Reel Classics: the classic movie site


Classic Movie Articles

General Topics | Specific Films | Tech-Talk | Personal Statements

Article:

GUNGA DIN

by Debbie Papio

GUNGA DIN is one of the greatest adventure epics of all time. Part of the reason for this is the outstanding cast that this 1939 epic had. The three leading actors in this movie are the legendary character actor Victor McLaglen, the dashing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and the incomparable Archibald Alexander Leach, better known to the world as Cary Grant.

Produced and directed by George Stevens (whose past experiences had included working on silent comedy films), this RKO Pictures release is based on the poem of the same name, composed by British writer Rudyard Kipling. The script for the movie was written by Joel Sayre. The movie also stars the wonderful Sam Jaffe in the title role and McLaglen, Fairbanks and Grant as three British soldiers. Also starring in this marvelous adventure film are Joan Fontaine, Montagu Love, Robert Coote, Eduardo Ciannelli and Abner Biberman.

In the first part of his autobiography The Salad Days, Fairbanks says, "When I asked Cary which part he intended to play he answered, 'Which ever one you don't want! I want us to be together in this so badly--I think the two of us, plus old McLaglen as our top sergeant, MacChesney, will make this picture more than just another big special'."

And so it was. This movie has it all--so much more to make it "another big special." The scenery is breathtaking, the musical score stupendous and the acting itself is what you would expect from these legendary leading men.

GUNGA DIN was filmed in the California desert at Lone Pine and according to Fairbanks, the movie's technical directors said that the setting there was much like India's Northwest Frontier where the actual story takes place. Mr. Fairbanks stated that it was so hot during the filming of the movie that "we all sweated like stevedores, drank gallons of bottled water and gulped daily rations of salt pills. Costumes were binding and hot and even worse for the women, who had to have their makeup patched every few minutes so they would look cool and comfortable for their scenes."

In the film, Jaffe brilliantly portrays Gunga Din, the slave/water boy, a native Hindu who desperately wants to be a "first class soldier" for the British army. He is soft spoken but intense with a deep longing to march in a soldier's uniform, do the maneuvers with them and be the bugler in the regiment. He is caught one day doing the maneuvers and holding a "stolen" bugle, by Sergeant Cutter. Cutter (Grant) is brave and fearless but he is also playful and comical. He befriends Din, instructs him privately with maneuvers and how to give a proper salute. He also lets Din keep his beloved bugle. He also calls the water boy "Bugler" much to Din's delight. Cutter is immensely proud to be a soldier of Her Majesty the Queen but he spends much of his time searching for buried treasure and gold. When we first meet up with Cutter and his two fellow soldiers in the movie, they are busy wrecking a village and throwing Scottish soldiers out of a window. These are the swindlers who sold Cutter a map to find emeralds. Unfortunately, he couldn't find his jewels but this is one of the film's funnier scenes. Later on, Din leads Cutter to a gold temple but instead of finding his fortune there, he may possibly meet his fate.

Cutter's partners in crime include MacChesney, the top sergeant played with the conventional brawn and enthusiasm that McLaglen possessed in all of his roles. MacChesney, known simply as "Mac" or sarcastically as "Cheesecake," laughs at Din's desire to be a first class soldier but the burly sergeant finds no humor for the very large soft spot that he has for Annie. Annie isn't his girlfriend but his pet elephant. In a very comical scene, Mac is taking care of Annie, who has developed some sort of ailment. He asks to see her tongue and she lifts her trunk up to him. He checks her forehead to see if she is feverish. When a comrade tells Mac that he'd like to try an old Indian remedy on the elephant, the sergeant complies. But, warns the comrade, very little medication must be given or the result can be fatal. He tries to give Annie a small spoonful of the elixir but she won't take it. Mac's paternal instincts come out and he gushes to Annie, "Go on now, you want your daddy to give you the medicine." He takes the spoonful of medicine and tells his "nice little elephant girl" that if she doesn't take it, she will never "grow up to be big and strong like Daddy." Sergeant Cutter passes by and suggests to him, "Maybe if Daddy takes a spoonful first, baby will do a patty-cake." Mac agrees with this and pretends to drink some of the liquid. Finally, Annie takes it, only to tumble down helplessly to the floor. Mac becomes nearly hysterical but thank God Annie sits up and regains her composure. Later on, this medication proves to be a big help during one of Mac and Cutter's schemes.

