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"Gunga Din"

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Character's Name: Archibald Cutter
Release Date:  February 17, 1939
Director: George Stevens
Studio:  RKO Radio
Running Time: 120 minutes

Cast: Cary Grant (Sgt. Cutter), Victor McLaglen (Sgt. MacChesney), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Sgt. Ballantine), Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din), Eduardo Ciannelli (Guru), Joan Fontaine (Emmy), Montagu Love (Colonel Weed), Robert Coote (Higginbotham), Abner Biberman (Chota), Lumsden Hare (Major Mitchell)

- by Zoë Shaw
Three British sergeants, Cutter, MacChesney and Ballantine are sent to determine what happened when everyone at an outstation in India is killed by natives. Later, they discover a temple, where large number of natives are planning to destroy the British troops in the area. The three sergeants and their water carrier, Gunga Din, are taken prisoner and tortured. The British troops approach, but do not know that they are marching into a trap. Gunga Din, though badly wounded, blows a bugle-call to warn them, and then dies. The sergeants are rescued, and Gunga Din is given full honours.

- by Heather Doughty
Although this movie was considered very controversial in it's time, I found that Gunga Din was a favorite of mine. Made in 1939, it is the story of 3 practical jokers - playing sergeants in the British army stationed in India. One, Sgt. Ballentine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is about to resign from the army and get married, and of course, the other two do not want him to leave, fearing they'll be assigned someone else who's not nearly as much fun as their best pal, and in fact are given a rather stick-in-the mud replacement, who they sneakily dispatch in a very funny punch bowl tampering incident. The lengths they go to get Ballentine to rejoin are hilarious to watch. However, disaster strikes, and an entire town is wiped out with no communication, so of course, our three heroes, and their faithful water boy, Gunga Din, are sent to find out what happened to them. What follows is an interesting plot, where the spiritual leader of a band of rebels captures them all, tortures them, and uses them as bait to trap the reinforcement troops that come to their rescue. Although it sounds grim, the movie is actually very funny at times, and also moving as Gunga Din, who wants nothing more than to become a British soldier, and has been ridiculed by all, bravely sacrifices his life to save our heroes and the British troops from certain death. Although Cary has a smaller supporting role in this film, he shines from the screen and is a joy to watch as the devil-may-care and somewhat shallow Cutter. I've watched this film many many times....in fact, I think I'll excuse myself and go watch it again.

"Cutter! You unhand that man right now! That's an order!" - yelled to Cutter in the middle of a brawl where he's got a man by the neck over the window of a high balcony. He shrugs......and does as he's ordered, as the man falls to ground far below. Cary's nonchalant body language and facial expressions in this scene are classic!

VARIETY Film Review - January 25, 1939
- by "Wear"
- submitted by Barry Martin
Spectacular in its sweep and tremendous in its dramatic portrayals, 'Gunga Din' is certain to hit peak spots on the boxoffice front.  One of the big money pictures this year, both in coin represented in its production and what it means to the exhibitor.  

Numerous extended runs and resounding grosses appear certain for domestic field while in the foreign market it should mop up if only because of actionful, melodramatic content.  Picture has numerous exploitation angles and is backed by a giant bally and advertising campaign.  For British territory, it should score extra big because it's the sort of production that swells national pride in British soldiery.

Aside from the feature's ability to tell a swiftly-paced, exciting yarn about British rule in India in the 1890s, it shows Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as a trio of happy-go-lucky British army sergeants who typify the type of hard-bitten non-coms described by Kipling in his famed 'Barrack Room Ballads.'

Basis of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's original story from the barrack ballad, is the outbreak of the Thugs, cruel religious marauders, who revolted against English troops in India late in the 19th century, 50 years after they had been originally put down.  It is the constant and brutal warfare that they wage, almost from the opening scene until the sweeping battle climax, which forms the plot structure.  

That powerfully staged fight between the British and the Thug hordes near the Khyber Pass forms a hair-raising climax as Gunga Din, regimental water carrier, fulfills his ambition, even though as a dead hero.  Remarkable suspense has been developed as the native struggles to the top of the temple dome, though mortally wounded, and sounds the bugle blast which warns the English forces of the trap into which they are marching.

George Stevens has employed superb change of pace, first going from action army combat to character close-ups and then tossing in a bit of humor of romantic touch.  He directs with fine discernment, both in the sweeping episodes at long range, and the less hectic indoor scenes.  Stevens is also credited as associated producer.

