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Gunga Din

Gunga Din(1939)

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teaser Gunga Din (1939)

SYNOPSIS

In an encampment of Her Majesty's Lancers in Colonial India, the commanding officer (Montagu Love) is distressed by the cutoff of communications from an outpost ten miles distant. He wants three of his most dependable sergeants to embark on an investigative mission; however, the trio must first be pulled away from a bar brawl to receive their orders. The comrades in arms include the calculating Cutter (Cary Grant), ever dreaming of finding a cache of riches; the grizzled veteran MacChesney (Victor McLaglen); and the gentlemanly Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), whose sole focus is his imminent discharge and marriage to his fiance (Joan Fontaine), much to the chagrin of his comrades. Among the troops taken on the mission is the humble bhisti Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), for whom life would hold no greater honor than to serve as regular Army. They arrive at the outpost to find the streets empty; the soldiers' rousting of the homes turns up one small cluster of ostensible survivors. After being summarily revealed as the marauders, they summon waves of mounted reinforcements who send the British forces scurrying for their lives over the rooftops and into the river below. Making their way back to camp, the sergeants present their CO with a captured pickaxe. The colonel immediately recognizes it as the weapon of choice of the Thuggee, the criminal sect devoted to the Hindustani goddess of destruction Kali. The sergeants are left to their own devices while the military response is planned. Cutter's drunken fixation with a legendary golden temple leads to a one-sided slugfest with MacChesney, a stint in the brig, and an audacious escape courtesy of Din and MacChesney's beloved pet elephant. In their flight, Cutter and Din discover the mythical temple which, as they unfortunately learn too late, is also the Thuggee's gathering place. Cutter offers himself to the cult to buy Din time to escape, and the quest for his rescue drives Gunga Din to its rousing conclusion.

Producer: George Stevens
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol, story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Film Editing: Henry Berman, John Lockert
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Cary Grant (Sergeant Archibald Cutter), Victor McLaglen (Sergeant MacChesney), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Sergeant Ballantine), Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din), Eduardo Ciannelli (Guru), Joan Fontaine (Emaline Stebbins), Montagu Love (Col. Weed), Robert Coote (Sgt. Bertie Higginbotham), Abner Biberman (Chota).
BW-117m.

Why GUNGA DIN is Essential

"Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" -
Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

Drawing title and inspiration from Rudyard Kipling's 1892 ode to a courageous water bearer, RKO's production of Gunga Din (1939) would be the studio's costliest project at that point in its history. Although RKO's executives may have sweated the cost overruns like the Indian desert heat, this semi-comic adventure tale would become one of their most profitable efforts, and stands as one of the most entertaining action films to ever come out of Hollywood.

In the mid-30s, adventure films set in Colonial India such as Clive of India (1935) and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) had proven to be tremendous draws. An independent producer named Edward Small found it worth expending $5000 to Kipling's widow for the film rights to his poem, and $750 a week to William Faulkner to flesh it into a screenplay. RKO ultimately bought the property outright from Small, and Faulkner's efforts were handed to Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht for reworking.

While the assignment to direct Gunga Din had originally been handed to Howard Hawks, the RKO brass looked askance at the production delays plaguing Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) and determined that George Stevens would be more likely to bring the picture in on time. The move essentially backfired, as Stevens proved to be no less deliberate, and insistent on performing location shooting in the deserts of Lone Pine, California, where temperatures topping 115 degrees took a toll on cast and crew.

Photography on Gunga Din commenced in late June 1938, and would not conclude for 104 days. A memorable image from the shoot was recounted in Warren G. Harris' Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance (Doubleday): "Since there was a shortage of dark-skinned extras who could pass for natives, hundreds needed to have their bodies covered with brown liquid makeup. Starting at daybreak, they lined up to take their turns on revolving platforms that were operated by makeup artists armed with spray guns."

The performances in Gunga Din are memorable across the board, with Jaffe engaging as the noble, self-sacrificing bhisti, and Eduardo Ciannelli striking properly chilling tones of menace as the spiritual leader of the Thuggee. The three principals, though, haul it all on their shoulders via their macho byplay and wisecracks.

Capping the production was the memorable score by Alfred Newman; some sources insist that the central water-bearer theme should actually be attributed to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who had originally drawn the assignment. Gunga Din went through various cuts in the course of its re-releases; reportedly, the script's brief inclusion of Rudyard Kipling (Reginald Sheffield) as a journalist on assignment so underwhelmed Mrs. Kipling that she lobbied to have the scenes excised.

The political correctness of Gunga Din has been challenged as far back as its original premiere, when the film had been banned from distribution in India. But as a pure adventurous lark, Gunga Din holds up as well now as then, and retains its place amongst the top films of 1939, Hollywood's greatest year.

by Jay Steinberg and John Miller

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teaser Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga Din was one of the first movies to be given the colorization treatment in the 1980s, during the height of popularity for that controversial process. One of the participants who did not object to the results was Cary Grant. In the book Evenings with Cary Grant, the actor was quoted as saying, "...I've seen a reel of Gunga Din in color. It's absolutely marvelous. The uniforms are exactly what they should be." Grant also enjoyed the colorized version of Topper (1937), but admitted that "...some films should be left untouched."

There was never a sequel made to Gunga Din. However, in Blake Edwards' 1968 comedy The Party, Peter Sellers plays an Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi. At the beginning of the film, we see that stage actor Bakshi has been brought to Hollywood to play the title role in a movie called Son of Gunga Din. The brilliantly inept Bakshi is fired when he manages to destroy the very expensive outdoor set built for the film while trying to tie his shoe on the dynamite ignite lever!

