Last night's film was the 1939 classic "Gunga Din" with Douglas Fairbanks and Cary Grant, playing British soldiers in late-1800s India. The film was based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, so you could imagine it portrayed the colonizers as good guys and the rebels as villains. The title character (played by a Russian Jewish immigrant, Sam Jaffee) is an Indian who wants to become a soldier in the British army, and tags along with the troops and befriends them. There's a sub-plot about one of the soldiers wanting to leave the service and get married--ha, good luck, dude! Not while there's a rebellion going on!--but ultimately this hinges on Gunga Din sacrificing his life to save the British from a massive ambush.
While the film was well done, I was struck by how dated it was--and not because it was a period piece. Keep in mind, in 1939 India was still a British colony and Gandhi would have to wait a full 45 years to get his own motion picture. And while the white folks playing Indians manage to avoid the uglier stereotypes--yes I'm looking at you, Apu from the Simpsons!--there is still the simplicity of the roles of good and subservient and rotten and rebellious. Gunga Din is a good guy because he's loyal to his colonial masters, and the bad guys aren't just trying to unshackle colonial oppression but rather are looking to conquer India through fear and murder.
Could this film be re-made in 2011? Perhaps, though we'd see a lot more of the obligatory "British troops questioning why they're in India" and "Indians showing weariness with their colonial status" and "random dance numbers like Slumdog Millionaire". Here's how I think some modern directors would re-do Gunga Din:
1) Michael Bay would feature gratuitous explosions and big-breasted women running around to the extent the viewer will wonder "isn't this supposed to be the 1800s?"
2) Martin Scorcese would move the action to 1960s Brooklyn, with Gunga DiNapoli as a young tough who wants to join the Gambinos, and saves them from the cops at the last minute. "You're a better mook than this guy, Gunga DiNapoli" would be the immortal line.
3) Eli Roth would basically have the whole film focus on the torture scene.
4) Quentin Tarantino would have Gunga Din spend a good deal of time eating some baked dessert, while a seductress waggles her bare feet in his face and they have a long discussion about cereal that was popular in the early '70s and films that were popular in Germany.
5) Mel Brooks would give Gunga Din a Yiddish accent and work a pie fight into the film. Dom DeLuise footage would somehow find its way in as well.