The understandable, living drama of the three musketeering sergeants has been neatly made into the screen vehicle by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol.  Deviation from the main story is the effort of two hardy non-coms to persuade their buddy-in-arms, Ballantine, to abandon thoughts of marriage for a new enlistment in the army and fealty to the trio.  It's a clever counterplot, and in part, at least, will answer objection that there is not enough romance in the picture, since this constant effort to pry Ballantine away from his wife-to-be figures importantly in the main plot theme.

With the Grant-McLaglen-Fairbanks combo measuring to every expectancy as big draw figures in this type of yarn, further, interest attaches to the title role of 'Gunga Din,' native water carrier, and the villainous Thug leader.  Sam Jaffe contributes possibly his best screen portrayal since his work in 'Lost Horizon.'  Though comparatively a lesser role, he makes it stand out as vital all the time.  Eduardo Ciannelli, familiar for his gangster roles, outdoes himself as ruthless native leader of India's Thugs.

Young Fairbanks, Cary Grant and McLaglen set their characters definitely in the first hand-to-hand conflict with natives and maintain them right to the final fadeout.  Montagu Love and Lumsden Hare make conventional army officers, Abner Biberman is a realistic Thug fighting leader, while Robert Coote and Cecil Kellaway head the strong support which includes countless extras.  Joan Fontaine plays the only speaking femme role, the girl Fairbanks proposes to marry.  Pretty and sufficient for the limited character.

Nicety of the camera work by John H August enhances the production values which crowd the film.  Special effects by Vernon L Walker are deft.

Production needs no diagram to show that heavy coin was sunk into making this click.  'Gunga Din' undoubtedly will recoup plenty at the boxoffice window.  

New York Times Film Review - January 27, 1939
- by Bosley Crowther
- submitted by Barry Martin
With a poet in the credit lines, it is hardly surprising that "Gunga Din" (at the Music Hall) should turn about to be as jaunty as a Barrack Room Ballad, as splendid as a Durbar, as exciting and at times as preposterous as a Pearl White serial. Thanks to the collaboration of the late Mr. Kipling, who wrote for the cinema without knowing it, it moves with all the discipline, dash and color of a vanished time, when Mr. Disraeli was Prime Minister and the empire had a good conscience. Although its mid portions tend to sag a bit under the weight of Victorian destiny, it blossoms at both ends into sequences of magnificently explosive action.

All moves, as a matter of fact, should be like the first twenty-five and the last thirty minutes of "Gunga Din," which are the sheer poetry of cinematic motion. Not that the production as a whole leaves anything to be desired in lavishness and panoramic sweep. The charge of the Sepoy Lancers, for example, in the concluding battle sequence, is the most spectacular bit of cinema sine the Warner Brothers and Tennyson stormed the heights of Balaklava. In fact the movies at their best really appear to have more in common with the poets than with plain, straightforward, rationally documented prose.

Though the picture draws heavily on the Ballads for atmosphere and inspiration, and doesn't scruple to use Kipling himself, the brilliantly talented young war correspondent, as a minor character (it seems he dashed off the famous poem in time for the Commandant to read it over the water-carrier's grave), the only historical or literary authority for it seems to have been an original story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In this case, "original" may be taken to signify that the story is quite unlike other predecessors in the same genre, except possibly "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer," "Beau Geste," "The Lost Patrol" and "Charge of the Light Brigade." The parallels - some of them doubtless unavoidable - may be charitable excused on the ground that two memories are better than one.

As for Gunga Din himself, it seems rather a pity that he should receive fourth billing in his own picture. Yet for all the dash cut by the three stars, Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., it is the humble, ascetic, stooped, yet somehow sublime, figure of Sam Jaffe that one remembers. "An' for all 'is dirty 'ide, 'e was white, clear white, inside, when 'e went to tend the wounded under fire," said the poet, and the sentiment, Victorian and patronizing as it may be, echoes in the heart. There is infinite humility, age-old patience and pity, in the way old Din kneels to offer water to the living and the dying. And, though bent under the weight of his perspiring water-skin, his agility in dodging bullets is marvelous to behold. As Sam Jaffe plays him, Gunga Din is not only a better man than any in the cast; he should be a serious contender for the best performance of the year.

Even at those points where the script seems to lose its sense of direction, George Stevens always admirably retains his own. At its best, it is an orchestration, taut with suspense and enriched in the fighting scenes with beautifully timed, almost epigrammatic bits of "business" and a swinging gusto which makes of every roundhouse blow a thing of beauty. Mr. Fairbanks leaps from roof to roof like his esteemed sire; Mr. McLaglen in his uniform struts intemperately; Cary Grant clowns even beneath the lash of the cult of Thugs, even with a bayonet wound in his vitals. As Guru, high priest of the killer cult, whose attempted ambush of the British troops is foiled by the heroic and suicidal bugling of good old Din, Eduardo Ciannelli has stepped straight from an old-fashioned serial.   

