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
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
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
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
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
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
"...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
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,