This scheme includes Sergeant Thomas Ballantine, the most dashing of the three. Played by the chivalrous Fairbanks, Ballantine is set to leave the Army when "my time is up on May the fourteenth." He plans to marry his lovely sweetheart Emi (Joan Fontaine's first major role) and go into the tea business. His replacement, once he is gone, is the gibberish Sergeant Higgenbotham (played by Robert Coote) who both Cutter and Mac are not too happy with. At a betrothal party given for Emi and Ballantine, Cutter and MacChesney spike the punch bowl with Annie's disastrous medication. They get Higgenbotham to drink it and he ends up becoming violently ill and has to be hospitalized. Now, Ballantine has no choice but to stay in the regiment, for the present moment. It is unfortunate for Higgenbotham that he becomes sick but this is one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie. While Cutter is getting rid of the evidence, the medicine, MacChesney is left to stand guard at the punch bowl so that no one else will drink it and become sick. The commander of the army, Colonel Weed (played by Montagu Love) and the Scottish regiment's leader Major Mitchell come by, looking for a drink. Mac is desperate and tells them not to drink it because it's too watery and that it may ruin the lining of their stomachs. He is so adamant about it that he exclaims there's a fly in the punch bowl. "Oh look, he's just dived under the ice. I'll have the little nipper out in half a jiffy." Mac rolls up his sleeve and sticks his hand in the bowl pretending to retrieve the fly. By this time, the Colonel has lost his desire for punch. After Higgenbotham drinks the lethal concoction, Mac rushes him off and Cutter sticks a nearby potted plant into the bowl. The plant falls over and dies.

While GUNGA DIN is full of hilarious scenes, the movie's real story is about honor and courage. In the beginning of the movie, a band of Hindus invade the village of Tantrapur. When Mac's regiment is sent to investigate, they find that all the villagers have fled, leaving their little town occupied by the Hindus. They are led by whom Ballantine refers to as "Toad face." Toad face won't tell where the villagers have gone and they won't go back to the army post with Mac and his men. The leader begins to call out to Kali, the Hindu goddess of blood. Suddenly, more of the bad guys come out and a battle breaks out between them and the soldiers.

When the remainder of Mac's men arrive safely at the post, they bring with them a turn pick axe. The colonel warns the three sergeants that a murder cult called the Thugs were the only people to use this type of weapon. The cult was last seen fifty years before and they were very vicious men who strangled their victims and dug their graves before killing them. They also worshiped Kali. The colonel tells Mac that he is sending him back to Tantrapur to finish the work there, but to be on the lookout for Thugs. With these instructions, Ballantine is dismissed from duty and Higgenbotham is going to be sent with the detachment as his replacement. But the following day sees Higgenbotham seeking medical treatment and Ballantine is resuming his duties under MacChesney.

Ballantine knows that his two friends are responsible for what happened to Higgenbotham but he also knows that he has no choice but to go with them. At the village, things are quiet. It was only a matter of time before Ballantine's time with the regiment is through. Cutter and Mac know that they have to do something to keep their best friend from leaving them and the army.

In a drunken stupor, Cutter tells McLaglen's character that "three hours from where we're sitting, there's a gold temple waiting to be sliced away and carried off in a wheelbarrow." He believes that once "Bal starts slicing away at the gold, marriage and the tea business will whiz from his mind." Mac is sick of hearing about Cutter's treasures. All it's ever done for him was get him into trouble. The two friends have a fight and Mac throws Grant's character into the guard house. It is Gunga Din who liberates Cutter, using the help of the local bulldozer, Annie. Together, they go off to the gold temple to become rich. But they do not know that the temple is actually a place of worship for the murderous Thugs.