If 1939 was a banner year for Hollywood, then it stands to reason that 1939 was one of the best and most prolific years for Ben Hecht, who had quickly become one of the industry's highest paid screenwriters, on both credited projects and on "script doctoring" assignments. Hecht had a hand in nine films released in 1939, including several of the most prominent, such as Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, and of course, Gunga Din.

Pandro S. Berman, the long-time RKO executive and producer who served as a production manager for Gunga Din, moved to MGM in 1941 to head a production unit. In 1951 he produced Soldiers Three, which was adapted more faithfully from the Rudyard Kipling book. Directed by Tay Garnett, the film relates in flashback form the adventures in India of three British privates: Archibald Ackroyd (Stewart Granger), Dennis Malloy (Cyril Cusack), and Jock Sykes (Robert Newton). In another link with Gunga Din, actor Robert Coote, who played Sgt. Higginbotham in that film, turns up here as Major Mercer.

Almost all of the major plot elements of Gunga Din show up in the 1962 comedy Sergeants 3, directed by John Sturges. This Rat Pack film moves the action to the U.S. Indian Territory in 1870 and concerns three rowdy Cavalry sergeants: Mike (Frank Sinatra), Chip (Dean Martin), and Larry (Peter Lawford). This time it is Frank and Dean who are determined to prevent Peter from leaving the service to get married. The Gunga Din figure is camp bugler Jonah Williams (Sammy Davis, Jr.), a former slave who is anxious to one day become a trooper. A tribe of bloodthirsty American Indians stand in for the original film's cult of Kali-worshipping Indians. Director Sturges had actually served as an uncredited assistant editor on Gunga Din. The plot of the older film was casually lifted for this romp; apparently the remake rights were acquired rather late in the game to avoid any legal entanglements upon release.

Gunga Din remained the cinema's only use of the Kali-worshipping Thuggee Cult as a plot point for many years; that is, until they turned up in the second Beatles film Help! (1965), directed by Richard Lester. Here, the Thuggees were not interested in murder by strangulation as much as they were in retrieving a ring needed for their religious ceremonies for the goddess Kali. The Cult leader, played by Leo McKern, rallies his forces to recover the ring at any cost; for most of the film it resides on the finger of Ringo Starr.

Thuggees also served as the main villainous force in the second Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), directed by Steven Spielberg from a story by George Lucas. This prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) borrows many elements from Gunga Din, including scenes on a precarious rope bridge overlooking a deep gorge. The Thuggees in this film are not merely assassins; they also practice blood sacrifice to Kali. The intensity of the violent sacrifice scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom helped lead the Motion Picture Association of America to expand the ratings system to include a PG-13 classification.

by John M. Miller

back to top
teaser Gunga Din (1939)

"Gunga Din" was actually an unlikely Indian name; "Gunga" is the Hindu name for the Ganges River, while "Din" is an Arabic word which translates into "faith."

Shortly before location filming on Gunga Din was to begin, fire broke out on the very large Tantapur Village set, destroying an entire block and many props. Lloyd's of London had to pay out on one of the biggest movie-related claims up to that time, and a small army of builders was sent from Hollywood to restore the set in just 10 days.

The scene showing a deep gorge underneath the rope bridge in Gunga Din was accomplished with a matte painting by RKO studio technician Mario Larrinaga. Larrinaga was brought to RKO by special effects genius Willis O'Brien to work on King Kong (1933), for which he created many matte paintings. Larrinaga also lent his talents to The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Son of Kong (1933), She (1935), and Citizen Kane (1941).

Annie the elephant in Gunga Din was played by Anna Mae, a seasoned animal actor with credits dating back to silent era. Aside from the expected variety of Jungle movies, one of Anna Mae's most high profile appearances was with Charles Chaplin in City Lights (1931).

To properly capture the sound of the British bagpipe corps during the climactic battle scenes in Gunga Din, composer Alfred Newman recorded the bagpipe compositions outdoors - in Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles.

The opening titles of Gunga Din appeared in a huge gong; the words on the gong changed in a rippling sound-wave effect each time a turbaned man hit the gong. The ripple effect was accomplished by RKO effects chief Linwood Dunn. The titles were reflected in a smooth pool of mercury photographed from above, and jostled each time the ripple was required. In the mid-1940s, the J. Arthur Rank company of England adopted a man-hitting-a-gong motif for their opening logo.

Gunga Din co-screenwriter Fred Guiol was a long-time friend and associate of George Stevens. The two met when Guiol was a director at Hal Roach and later at RKO. Stevens served as cinematographer for such Guiol two-reelers as Slipping Wives (1927), one of the first pairings of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Guiol was a contract director at RKO, until he was let go after going over budget and schedule on the Wheeler and Woolsey feature Mummy's Boys (1936). Stevens made sure to find work for his mentor for years; Guiol's name pops up in association with several major Stevens films: as a screenwriter on both Gunga Din and Giant (1956), as associate producer on Penny Serenade (1941) and The Talk of the Town (1942), and even as associate director on A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953).

Memorable Quotes from GUNGA DIN

Colonel Weed (Montagu Love): I need all three of you at Tantapur.
Sgt. Thomas 'Tommy' Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.): Are we going out on a job sir?
Col. Weed: Of the most vital importance. You leave for Tantapur with a detachment in the morning. To repair the telegraph, and keep it open. That is all.