THE WASHINGTON POST Film Review - February 2, 1939
- by Nelson B Bell
- submitted by Renee Klish

RKO - Radio Hits Peak in Film of 'Gunga Din'

It is an adroitly fashioned and skillfully articulated screen play that Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht have fashioned from suggestions in the Kipling poem for their epic film version of "Gunga Din."  They have concocted a melodrama of far-flung proportions that is as compactly filled with dramatic surprises as it is with thunderous and tumultuous action.  They have personalized a story that might easily have wandered away into one of those vague expositions of "historical" empire building and so lost much of its present forcefulness and concentrated interest. 

They have been deft, too, in avoiding too much obvious reliance upon the Kipling poem as a camouflage for their own dramaturgic shortcomings.  On the evidence of this picture, they have no dramaturgic shortcomings.  They felt no need to rely upon Mr. Kipling except in the most remote sort of way, and so they didn't.

To make clearer what I mean, one approaching yesterday afternoon's preview of "Gunga Din," in the private projection room of the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Exchange, did so with an assurance bred of past experience that the film would open with a rolling screen reproduction of the poem from which the picture derives its name.  That was a complete misapprehension.  The reading of a stanza or two of the Kipling lines came at the end of the picture, over the body of the water-boy who had proved himself a hero and won a high place on the honor roll of the British army in India.  That was only the first of a series of preconceived notions of the stereotyped manner in which "Gunga Din" would be brought to the silver sheet to be amazingly and conclusively shattered.

All of this, of course, was faulty thinking.  There is nothing stereotyped about "Gunga Din."  It is beyond question the most impressive production that RKO-Radio ever has brought to the screen, not even excepting "Cimarron."  It is a picture that surges with action of the most violent and hair-raising description; it deals interestingly, humanly and excitingly with the deep patriotism and adventurous spirit of three sergeants in the service of the Queen on a distant outpost of the Empire.  A romantic touch is lent the developments by the enthusiasm of one of the three to quit the army and become a married tea merchant, enjoying the placid pleasures of domestic life in pastural precincts.  That just doesn't come off.

Climax Reaches Blistering Intensity

What does come off is a series of turbulent and nerve-tingling episodes in which suspenseful events mount to a final climax that I should say never has been equaled on the screen for its realistic simulation of armed repression of revolt.  The thing will literally bowl you over.

There are elements of drama, vagrant touches of comedy, momentary periods of romance and other ingredients of a handsome entertainment woven into his expansive mosaic by Director George Stevens that will not be gone into here and now.  I might go so far as to say that "Gunga Din" does not at all times maintain the top velocity of its climactic scenes, but that seems to be unimportant, because "Gunga Din" opens with action that would do for the climax of most pictures and then goes on from there to demonstrate what action really can be like when a director buckles down and puts his mind to it!

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., have roles so evenly balanced in importance and appeal that there is nothing to choose among them.  They do a grad job, individually and collectively.  Incidentally, there will be a review of "Gunga Din" in these columns - I hope - on Friday morning, following tonight's premiere performances on Fifteenth street.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Film Review - January 27, 1939
- by J.K.B.
- submitted by Renee Klish

RKO has the temerity to film the story which Hecht and MacArthur dared to expand from the famous 89-line poem of Rudyard Kipling about the faithful waterboy with a British patrol in India.  The inspiration which moved Kipling to write the poem, along with many other of his Barrack Room Ballads, is just as impressive on the screen as it must have been to the be-spectacled correspondent who saw it enacted in real life.  It is, to be brief, a story which demands a critic with a pen as strong as the man who gave it birth.

Well-knit and taut, the story catches you up in its rough and headstrong flight and never lets you down.  If you aren't gasping over the reckless hand-to-hand fighting or the thundering cavalry, your throat catches over the awesome beauty of the scenery.  California, in addition to all its natives' violent claims, has in Mt. Whitney - where the scenes were filmed - mountain grandeur which must certainly surpass the Himalayas which it represents.

As the Three Musketeers of the desert, Victor McLaglan, Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks are utterly believable as the hard-hitting, brave, yet loyal trio which they depict with such apparent enjoyment.  So strong is the bond between them, and to the audience, that the intrusion of the lone woman in the cast intent on marrying Fairbanks is resented just as much by the audience as by his buddies.  But it is Sam Jaffe as the wistful, faithful Gunga Din, who seeks to be a soldier but never becomes one until after his death, who, rightly, is the outstanding character.  And it is only because he is so believable and appealing, that the closing scene where Kipling's poem is read as his burial services does not appear maudlin or out of place - as it easily might.