As Din and Cutter head into the temple, the Thugs come down from the mountainside. The two hide in the temple and listen to the guru's plans to have the cult kill by strangulation for the goddess that they worship. Cutter tells Din that the colonel has to know about this maniac's plans. He interrupts their ceremony with a song to distract them as Din runs off to get help.

MacChesney is furious with the water boy for releasing Cutter and for stealing Annie who they rode upon to get to the temple. When Din tells him that Cutter is going to be tortured, he wants to leave right away to help him. Mac wants to go alone because he doesn't want the men to see how Cutter shamed himself and his uniform just for some gold. At this time, a healthy Higgenbotham shows up to replace Ballantine. Emi is with him and in her possession are her fiancee's discharge papers. With the news of Cutter's predicament, Fairbanks' character wants to go with Mac to save Cutter. Emi doesn't want him to go because of her love for him. Mac won't let him go because he could get kicked out of the army for bringing a civilian with him to help Cutter. He convinces Bal to resign with the army and when they rescue their friend, they'll rip up the paper and it will be "neat and according to regulations." At first Bal doesn't trust Mac but he finally agrees to resign, only to help Cutter. Emi is distraught about this but Bal knows what he must do. He puts the paper in his pocket, as he doesn't trust Mac, and with good reason. Together with Din to lead the way, they go to the gold temple to rescue Cutter.

But the Thugs expect more soldiers to arrive to help Cutter. Mac, Bal and Din walk into an ambush. They are united with Cutter who has already been tied up and lashed for not telling the guru where the army is. The Thugs are planning to trap the army and kill every man in the regiment. Mac also gets lashed for not telling. When the cult's leader (played by Eduardo Ciannelli) threatens to throw the sergeant into a pit of deadly snakes, Mac says that he'll talk but that he must be taken outside. He doesn't want to shame himself in front of his friends.

Outside, McLaglen's character tells the guru that there is a piece of paper in Ballantine's pocket that may be of interest to him. Back inside to where his two friends are, the sneaky MacChesney not only gets the paper but he captures the guru as well.

The three soldiers, the water boy and the leader of the Thugs as their captive go to the roof of the temple to wait for the army to come and rescue them. Below them, hundreds of Thugs are waiting behind rocks and on cliffs to capture the unsuspecting regiment.

Hours pass and the three sergeants think they keep hearing bagpipes in the distance, letting them know that the Scottish Highlanders and Bengal Lancers are coming to rescue them. But Bal says, "It's just the blasted heat that's screaming in our ears. Here we are and this is it."

But in the distance, there are bagpipes. The guru looks beyond the rocks and cliffs that surround the temple and sees the column coming to help the three soldiers. The army does not know that they are being led into a trap where hundreds of cultists are waiting to massacre them. The only way to warn the regiment is by the call to arms on a bugle. As the army comes in closer towards the trap, the guru tells his followers to go and fight. As confusion breaks out, the cult leader runs back into the temple and for the honor and glory of India, sacrifices himself by jumping into the pit of deadly snakes. A fight breaks out in the temple and Cutter is shot and then stabbed. Back on the roof, Mac and Bal are captured and cannot warn their men who are still moving in to their deadly fate. Din, who kills a Thug and but then gets stabbed, knows that it is up to him to warn the troops of the trap that the Thugs have set up. Slowly, but for all the power he feels for wanting to be a first class soldier, Din climbs to the steeple of the temple and does the call to arms on his bugle. His bravery and courage enable him to warn the column on time but he is shot to his death by the enemy in the process.

The army has been warned and the Thugs come out fighting. After a blazing battle takes place, it is the Scots and the Lancers who come out on top. The cult has been overpowered by the strength and numbers of the regiment.