Sgt. Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant): What's the matter Bal? You've been wool-gathering ever since we crawled out of the river.
Sgt. Ballantine: Well, uh, you know that my time is up on May 14th.
Sgt. 'Mac' MacChesney (Victor McLaglen): Well, what of that? You can sign on for another nine years, can't you? Make a man out of 'im, eh?
Sgt. Ballantine: Well, uhm, I'm leaving the service.
Sgt. MacChesney: Leavin' the service?
Sgt. Ballantine: That's right. I'm uhm, I'm getting married and I'm going into the tea business!
Sgt. MacChesney: Married?
Sgt. Cutter: Tea Business?
Sgt. MacChesney: Why, you're Mad!

Sgt. Cutter: You're looking very regimental, Din.
Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe): Thank you, Sergeant... Thank you. The salute satisfactory?
Sgt. Cutter: That's the idea. Only...you want these fingers to fan the eyebrows more like this. [makes a salute] The breeze from them fingers oughta almost blow this eyebrow off. Now try it again.
[Din salutes again]
Sgt. Cutter: Very good. Very good indeed. Eh... That one almost blew your turban off, didn't it?

Sgt. MacChesney (to Cutter): You ain't so stupid as you look.

Sgt. Ballantine: Oh yes, on the last roof we almost lost MacChesney. His great elephant hoof crashed through and stuck.
Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine): How did you get him out?
Sgt. Ballantine: We had to saw his leg off at the 'ip. And if you don't believe me, just look behind that shrub. (indicates where MacChesney and Cutter are eavesdropping).

Sgt. MacChesney: Blast them Thuggees - why don't they come and give us a good fight? Then Bal'll be a pipe to re-enlist.
Sgt. Cutter: How can we get a nice little war going?

Sgt. MacChesney: Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Cutter, you ain't leaving this village without my permission. Give me that bottle.
Sgt. Cutter: MacChesney, I've been a soldier for fourteen years. I know my duties as well as you do. But you're not talking to a soldier now, you're talking to an expedition. I'm an expedition! Out of me way!

Sgt. Cutter: Now get me some tools. Something to rip these blinking bars out with.
Gunga Din: Already bring all tools could find. Is this satisfactory, sahib? [holds up a fork]
Sgt. Cutter: Look...What do you think I want to break out of - a bloomin' pudding? Now go on, get something big!
[Din leaves, returns with an elephant]
Sgt. Cutter: Annie! What are you doing, Din?
Gunga Din: The large tool you asked for, sahib.

Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli): Let the neophytes and their teachers draw near. Where are the stranglers? (to assembled Thuggees) Give them their strangling cloths!
Thuggees: KALIIII!
Guru: Give them their burial picks!
Thuggees: KALIIII!
Guru: Swear by our mother Kali to be thrice faithful to her and to me and to our order and to all of us.
[Thuggees pray in Hindi]
Guru: Rise, our new-made brothers. Rise and kill. Kill, lest you be killed yourselves. Kill for the love of killing. Kill for the love of Kali. Kill! Kill! Kill!

Sgt. Cutter: You must get there, Din. The Colonel's got to know.
Gunga Din: The Colonel? I will run quick.
Sgt. Cutter: (Marches amid the Thuggees, singing an English pub song). Now you're all under arrest. The whole bunch of you. You too, and you know why. Her Majesty's very touchy about having her subjects strangled.

Sgt. Ballantine: In those dreary grey hours before dawn just go out and chase elephants. Beats counting sheep a million miles.
Sgt. MacChesney: What do you mean "elephants"? This ain't elephants. This is Annie. My Annie.

Guru: I want to know about your army.
Sgt. Cutter: Why don't you enlist, Mate?
Guru: LASH!

Sgt. Cutter: Eight feet away from where I'm sitting, right here, there's enough gold to make me sole owner and proprietor of a pub as big as the Crystal Palace. Best pub in Hampshire. And here I am. You Torturer!

Guru: You seem to think warfare an English invention. Have you never heard of Chandragupta Maurya? He slaughtered all the armies left in India by Alexander the Great. India was a mighty nation then while Englishmen still dwelt in caves and painted themselves blue.

Sgt MacChesney: You're mad! Guru: Mad? Mad. Hannibal was mad, Caesar was mad, and Napoleon surely was the maddest of the lot. Ever since time began, they've called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. For this is but the spring flash that precedes the flood. From here we roll on. From village to town. From town to mighty city. Ever mounting, ever widening, until at last my wave engulfs all India!

Colonel Weed: Though I've belted you and flayed you / By the living Gawd that made you / You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Compiled by John M. Miller

back to top
teaser Gunga Din (1939)

"Gunga Din" was actually an unlikely Indian name; "Gunga" is the Hindu name for the Ganges River, while "Din" is an Arabic word which translates into "faith."

Shortly before location filming on Gunga Din was to begin, fire broke out on the very large Tantapur Village set, destroying an entire block and many props. Lloyd's of London had to pay out on one of the biggest movie-related claims up to that time, and a small army of builders was sent from Hollywood to restore the set in just 10 days.

The scene showing a deep gorge underneath the rope bridge in Gunga Din was accomplished with a matte painting by RKO studio technician Mario Larrinaga. Larrinaga was brought to RKO by special effects genius Willis O'Brien to work on King Kong (1933), for which he created many matte paintings. Larrinaga also lent his talents to The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Son of Kong (1933), She (1935), and Citizen Kane (1941).

