year Temple of Doom is set, and you come up with a date much farther back than when the events of Gunga Din take place, during the late 1800s. This would indicate that Indiana Jones' fight with the Thuggee cult is the third such conflict to take place in the span of a century.

Cutter learns from his loyal Indian water carrier, Gunga Din, that there is an ancient temple made of gold hidden somewhere in the mountains. Hit with gold fever, Cutter schemes to journey there. Likewise, Indy is told of the palace in greater detail through his own trusty companion, Short Round. He too succumbs to a lust for fortune and glory.
Indy, via a train of elephants, heads for the palace when the evil that plagues the village supposedly emanates from. When Cutter and Gunga Din make for the temple of gold, they too steal away on an elephant.

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Cutter and Indy’s first glimpses of the palaces that hold their destinies are compositionally similar, with the structures in a forced perspective in the background and our heroes positioned in the foreground.

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Once inside the palace, Indy learns from a British officer about past dealings with the Thuggee. Ultimately, both Cutter and Indy learn of the past conflicts with the Thuggee from ranking British Army officers.
Before Cutter and Gunga Din can reach the temple, they are forced to cross a rickety rope bridge over a deep chasm. Gunga Din tries to assure a dubious Cutter that the bridge is safe, but upon the first steps, Cutter almost falls through a slat that snaps underfoot.

In the climax of Temple of Doom, Indy and Short Round also encounter a rickety rope bridge and Short Round, while trying to convince the film’s heroine, Willie, that the bridge is safe, almost falls through as, yet again, a slat snaps underfoot.

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Before Indy actually begins his journey into the bowels of the palace, he is set upon by a Thuggee who tries to strangle him. Earlier in Gunga Din, while in the deserted village, Cutter and his friends are attacked by Thuggee. One of them attempts to strangle Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. from behind in the same fashion as that of the Thuggee in Temple of Doom. It is firmly established by not only their commanding officer, but also by the evil Guru, that the Thuggee prefer strangulation as their method of killing.

Cutter and Indy sneak into the temple of the Thuggee. From safe hiding places, they witness the Thuggee ceremonies alongside Gunga Din and Short Round.

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In both ceremonial chambers, the heroes encounter massive statues of the goddess Kali.

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In the ceremony Cutter witnesses, the Guru encourages his minions to go out into the world for the love of Kali and kill all who stand in their way for the glory of the Thuggee cult. The ceremony Indy witnesses shows the horde of minions chanting to Kali as Mola Ram personally sacrifices a victim for Kali.

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The actual look of Mola Ram is remarkably similar to the character of the Guru, and understandably so. There is obvious and intentional continuity in the Thuggee leader of Mola Ram when compared to the Guru. Both are captivating, sage-like men with shaven heads and hypnotic eyes, accompanied by almost psychotic smiles.

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In the Guru’s ceremony, he tells the Thuggee of their common quest to rid the world of their detractors. Later in the film, as Cutter’s hostage, the Guru goes into a monologue in which he waxes poetic about his quest to conquer all India and the world. Mola Ram delivers a very similar speech to Indiana Jones as he tortures him and forces him to drink the Thuggee blood. He speaks of the Thuggee casting down the gods of other religions and turning the world to the Thuggee cult.
This torture sequence exists in both films. Cutter and his friends are also taken by the Thuggee and tortured, though not to join the cult, but to divulge the location of the British Army. In both films, the hero is strapped to a post and flogged. The Thuggee also begin torturing the heroes’ friends, and both Cutter and Indy, despite their own pain protest the beatings of their comrades.

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The climaxes of both Gunga Din and Temple of Doom involve the escape of the heroes from bondage. Cutter and his friends escape to the roof of the temple with the Guru as their hostage, all the while surrounded by the Thuggee henchmen. Indy and his friends execute a daring escape out of the temple, all the while pursued by gun-toting Thuggee.

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Indy’s adventure comes to a height at the rope bridge, surrounded by Thuggee. In a moment of blind bravado, Indy cuts the bridge in half. Soon afterwards, the British Army arrives to save Indy and his friends. In Gunga Din, the Thuggee try to use the rope bridge to escape the approaching British Army, but the British soldiers cut the bridge while many of the Thuggee are on it, and they plunge to their deaths, much like the Thuggee in Temple of Doom.

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The demise of the villains is quite similar in both films on a symbolic level. Both the Guru and Mola Ram plummet into pits of reptiles. Mola Ram falls from the broken bridge into a river of alligators while trying to catch one of the Sankara Stones. The Guru, rather than be captured by the British Army, sacrifices himself by jumping into a pit of cobras.

The parallels between Gunga Din and Temple of Doom are glaringly obvious, both dramatically and visually. At the same time, Temple of Doom’s screenwriters either intentionally or unintentionally, shrewdly insinuate in the dialogue of the film that Indy’s adventure is a sequel to the events of Gunga Din.
The British captain tells Indy at the banquet, "The Thuggee were an obscenity that worshipped Kali with human sacrifice. The British Army nicely did away with them." One could infer that this statement refers to the actions of Cutter and his friends.
In any case, both stories follow the adventures of impulsive fortune seekers and their friends as they face off against the deadly Thuggee cult and their insidious leaders. Both films are mainly set-driven with an off-color sense of humor and rollicking action sequences that take place in similar locales. This humor and adventure is accompanied by a sinister undertone in the form of the Thuggee and their evil intentions.

Gunga Din and Temple of Doom are films cut from the same mold. I am convinced that the adventures of Indiana Jones are incomplete in any movie collection without Gunga Din on the shelf beside them, for it is the prequel to one of Indy’s greatest adventures.


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