The year 1939 is Hollywood’s greatest year because of, among other reasons, the incredible variety of film genres of that year’s classic films. Adventure of a particular kind is found in a genre you don’t see any more, featuring devil-may-care soldiers of the British Empire defending colonies of the Crown.
Post-colonial sentiments aside, these movies constitute a sub-genre that reached its pinnacle with “Gunga Din,” an RKO picture directed by George Stevens and based on the classic Rudyard Kipling poem. The adaptation grew in the process to become, next to “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” the greatest of classic Hollywood adventures.
Kipling wrote the poem in 1892, when the sun still “never set on the British Empire,” so vast were its colonial holdings. It reflects attitudes that at first glance seem quaint, if not outright racist, but actually contains deeper insights into character. Published in the collection “Barrack-room Ballads,” the poem takes the point of view of a British army veteran relating his account of a humble, low-caste water bearer for the troops, Gunga Din.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ’Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.
His verses peppered with native language terms in italics, the narrator tells of the faithful Din being ordered around, and his devotion to serving ungrateful soldiers and bringing water to the injured—including the narrator himself, whom Din carries to safety at the cost of his own life.
RKO studios owned the rights to the poem for years before producing with much effort a final script, which opened up the 563-word poem to become a feature-length story of three British sergeants, famous for brawling and fighting. Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McGlaglen play, respectively, Sergeants Cutter, Ballantine, and MacChesney. We first meet them as they are engaged in fisticuffs with other soldiers in the barracks at the military garrison on the northwest frontier of India. They are needed because the telegraph lines between the fort and the outpost of Tantrapur have been cut.
Sent with a small force to investigate and repair the lines, they find the outpost deserted. They soon discover that a force of Thugees, devotees of the goddess Kali, have attacked the outpost and are now after them. What follows is the three sergeants’ leading their men in a fighting retreat with amazing stunts and derring-do. With them is the skinny Indian water boy, Gunga Din (played by American actor Sam Jaffe), who tends to the wounded. After a narrow escape, the remains of the British force returns to the fort with news of the spreading Thugee (whence the term “thug”) threat.
The movie was filmed mostly in the California desert with the Sierra Nevada and Alabama Hills doubling for the Khyber Pass region. The ability of black and white photography, costuming, and musical score to transform the American desert southwest into the Indian frontier is compelling. The story goes that at one point, RKO executives, alarmed at cost overruns, ordered director George Stevens to cease production. Stevens simply pretended not to have gotten the memo and finished the picture, with a cost higher than previous RKO productions. Shot amidst 100-degree-plus heat, with hundreds of extras in costume and on horseback, the prodigious production, though popular with the critics and public, took several years to recoup its costs and become profitable.
Richard Slotkin, writing about “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the fascinating volume “Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies,” describes this type of film as alternately the “British Empire film” or the “Imperial Epic,” where British military order and discipline are all that keep a territory from falling into chaos brought on by heathen forces. True to form, a lonely outpost overseen by brave British officers is the solitary, stalwart defense against the forces of idolatry and murder.
The charm of the picture lies in its fanciful evocation of the merry antics of a British soldier’s life on the frontier. The three sergeants plainly love each other for their spirit, loyalty, and usefulness in a fight. Originally cast as the more romantic Ballantine, engaged and preparing to leave the service, Grant got director Stevens to let him play instead the more mischievous Cutter, allowing his comedic skills free rein. It’s Cutter who befriends Gunga Din, teaching him how to stand at military attention and properly salute.
Certainly, the script takes liberties with the Thugee cult, making it more vicious than history indicates, not the first or the last time the Hollywood entertainment apparatus has altered historical fact for dramatic power. When Gunga Din tells Cutter of a temple of gold he’s heard of, the two make their way to it, only to discover it’s the lair of the Thugees. Din escapes to tell Ballantine and MacChesney of their friend’s plight.
What follows includes violent thrashings with whips, harrowing sieges, and the collapse of a rope bridge over a deep gorge before the Empire strikes back against the Thugee cult. Years later, Steven Spielberg, in a clear homage to the film, had Harrison Ford face similar threats in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The playwright Bertolt Brecht, who disliked the pro-British perspective of the gung-ho soldiers, nevertheless admitted to the film’s overwhelming charm and entertainment, remarking, “Despite the fact that I knew all the time that there was something wrong, that the Indians are not primitive and uncultured people but have a magnificent age-old culture, and that this Gunga Din could also be seen in a different light, e.g. as a traitor to his people, I was amused and touched because this utterly distorted account was an artistic success and considerable resources in talent and ingenuity had been applied in making it.” Indeed, the film exquisitely balances adventure, comedy and pathos through compelling characters depicting its fanciful version of India under the Raj.
Despite the historical liberties and pro-colonial sensibility, “Gunga Din” the movie, like its poetic inspiration, still manages to distill its theme of comradeship and the kinship of the courageous, no matter one’s race or station, captured in the poem’s end, recited as the British army honors the sacrifice that enobled the meekest of the movie’s characters.
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
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!
For Further Information:
“Gunga Din” was nominated for one Academy Award: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Joseph H. August).
Previous Entries in BreakPoint’s Films of 1939 Series:
Alex Wainer, “‘Stagecoach’: The Classic Western Rolls into Hollywood,” BreakPoint.org, January 6, 2014.
Image copyright Warner Home Video.
Alex Wainer teaches communication, media, and film classes at Palm Beach Atlantic University.