Annie the elephant in Gunga Din was played by Anna Mae, a seasoned animal actor with credits dating back to silent era. Aside from the expected variety of Jungle movies, one of Anna Mae's most high profile appearances was with Charles Chaplin in City Lights (1931).

To properly capture the sound of the British bagpipe corps during the climactic battle scenes in Gunga Din, composer Alfred Newman recorded the bagpipe compositions outdoors - in Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles.

The opening titles of Gunga Din appeared in a huge gong; the words on the gong changed in a rippling sound-wave effect each time a turbaned man hit the gong. The ripple effect was accomplished by RKO effects chief Linwood Dunn. The titles were reflected in a smooth pool of mercury photographed from above, and jostled each time the ripple was required. In the mid-1940s, the J. Arthur Rank company of England adopted a man-hitting-a-gong motif for their opening logo.

Gunga Din co-screenwriter Fred Guiol was a long-time friend and associate of George Stevens. The two met when Guiol was a director at Hal Roach and later at RKO. Stevens served as cinematographer for such Guiol two-reelers as Slipping Wives (1927), one of the first pairings of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Guiol was a contract director at RKO, until he was let go after going over budget and schedule on the Wheeler and Woolsey feature Mummy's Boys (1936). Stevens made sure to find work for his mentor for years; Guiol's name pops up in association with several major Stevens films: as a screenwriter on both Gunga Din and Giant (1956), as associate producer on Penny Serenade (1941) and The Talk of the Town (1942), and even as associate director on A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953).

Memorable Quotes from GUNGA DIN

Colonel Weed (Montagu Love): I need all three of you at Tantapur.
Sgt. Thomas 'Tommy' Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.): Are we going out on a job sir?
Col. Weed: Of the most vital importance. You leave for Tantapur with a detachment in the morning. To repair the telegraph, and keep it open. That is all.

Sgt. Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant): What's the matter Bal? You've been wool-gathering ever since we crawled out of the river.
Sgt. Ballantine: Well, uh, you know that my time is up on May 14th.
Sgt. 'Mac' MacChesney (Victor McLaglen): Well, what of that? You can sign on for another nine years, can't you? Make a man out of 'im, eh?
Sgt. Ballantine: Well, uhm, I'm leaving the service.
Sgt. MacChesney: Leavin' the service?
Sgt. Ballantine: That's right. I'm uhm, I'm getting married and I'm going into the tea business!
Sgt. MacChesney: Married?
Sgt. Cutter: Tea Business?
Sgt. MacChesney: Why, you're Mad!

Sgt. Cutter: You're looking very regimental, Din.
Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe): Thank you, Sergeant... Thank you. The salute satisfactory?
Sgt. Cutter: That's the idea. Only...you want these fingers to fan the eyebrows more like this. [makes a salute] The breeze from them fingers oughta almost blow this eyebrow off. Now try it again.
[Din salutes again]
Sgt. Cutter: Very good. Very good indeed. Eh... That one almost blew your turban off, didn't it?

Sgt. MacChesney (to Cutter): You ain't so stupid as you look.

Sgt. Ballantine: Oh yes, on the last roof we almost lost MacChesney. His great elephant hoof crashed through and stuck.
Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine): How did you get him out?
Sgt. Ballantine: We had to saw his leg off at the 'ip. And if you don't believe me, just look behind that shrub. (indicates where MacChesney and Cutter are eavesdropping).

Sgt. MacChesney: Blast them Thuggees - why don't they come and give us a good fight? Then Bal'll be a pipe to re-enlist.
Sgt. Cutter: How can we get a nice little war going?

Sgt. MacChesney: Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Cutter, you ain't leaving this village without my permission. Give me that bottle.
Sgt. Cutter: MacChesney, I've been a soldier for fourteen years. I know my duties as well as you do. But you're not talking to a soldier now, you're talking to an expedition. I'm an expedition! Out of me way!

Sgt. Cutter: Now get me some tools. Something to rip these blinking bars out with.
Gunga Din: Already bring all tools could find. Is this satisfactory, sahib? [holds up a fork]
Sgt. Cutter: Look...What do you think I want to break out of - a bloomin' pudding? Now go on, get something big!
[Din leaves, returns with an elephant]
Sgt. Cutter: Annie! What are you doing, Din?
Gunga Din: The large tool you asked for, sahib.

Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli): Let the neophytes and their teachers draw near. Where are the stranglers? (to assembled Thuggees) Give them their strangling cloths!
Thuggees: KALIIII!
Guru: Give them their burial picks!
Thuggees: KALIIII!
Guru: Swear by our mother Kali to be thrice faithful to her and to me and to our order and to all of us.
[Thuggees pray in Hindi]
Guru: Rise, our new-made brothers. Rise and kill. Kill, lest you be killed yourselves. Kill for the love of killing. Kill for the love of Kali. Kill! Kill! Kill!

Sgt. Cutter: You must get there, Din. The Colonel's got to know.
Gunga Din: The Colonel? I will run quick.
Sgt. Cutter: (Marches amid the Thuggees, singing an English pub song). Now you're all under arrest. The whole bunch of you. You too, and you know why. Her Majesty's very touchy about having her subjects strangled.

Sgt. Ballantine: In those dreary grey hours before dawn just go out and chase elephants. Beats counting sheep a million miles.
Sgt. MacChesney: What do you mean "elephants"? This ain't elephants. This is Annie. My Annie.

Guru: I want to know about your army.
Sgt. Cutter: Why don't you enlist, Mate?
Guru: LASH!

