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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.
The Warner Video DVD of Gunga Din sports a fine transfer of this black and white classic which has remarkably few nicks and scratches considering how battered it looked in TV prints. The extras are few but welcome and include a mini-documentary on the making of Gunga Din which repurposes some of the material found in George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1985); commentary by writer Rudy Behlmer (author of Memo from David O. Selznick and Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951); two trailers and a very funny Porky Pig cartoon, "The Film Fan."
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by Jay Steinberg