The army returns safely back to its camp and the wise old colonel compliments the three tired, worn out but courageous sergeants. Ballantine, looking admiringly at the dead body of Gunga Din and then affectionately at his two friends, knows that he can never leave them or the army. The colonel acclaims Din a corporal in the regiment and declares that his name will be written on the scrolls of all the honored dead. Parts of Kipling's poem is read aloud by the colonel and tears of emotion shine in the weary eyes of the valiant soldiers. Gunga Din is laid to rest and we see, for the final time, the water boy in soldier's uniform, smiling proudly and giving us a farewell salute.

The musical score of GUNGA DIN, written by Alfred Newman, highlights all the action packed and tranquil moments of this wonderful epic. The tempo ascends and accelerates with each fist thrown, every sword drawn, every leap made. Each actor was seemingly made for the role that he respectfully played. Who else could have the leadership and forcefulness for MacChesney's part other than McLaglen? Who else could have the debonair but kookiness for Cutter's part other than Cary Grant?

An interesting fact is that while McLaglen had already been signed to play the older sergeant MacChesney, it was still undecided between Grant and Fairbanks as to who would play Cutter and who would play Ballantine. Says Fairbanks in The Salad Days, "...I still had no clue as to which of the other two, younger sergeants Cary would play and which I would play. They were about equal in importance. One was the romantic who after numerous exciting adventures, falls in love and gets the girl. The other sergeant was his mate, an engagingly brave, funny, young cockney. These two, with the older one, shared the adventures fairly equally.

"...We finally settled the matter by tossing a coin! That was how I became "Sergeant Ballantine" who wants to leave the army for Miss Fontaine, and Cary became the ebullient, funny cockney "Sergeant Cutter." Until he died, Grant and I always addressed each other as Cutter and Ballantine, from that film of 1939!"

Fairbanks also relates another story of the movie in his autobiography:

    In one of the picture's spectacular climatic action sequences, we three sergeants are standing behind a set representing the battlements of an old fort, trying to hold off the attack of hundreds of maddened Thugs until we are rescued just in time by units of Scottish Highlanders and the Bengal Lancers.

    The day the scene was actually shot was even hotter than usual. The timing of the movements of several hundreds of extras as well as the dozen cameras, shooting from different angles with different types of lenses, took several hours of rehearsal to perfect. Our thirst was quenched by many beers brought up to us by the prop man. Finally, Stevens announced over his mike that all was set and the scene must be shot then or the right degree of light would be gone for the day. Vic, by now tight as a tick with all inhibitions melted away, decided that as the beer had gone through him too quickly and none of us could leave our positions high up in this tower, there was no alternative to lessen his intense discomfort but to unbutton his uniform and relieve himself during the scene! Cary and I didn't know whether to laugh or be furious. Stevens, not knowing of our "martyrdom," later congratulated us in the spirit of furious defiance we had shown in the scene--which he could discern even from a distance.

The magic of GUNGA DIN is a journey filled with adventure, suspense, romance, laughs, chivalry and action. It is an expedition that all fans of the classic movies should take.

© 1997 Debbie Papio

(Send your comments on this article to the author, Debbie Papio, at Deb.Mush@worldnet.att.net. Thanks.)

Return to the Index of Classic Articles about Specific Films


Buy Videos & DVDs
Find your movie at MoviesUnlimited.com.
Movies Unlimited

Buy Movie Posters
& Film Stills
MovieGoods
MovieGoods

Buy Movie Posters
In Affiliation with AllPosters.com
AllPosters

Classic Movie Merchandise
-- recommended links to dozens of online vendors selling classic movies & all kinds of related products.


printer-friendly pagePrinter-friendly version.   return to the topReturn to the top.
Last updated: March 10, 2011.
Reel Classics is a registered trademark of Reel Classics, L.L.C.
1997-2011 Reel Classics, L.L.C.  All rights reserved.  No copyright is claimed on non-original or licensed material.  Terms of Use.  Privacy Policy.