Sgt. Cutter: Eight feet away from where I'm sitting, right here, there's enough gold to make me sole owner and proprietor of a pub as big as the Crystal Palace. Best pub in Hampshire. And here I am. You Torturer!

Guru: You seem to think warfare an English invention. Have you never heard of Chandragupta Maurya? He slaughtered all the armies left in India by Alexander the Great. India was a mighty nation then while Englishmen still dwelt in caves and painted themselves blue.

Sgt MacChesney: You're mad! Guru: Mad? Mad. Hannibal was mad, Caesar was mad, and Napoleon surely was the maddest of the lot. Ever since time began, they've called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. For this is but the spring flash that precedes the flood. From here we roll on. From village to town. From town to mighty city. Ever mounting, ever widening, until at last my wave engulfs all India!

Colonel Weed: Though I've belted you and flayed you / By the living Gawd that made you / You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Compiled by John M. Miller

back to top
teaser Gunga Din (1939)

Acclaimed author, poet, and journalist Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) allowed very few of his works to be adapted to the screen during his lifetime. There was a short silent film adaptation made in 1911 of his famous poem, "Gunga Din," but it was probably unauthorized. Years later, Irving Thalberg at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had entertained the idea of a film called Gunga Din, and after the success of Trader Horn (1931) director W. S. Van Dyke was attached to the project. No film resulted, however, and the property never got past the treatment stage.

Kipling died in London on January 18, 1936. Kipling's widow began selling the film rights to various properties, resulting in a rush of production. In 1937, three Kipling adaptations were released. Alexander Korda's film Elephant Boy (1937) was based on the Kipling story "Toomai of the Elephants," and made a star of young Indian actor Sabu. Wee Willie Winkie (1937), directed by John Ford, came from a Kipling story about a small boy, but the gender was changed to allow for this vehicle starring Shirley Temple. Captains Courageous (1937) was a fine adaptation of Kipling's novel. It starred Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew and was directed by Victor Fleming for MGM. It was nominated for several Oscars®, including Best Picture, and Tracy won his first Best Actor Oscar® for his role.

The film rights to Kipling's poem "Gunga Din" were purchased in 1936 by independent producer Edward Small. Small paid Kipling's widow 5,000 pounds for the rights, and hired no less than William Faulkner at $750 a week to fashion a story. Faulkner spent weeks on the project, and laid out several somber variations on a theme, all of them painting Din as a drunk and a gambler! Small felt that a serious approach with a complex plot was the wrong way to go, so other writers were brought in for new treatments.

RKO Radio Pictures acquired the rights from Small and put the film on its roster, with Howard Hawks set to produce and direct. Hawks had run into budget and schedule problems with his screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), and when that film sputtered at the box office, RKO instead assigned its large-scale Kipling project to George Stevens, a rising young producer-director. Stevens had distinguished himself at the studio in recent years, moving up from helming Wheeler and Woolsey comedies to directing such properties as the Katharine Hepburn drama Alice Adams (1935) and the musical comedies Swing Time (1936) and A Damsel in Distress (1937).

During Hawks' brief tenure as director, he brought writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur into the project. Hecht and MacArthur reworked the treatments that Faulkner and other writers had left from the earlier phase of the picture. The writing team kept the basic Soldiers Three (published 1895) Kipling story, but added concepts from their own hit play The Front Page, in particular the struggle by Sgt. MacChesney to keep Sgt. Ballantine in the service and away from his new fiance. (In the play, newspaper editor Walter Burns goes to great lengths to keep reporter Hildy Johnson away from his marriage vows and on his staff). George Stevens brought in his own writers, Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol, who eventually received the screenplay credit for the film. The final major plot element to be added to the story was the conflict with the Thuggee Cult of assassins.

Casting for the picture was all-important, in order to retain the proper "3 Musketeers" chemistry. Veteran Victor McLaglen, an Oscar®-winner for John Ford's The Informer (1935), was cast as the brawny Sgt. MacChesney. McLaglen had already appeared in the Kipling adaptation Wee Willie Winkie, as Sgt. MacDuff. Cary Grant had a non-exclusive contract with RKO, and had recently scored big in several non-RKO films, such as Topper (1937) at Hal Roach Studios, and The Awful Truth (1937) and Holiday (1938) at Columbia Pictures. He was offered the dashing role of Sgt. Ballantine, but Grant preferred to play the smaller role of Sgt. Cutter. Grant was anxious to play a broad Cockney character with a lot of physical comedy, and he and Stevens worked up several new bits of business for Cutter. Grant also gave the character his own real first name, Archibald. With Cary Grant playing Sgt. Cutter, the role of Ballantine was open for the film's third lead. Only two weeks before the start of principal photography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was cast - Grant, in fact, had suggested him for the role.

Sabu would have been a natural to play the title role, and RKO was certainly interested in acquiring him. Producer Alexander Korda held Sabu's contract, however, and Korda was unwilling to loan him out; Korda's epic The Thief of Bagdad (1940) was in preproduction and the producer wanted to keep his star nearby. The role of Gunga Din was open, and although he was 47 years old at the time, character actor Sam Jaffe auditioned for the part of the water-boy. Jaffe, whose most recent appearance was as the wizened High Lama in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), knew of the desire to have Sabu play the role, and so he simply played it as Sabu might have.

by John M. Miller

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teaser Gunga Din (1939)

Filming began in June of 1938 and was set to last for 64 days. Due to the working methods of director Stevens and to a studio anxious to produce its most prestigious picture to date, Gunga Din would ultimately go over budget, miss its release date of Christmas, 1938, and the shooting schedule would stretch well beyond the allotted 64 days to a total of 104 days.

