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Twelve years after netting critical acclaim and commercial success for mining the writings of Rudyard Kipling in Gunga Din (1939) at RKO, producer Pandro S. Berman was all too ready to adapt another rousing yarn of Colonial India for MGM. With an impressive cast and a story bearing significant echoes to the prior film, Soldiers Three (1951) falls short of attaining similar classic status, but is still a diverting entertainment.
To his great dismay, Col. Brunswick (Walter Pidgeon) has been transferred from his duties tracking the insurrectionist leader Govind-Lal (Richard Hale) and given a new detail at a remote base in Hyderalipore. Not only has his command been made subordinate to Col. Groat (Frank Allenby), but he finds himself saddled with the antics of a trio of shiftless, defiant and hard-drinking privates: Archibald Ackroyd (Stewart Granger), Jock Sykes (Robert Newton) and Dennis Malloy (Cyril Cusack). Brunswick foists off the discipline of these ne'er-do-wells on his adjutant, Capt. Pindenny (David Niven); his solution is to promote Ackroyd to sergeant, in the hopes of fostering resentment on the parts of Sykes and Malloy.
The bonds forged by combat and carousing prove too great for these tactics, however, and when Sykes and Malloy face certain attack after they're assigned to provide escort for a desperately needed ammunition convoy, Ackroyd deserts so that they may face the odds together. As it turns out, the convoy has been targeted by the renegade Malik Rao (Michael Ansara), and Brunswick finds himself compromised by the obstinate Groat's insistence that no reinforcements be spared in case of attack.
Soldiers Three plays out today like a typical, big-budget costume adventure, but its box office receipts in its day were disappointing, and many of the cast and crew would later regard the film without much warmth. Director Tay Garnett, an underrated filmmaker who brought his usual steady hand to the proceedings, made this observance in his autobiography Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights (Arlington House): "[The cast and story] should have made a good picture, but the miscasting of one principal, which I failed to recognize until it was too late, threw the show completely out of balance. Trying to restore equilibrium with jokes and gags was like trying to cure bubonic plague with warm beer."
Granger was similarly dismissive in his memoir Sparks Fly Upward (Putnam's). "Work on the film was pleasant with Tay laughing hysterically at every scene we shot. If everybody in the audience had laughed half as much when the film was shown we would have had a winner, but of course they didn't. Bob Newton was absolutely impossible, bless him, and arrived practically every morning incoherent with booze."
Granger did derive satisfaction in working with the project's second unit director, the legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. "He had been champion cowboy at all the rodeos for years and was built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse. It was a pleasure to work with this big gentle Indian, and we became good friends. But the script. Oh dear! If Metro had planned to ruin my career they couldn't have chosen a better subject."
The screenplay was the work of Tom Reed, Malcolm Stuart Boylan and Marguerite Roberts. Amongst that handful of exceptions to the essentially male-dominated world of screenwriting during Hollywood's golden age, Roberts stood out for her facility with macho fare. According to Lizzie Francke's Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood, Clark Gable had remarked during her tenure at MGM that she "writes men with more balls than any other guy on this lot." The year that Soldiers Three was released, Roberts was brought up before HUAC, and her refusal to name names derailed her career for years. She ultimately appreciated the irony when her most celebrated project, True Grit (1969), netted political opposite John Wayne his only performing Oscar®.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Tom Reed, Marguerite Roberts,
Based on the novel by Rudyard KiplingCinematography: William Mellor
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Adolph Deutsch, Alex Hyde
Cast: Stewart Granger (Pvt. Archibald Ackroyd), Walter Pidgeon (Col. Brunswick), David Niven (Capt. Pindenny), Robert Newton (Pvt. Bill Sykes), Cyril Cusack (Pvt. Dennis Malloy), Greta Gynt (Crenshaw).
by Jay S. Steinberg