Behind the Camera On GUNGA DIN
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