Location shooting on Gunga Din took place near Lone Pine, California, in the middle of the High Sierras, about 225 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The compliment of actors, crew, extras, technicians, horses, elephants, and trainers was huge - the largest company sent on location in Hollywood history up to that time. The largest set was that built for the Tantapur village, several blocks of complex structures and rooftops. About six miles from that location, in a flatter desert terrain, an Army encampment for the British troops was constructed. At a third location, higher into the Sierras, the Thuggee Temple was built.

Six weeks was allotted for location shooting, but much to the horror of RKO production manager Pandro S. Berman, George Stevens proved to be just as slow a director as Howard Hawks would have been, if not slower. Stevens drew upon his experience as a cameraman and director of silent comedies at Hal Roach Studios and increasingly relied on elaborate choreography during the action scenes. Since Gunga Din had so many lengthy fight sequences, he would work out physical moves and bits of business with his actors on the fly, working and reworking them until they met with his approval.

In his biography Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance, Warren G. Harris relates a story from the set in which "...Grant deliberately cheated Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., out of one of the most memorable moments in the picture. In a rooftop scene, Fairbanks had to wrestle with a native, pick him up and hurl him into the street below. Grant coveted the bit himself, so he told his co-star, 'Doug, you really shouldn't do this. It looks like you've killed the guy. It wouldn't help your image. And you know your father would never have done such a thing on the screen.'" The ruse worked, and when Stevens asked for a volunteer for the shot, Grant jumped at the chance.

That bit of deception had no effect on Fairbanks' opinion of Grant. In her book Evenings with Cary Grant, Nancy Nelson quotes Fairbanks on his memories of Grant, whom he calls "...the most generous player I've ever worked with. He wasn't just taking his salary. He was concerned that the picture be a good picture. He thought that what was good for the picture was good for him, and he was right. He was very shrewd that way. He was a master technician, which many people don't realize, meticulous and conscious of every move. It might have looked impetuous or impulsive, but it wasn't. It was all carefully planned. Cary was a very sharp and intelligent actor who worked out everything ahead. I called him Sarge or Sergeant Cutter, and he called me Ballantine right to the end of his life."

Accidents are possible on the set of any action film, and during his live question-and-answer tour in the 1980s, Cary Grant related a particular incident from the filming; "Victor McLaglen hit me so hard in a scene we were shooting for Gunga Din that he knocked me out cold. I meant to miss his fist, but my timing was off; instead of moving back, I went right into it. He carried me off the set over his shoulder, not even knowing that he had knocked me out. He could have killed me. When I came to, I chased after him with a bottle. It was lucky I didn't catch him."

Joan Fontaine wrote in her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, that "there was either a scarcity of young English girls in Hollywood, or George Stevens took pity on me, for he signed me for Gunga Din." Fontaine said it was "a tiny role of little importance" and that the location filming was lonely. "Cary Grant was involved with Phyllis Brooks, who was with him on location, while in Hollywood Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was squiring Marlene Dietrich...I spent my time daydreaming about George Stevens, too infatuated to do anything but quake as he directed me on the set."

The initial location shooting lasted up to eight weeks - two weeks over schedule. Production manager Berman traveled to Lone Pine to confront Stevens over the mounting costs and to threaten to shut down the shooting. (The delays weren't solely due to Stevens' shooting methods; the company had also run into a fair share of dust storms). Stevens avoided Berman for a weekend, but when they did confront each other, Stevens was agreeable to packing up and going back to Hollywood; all of the large-scale scenes had been finished, so small outdoor shots were picked up later at the RKO Ranch in Encino and at Lake Sherwood near Los Angeles.

Ironically, Berman sent the company back to location for two weeks in October, 1938 to create the spectacular finale as the British defeat the Thuggee Cult fighters. This late in the year, snow had already come to the Sierras, but had been washed away by rains. This sequence employed 1500 men along with horses, mules, and elephants. Great care was taken with the choreography of the ensuing confusion as the Thuggees attempted to ambush the British.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was slated to write the music score for Gunga Din. Korngold had been responsible for the rousing scores of such pictures as The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); the composer said that he required six weeks to write his score, and only after the final cut of the film was delivered. Since the movie was still being edited, this was impossible, so Korngold turned down the job. The prolific Alfred Newman, who had already scored the epic The Hurricane (1937), the swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and the Kipling adaptation Wee Willie Winkie (1937) got the assignment. Newman turned his score out in 3 weeks.

Three previews were held for Gunga Din near the Los Angeles area; all were very successful and indicated that RKO had a hit on its hands. The film premiered in Los Angeles on January 24, 1939, and in New York City two days later. The movie went into general release on February 17th. Box office was very good, but because the final negative cost of the film was an astonishing $1,909,000, Gunga Din did not see a profit in its first year of release. The movie was an important prestige picture for the studio, however. In an era when a studio would normally wait five or six years to reissue even popular films, RKO reissued Gunga Din as soon as 1941 and several more times in the decade. During these reissues the movie made back its cost and much more. In 1954, during the period that Howard Hughes was in control of RKO Pictures, Gunga Din was again reissued theatrically. On this occasion the picture was severely edited so that it would fit onto double bills in theaters. The movie's running time was reduced from 117 minutes to just 94 minutes. Many scenes were trimmed and other sequences, such as Victor McLaglen's exchange with Annie the elephant, were cut entirely. This abbreviated print was the one that was later sold to television and seen in the early days of home video.

