GUNGA DIN —–“You displease me greatly, and I ignore the both of you” pronounces ‘Sgt. Ballantine’ (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to his mischief-deep pals Sergeants ‘Cutter’ (Cary Grant) and ‘MacChesney’ (Victor McLaglen), who not only have mucked about with his marriage plans, they’ve yoked him into yet another impossible-odds fight, this one against an army of cult fiends, the Kali-worshiping Thugs, making a dratted nuisance of themselves in Britain’s ever-restive Indian Raj of the 1880s. *
Practically the template setter for Action-Adventure movies, this rollicking classic was yet another of 1939’s wonder-crop, its collegiate colonial clowning parading on 8th box-office place among the swarm of O’Hara’s, outlaws, tearjerkers, wisecrackers and Munchkins.
The strange little Sam Jaffe is the immortal bhisti (water carrier servant), scrawny but magnificent hero of the title. Grant (at his whipcord-physical-&-comic-energy best) and the brawny McLaglen (stout as an oak, hearty as ever) are great fun and the dashing Fairbanks excels as their only-slightly-less-daft comrade: he called this “my sole masterpiece among the hundred or so films I made.”
As the demonic guru leading the Thugs, marvelously villainous Eduardo Ciannelli lectures our lads, his eyes glowing with hate. “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” Wait…are those The Regiment’s bagpipes in the distance?
George Stevens directs the brotherhood bravado and breathless, elaborately designed action scenes (some with 600 extras, a company of horses and a few stray elephants) at spendy sets in Hollywood’s stand-by location for India, the Alabama Hills around Lone Pine, near Mt. Whitney in the California Sierras. The stunt-men (including young buck Richard Farnsworth) and cast got a rousing workout in 115-degree heat, and one of the assistant editors was eager apprentice John Sturges, who’d later direct his homage-remake in 1962, Sergeants 3. Be careful with that punch bowl…
Stevens said they “rehearsed the cast in small detachments and in ‘slow motion’ until the mechanics of the action were established. As the scene took shape, the number of people and animals was gradually increased, the action speeded up until we had the scene going at top speed-then we shot it.” It was no cakewalk, a scheduled 64-day shoot turned into 104, with a hugely expensive set accidentally burning down: Lloyd’s of London (paying the bill) tabled it the biggest loss in their film industry coverage for the next 16 years.
The invaluable Alfred Newman shrouds the tongue-in-cheek excitement, prankishness and sentiment with an immediately grounding main theme, a stirring lament to courage and sacrifice.
117 minutes, with Joan Fontaine (gaining another foothold that year as one of The Women), Montagu Love, Abner Biberman, Robert Coote, Lumsden Hare and Cecil Kellaway. Costing $1,910,000, an extreme amount for the time, it either made–depending on sources– $2,807,000–a sizable hit, yet still coming in the red for RKO to the tune of $193,000—or it swaggered way beyond the Khyber Pass/Grapevine and grossed $8,000,000. It earned but one Oscar nomination, for Cinematography. Dollar-sign discrepancy or no, what’s indisputable is the energizing effect this donnybrook had on giddy audiences of the day, for generations of won-over fans and to scores of technique-hungry film-makers.
* The ever-restive Indian Raj of 1939 banned it; this was reflected throughout SE Asia. Offended populations clamoring for and sensing Independence didn’t need more reminders of their arrogant overlords, and with Hitler vexing the home base, the colonial administrators were skittish about things like riots at the local cinema. Though historically, the Thuggee cult—which conducted their apolitical robbery and murder spree for seven hundred years—had been effectively stamped out by the British a good half-century before this movie’s setting (which has them agitating to oust the hated foreign pestilence: they were too busy killing random Indians to bother with the sahibs), the freewheeling script has its pound cake and eats it by letting the homicidal-but-philosophical guru tell our captive lads “You have sworn as soldiers, if need be, to die for your country, your England. Well, India is my country and my faith, and I can die for my faith and my country as readily as you for yours.”
** Along with Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem, the story devolves from the author’s “Soldiers Three” short stories published in 1888. The torturous route to the screenplay bears credit for Joel Sayre & Fred Guiol, working from a 1936 treatment arranged by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, who took over from the flummoxed William Faulkner, Lester Cohen, Vincent Lawrence and John Colton. With help from Howard Hawks—who was keen to direct—doffing pith helmets to “The Three Musketeers” and more brazenly from their own The Front Page, their script, with addition from Dudley Nichols, ran 284 pages, enough for a four-hour movie. Anthony Veiller was assigned to trim it down and it ended up in the care and good hands of Sayre & Guiol. Soldiers Three became an okay movie in 1951, with Stewart Granger, David Niven, Walter Pidgeon and Robert Newton. The dumb western Sergeants 3 starred Frank Sinatra & The Rat Pack, whose attitude and hijinks sabotaged John Sturges’ attempt to revisit the glory and affection of his training ground in the mighty Gunga Din. Maybe in our smugly glorious Age of P.C. Bullpuckey we’ll have foisted on our whimpering Twitterverse a shiny new revisionist version that will bend-over every palm frond the art director can arrange to see that the audience suffers a guilt trip over something people we never knew did to people we never knew, in a place we never were, centuries ago.
“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!”