LOS ANGELES TIMES Film Review - January 25, 1939
- by Edwin Schallert
- submitted by Renee Klish

'Gunga Din' Melodrama on Magnificent Scale

Magnitude and money are emblazoned in the largest capital letters in "Gunga Din" which received its screen inauguration in gala style with an éclat premier last night at Pantages Hollywood Theater.  Truly accomplished in the grand manner of war spectacles is this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling poem, that heroizes the subject of those verses, and tells a roystering story of thrills, melodrama and adventure in India.

$2,000,000 PRODUCTION

This is the feature that took nearly $2,000,000 to produce.  Actual cost, I understand, was $1,830,000, and the film surpasses in that item, at least, any other undertaking in recent years at R.K.O. studio, which sponsored the enterprise.  The audience build-up is doubtless already large, and applause vouchsafed last night for certain scenes indicated that the note of popularity had been emphatically sounded.

"Gunga Din" may have more appeal to men than women at times; that's true.  It's on the masculine side in plot.  But the pictorial qualities are universal in their attraction, and no one can fail to be fascinated by the bigger panoramas.

Magnificence of the outdoor scenes of "Gunga Din," has never, it might be said, been rivaled in the history of pictures.  This production takes its place alongside of the greatest that have attempted to mass forces on the Herculean plan.


George Stevens, as producer and director, has managed his armies admirably, and Pandro Berman, as executive in charge, evidently demonstrated the courage of putting everything at Stevens' command.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are a sort of "soldiers three" combination who contribute lusty entertainment, while Same Jaffe impersonates the courageous title character and native water-bearer who desires to prove himself a brave soldier, and who, in the final analysis does.

The underlying theme idealizing this character is pretty well presented, and gives visual meaning to the Kipling classic.

Suspense is splendidly devised in the earlier episodes when a beleaguered village is cut off from communication with the neighboring military post.

The crafty attck of the thugs on the rescuing party is made into another powerful episode.  Lots of dizzying gunfire here.


Finally everything builds to a sensational climax when the British attack the marauders in their own den, with Cary Grant, alone, and then Victor McLaglen and Fairbanks Jr. leading the way.

The capture of these three is the inspiration for enthralling happenings, in which the trio of actors mentioned, with Eduardo Ciannelli, who does an excellent performance, quite dominate.  Also Same Jaffe as Gunga Din shares liberally in the laurels.

Grant is very persuasive in his work, while McLaglen has the hearty quality that distinguishes his best portrayals, and Fairbanks gives an efficient account of himself.  Not much leeway for romance in this film, but Joan Fontaine typifies it, while Montagu Love has many of the most telling lines to speak, and offers them admirably.


Despite the many stirring battles, there is good comedy relief, particularly in the bridge-crossing episode with Grant and Jaffe, and during an earlier quite incidental stretch of sequences pertaining to an elixir for pachyderms.  While a bit off the track, this seems to serve well for amusement.  Grant is especially clever in the comedy.

Robert Coote, Abner Biberman and Lumsden Hare are others.  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the story, which was put into screen play form by Joel Sayre and Fred Gould.

Click here to read Susanna's review of "Gunga Din"

Click here to read Jenny's Crackpot Reviews at the Cary Grant Shrine

From Douglas Fairbanks' autobiography - 'The Salad Days':

"....one day Cary Grant, a remarkable guy with an agile mind (which HE said was replete with complexes) and a treasure of a friend, asked me if I wanted to play something called Gunga Din......Cary, enthusiastic as ever, was at pains to assure me that if I joined the cast, everyone would be thrilled......I still had no clue as to which of the two younger sergeants Cary and 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. This would be Joan Fontaine's first role as a leading lady. The other sergeant was his mate, an engagingly brave, funny young cockney. These two, with the older one, shared the adventures fairly equally. When I asked Cary which part he intended to play, he answered, 'Whichever 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'. I have never so much as HEARD of another actor (usually considered a congenitally selfish breed) who proposed to a contemporary colleague, in some ways a rival, so unselfish a proposal. I came to learn that such gestures were typical of Cary. He had always been most concerned with being involved in what he guessed would be a successful picture."

Apparently, they finally settled the casting by tossing a coin and thereafter Cary and Douglas Fairbanks would address each other as Cutter and Ballantyne!

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