Another bit of trimming on the film occurred because of the approvals that were given to Mrs. Kipling. The original prints depicted the civilian reporter, Rudyard Kipling (played by Reginald Sheffield), tagging along with the British command in India's Northwest frontier. Kipling as a character was most prominent at the end of the film, standing alongside as lines from his poem were read in honor of the fallen Gunga Din. Ironically, modern audiences would not think twice about these scenes in this era of embedded journalists, but apparently the sight of a civilian reporter near battlefields caused guffaws in British cinemas and great embarrassment for Mrs. Kipling. She demanded that the scenes be removed from British prints, and RKO obliged by removing Sheffield from all prints. This was particularly awkward for the final sequence, as the actor was standing to the side for the entire shot. The optical artists at RKO had to "matte out" the side of the frame showing Kipling.

by John M. Miller

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teaser Gunga Din (1939)

"Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" -
Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

Drawing title and inspiration from Rudyard Kipling's 1892 ode to a courageous water bearer, RKO's production of Gunga Din (1939) would be the studio's costliest project at that point in its history. Although RKO's executives may have sweated the cost overruns like the Indian desert heat, this semi-comic adventure tale would become one of their most profitable efforts, and stands as one of the most entertaining action films to ever come out of Hollywood.

In the mid-30s, adventure films set in Colonial India such as Clive of India (1935) and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) had proven to be tremendous draws. An independent producer named Edward Small found it worth expending $5000 to Kipling's widow for the film rights to his poem, and $750 a week to William Faulkner to flesh it into a screenplay. RKO ultimately bought the property outright from Small, and Faulkner's efforts were handed to Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht for reworking.

Their finished script opens on an encampment of Her Majesty's Lancers, where the commanding officer (Montagu Love) is distressed by the cutoff of communications from an outpost ten miles distant. He wants three of his most dependable sergeants to embark on an investigative mission; however, the trio must first be pulled away from a bar brawl to receive their orders. The comrades in arms include the calculating Cutter (Cary Grant), ever dreaming of finding a cache of riches; the grizzled veteran MacChesney (Victor McLaglen); and the gentlemanly Ballantin (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), whose sole focus (to Cutter and MacChesney's chagrin) is his imminent discharge and marriage to his fiance(Joan Fontaine).

Among the troops taken on the mission is the humble bhisti Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), for whom life would hold no greater honor than to serve as regular Army. They arrive at the outpost to find the streets empty; the soldiers' rousting of the homes turns up one small cluster of ostensible survivors. After being summarily revealed as the marauders, they summon waves of mounted reinforcements who send the British forces scurrying for their lives over the rooftops and into the river below.

Making their way back to camp, the sergeants present their CO with a captured pickaxe. The colonel immediately recognizes it as the weapon of choice of the Thuggee, the criminal sect devoted to the Hindustani goddess of destruction Kali. The sergeants are left to their own devices while the military response is planned. Cutter's drunken fixation with a legendary golden temple leads to a one-sided slugfest with MacChesney, a stint in the brig, and an audacious escape courtesy of Din and MacChesney's beloved pet elephant. In their flight, Cutter and Din discover the mythical temple, and unfortunately find it to be the Thuggee's gathering place. Cutter offers himself to the cult's grasp to buy Din time to escape, and the quest for his rescue drives Gunga Din to its rousing conclusion.

While the assignment to direct Gunga Din had originally been handed to Howard Hawks, the RKO brass looked askance at the production delays plaguing Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) and determined that George Stevens would be more likely to bring the picture in on time. The move essentially backfired, as Stevens proved to be no less deliberate, and insistent on performing location shooting in the deserts of Lone Pine, California, where temperatures topping 115 degrees took a toll on cast and crew.

Photography on Gunga Din commenced in late June 1938, and would not conclude for 104 days. A memorable image from the shoot was recounted in Warren G. Harris' Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance (Doubleday): "Since there was a shortage of dark-skinned extras who could pass for natives, hundreds needed to have their bodies covered with brown liquid makeup. Starting at daybreak, they lined up to take their turns on revolving platforms that were operated by makeup artists armed with spray guns."

The performances in Gunga Din are memorable across the board, with Jaffe engaging as the noble, self-sacrificing bhisti, and Eduardo Cianelli striking properly chilling tones of menace as the spiritual leader of the Thuggee. The three principals haul it all on their shoulders via their macho byplay, the authenticity of which Grant recalled for Nancy Nelson's Evenings With Cary Grant (William Morrow and Company). In staging his whisky-courage confrontation with McLaglen, said Grant, "I meant to miss his fist, but my timing was off; instead of moving back, I went right into it. He carried me off the set over his shoulder, not even knowing that he knocked me out. He could have killed me. When I came to, I chased after him with a bottle."

Capping the production was the memorable score by Alfred Newman; some sources insist that the central water-bearer theme should actually be attributed to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who had originally drawn the assignment. Gunga Din went through various cuts in the course of its re-releases; reportedly, the script's brief inclusion of Rudyard Kipling (Reginald Sheffield) as a journalist on assignment so underwhelmed Mrs. Kipling that she lobbied to have the scenes excised.

The political correctness of Gunga Din has been challenged as far back as its original premiere, when the film had been banned from distribution in India. But as a pure adventurous lark, Gunga Din holds up as well now as then, and retains its place amongst the top films of 1939, Hollywood's greatest year.

Producer: George Stevens
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol, story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Film Editing: Henry Berman, John Lockert
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Cary Grant (Sergeant Archibald Cutter), Victor McLaglen (Sergeant MacChesney), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Sergeant Ballantin), Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din), Eduardo Ciannelli (Guru), Joan Fontaine (Emaline Stebbins).
BW-117m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Jay Steinberg

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teaser Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga Din was nominated for an Oscar® in 1940 in one category:
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White: Joseph H. August

Gunga Din was named to the National Film Registry in 1999.

Critic Reviews: GUNGA DIN

"All movies ...should be like the first twenty-five and the last thirty minutes of Gunga Din, which are the sheer poetry of cinematic motion. Not that the production as a whole leaves anything to be desired in lavishness and panoramic sweep. The charge of the Sepoy Lancers, for example, in the concluding battle sequence, is the most spectacular bit of cinema since the Warner Brothers and Tennyson stormed the heights of Balaklava. In fact the movies at their best really appear to have more in common with the poets than with plain, straightforward, rationally documented prose...Even at those points where the script seems to lose its sense of direction, George Stevens always admirably retains his own. At its best, it is an orchestration, taut with suspense and enriched in the fighting scenes with beautifully timed, almost epigrammatic bits of 'business' and a swinging gusto which makes of every roundhouse blow a thing of beauty. Mr. Fairbanks leaps from roof to roof like his esteemed sire; Mr. McLaglen in his uniform struts intemperately; Cary Grant clowns even beneath the lash of the cult of Thugs, even with a bayonet wound in his vitals...And the hills, meanwhile, swarm with costume extras, resound with the boom of obsolete artillery, dance together in a rich confusion of tartans, turbans and the monotonous, martial tunes of the bagpipes. Victoria Imperatrix! Involuntarily, we feel the tears start." - The New York Times, January 27, 1939.

"[Rudyard Kipling's] contribution to RKO-Radio's Gunga Din is a title, a character, and the concluding lines of the Barrack Room Ballad that commemorates the heroic death of an Indian water carrier. Uncredited contributors are virtually all the previous films that have romantically chronicled British heroics in India. ...Capably acted, and given the most elaborate production in RKO-Radio's history, the blood-and-blundering heroics of Gunga Din make for sweeping, spectacular melodrama. The preposterous story, smartly directed by George Stevens, has the further advantage of starting off with a skirmish exciting enough to serve as a climax for less ambitious juvenilia and proceeds fast and spuriously to combat on a mammoth scale. And between climaxes, as the regimental Rover Boys battle with every weapon known to warfare and brawling in the '90s, romance - contributed by Joan Fontaine - scarcely rears its pretty head to interrupt the carnage." - Newsweek, February 6, 1939.

"As an individual product of the cinema industry, there is practically nothing to be said against Gunga Din. First-class entertainment, it will neither corrupt the morals of minors nor affront the intelligence of their seniors. But unfortunately, Gunga Din is not an isolated example of the cinema industry's majestic mass product. It is a symbol of Hollywood's current trend. As such it is as deplorable as it is enlightening...Hollywood...even when it was not deliberately repeating itself, repeated itself unconsciously. Gunga Din is an example of this unconscious repetition. Whatever there is to be said about the minor matter of barrack-room life in India has been more than sufficiently said by the cinema many times, most recently in Lives of a Bengal Lancer [1935], The Charge of the Light Brigade [1936] and Drums [1938]. Moving pictures are a vigorous entertainment medium. There has probably never been a moment in the world's history when more exciting things were going on than in 1939. That Hollywood can supply no better salute to 1939 than a $2,000,000 rehash, however expert, of Rudyard Kipling and brown Indians in bed sheets, is a sad reflection on its state of mind." - Time, February 6, 1939.

"One of the most enjoyable nonsense-adventure movies of all time - full of slapstick and heroism and high spirits. [It] is a unique pastiche - exhilarating in an unself-consciously happy, silly way. The stars are a rousing trio: Cary Grant, having the time of his life as a clowning roughneck; the dapper, gentlemanly Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; and the eternal vulgarian, Victor McLaglen. Who has forgotten Eduardo Ciannelli in dark makeup as some sort of mad high priest, or Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din, the essence, the soul of loyalty? Who remembers Joan Fontaine as the pallid and proper heroine?" - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies.

"Of course one winces a little at the smug colonialist attitudes, and at the patronizing 'You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din' which commemorates the humble native water-bearer's sacrifice after he dies blowing a bugle to save the Raj from falling to an ambush. All the same this is a pretty spiffing adventure yarn, with some classically staged fights, terrific performances, and not too much stiff upper lip as Kipling's soldiers three go about their rowdy, non-commissioned, and sometimes disreputable capers. What, one wonders, did William Faulkner contribute, uncredited, to the bulldozing Hecht/ MacArthur script?" - Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide.

"Rousing period actioner with comedy asides, one of the most entertaining of its kind ever made." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"Bravura is the exact word for the performances, and Stevens' composition and cutting of the fight sequences is particularly stunning." - NFT.

"...a swiftly-paced, exciting yarn...George Stevens employs superb change of pace, going from action to character closeups and then tossing in a romantic touch...As Gunga Din, native water carrier, Sam Jaffe contributes possibly his best screen portrayal since Lost Horizon." - Variety Movie Guide.

Compiled by John M. Miller

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