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GUNGA DIN (1939)
Three fun-loving British Sergeants, stationed in British India during the 19th century, find themselves along with their loyal water carrier, called to stop the murderous Thuggee cult before they ambush the British forces and spread terror among the people.
Story: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Screenplay by: Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol. Story and Screenplay based on Rudyard Kipling's poem written during the real Thuggee uprising in India.
Directed and produced by George Stevens.
Promotional Line: "Out of the stirring glory of
This classic rousing adventure story follows the mischief and fights that our three roustabout heroes, Sergeant Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant), Sergeant 'Mac' MacChesney (Victor McLaglin), and Sergeant Thomas 'Tommy' Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) get themselves into on and off the battlefield, as they gallantly serve their country.
After telegraph lines are downed, and communication is abruptly halted, the commanding officer, Colonel Weed (Montague Love) has a messenger find the three sergeants to send them out on a mission to investigate. When the messenger finds the three of them, they were in a middle of a brawl with a Scottish regiment over a treasure map sold to Cutter, which turned out to be a fake. This gold obsession of Sergeant Archibald Cutter's (Cary Grant) gets them all into some uncomfortable situations, this fight being one of them.
The staging of the brawl was quite entertaining and inventive, the timing being perfect.
When they enter the now deserted town, the suspense builds perfectly as their roof top guards are silently killed one by one in the background. Soon, all three sergeants, along with their men are busting heads, throwing dynamite, in a huge brouhaha with the Thuggee members. They escape by the skin of their teeth by jumping into the river. These action sequences were also perfectly done, a real work of art.
After they limp back to base, they learn that that Sergeant Ballantine's time is up in seven days, and he wants to break up this trio by dropping out to get married to the beautiful Emmy' Stebbins (Joan Fontaine). He was to be replaced by straight-laced Bertie Higginbotham (Robert Coote). Sergeant 'Mac' MacChesney and Sergeant Cutter put a plan in motion to thwart Tommy's plans.
As soon as the audience sees the lovely punch bowl at the formal officer party, one immediately guesses what these rascals are up to. Cutter (Cary Grant) with an innocent as a choirboy look on his face stands with his back to the bowl, and pours in a bottle of hooch, effectively spiking the punch.
While Cutter walks away to hide the evidence, MacChesney stands guard. Much to his horror, the Colonel and the Major come in and want some punch. The quick-witted MacChesney claims to see a fly in the bunch, and deliberately puts both hands into the bowl until he claims to have it. He pretends it flew away. The Colonel lost his appetite for punch.
Of course, they get Higginbotham sick on the punch, and they are ordered to take Tommy with them to set up a huge camp in the outpost close to the mountains, to wait contact with the Thuggees.
Cutter and Gunga Din, the waterboy who longs to be a soldier become friends, when Cutter catches him practicing drills holding a bugle. When MacChesney throws Cutter into the clink one night until he sobers up, Gunga Din gets Cutter out of jail using an elephant. The two of them set off to explore the golden temple that Gunga Din had found. The temple, you guessed it, turned out to be the headquarters for Thuggee Kali worship. They catch Cutter, but Gunga Din escapes to tell the others.
Before allowing Ballantine to come with him to rescue Cutter, MacChesney makes Ballantine sign reenlistment papers, in case something goes wrong. MacChesney didn't want to get in trouble for bringing a civilian along. The deal was that after they rescue Cutter, MacChesney would tear the papers up. Ballantine wisely didn't trust the sly MacChesney, and put the paper in his pocket. This was later used to save their collective hides while they were prisoners of the Thuggees.
The following scenes are suspenseful, with twists and turns, and plenty of well-planned action, including quick -thinking efforts by our heroes, a daring move by Gunga Din to save the day, gun battles, gatling guns, cannons and lots of horsemen, all perfectly put together to make a classic, action adventure yarn.
This film is one of George Steven's greatest accomplishments, as it is considered a classic for its genre. Stevens was a perfectionist, and had no problem reshooting scenes to get the right facial expression, the right timing and get the total effect he wanted. He was obviously very particular about staging the action scenes, for everything was perfect, right on the mark.
The story, by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, and the screenplay, by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol, was based on Rudyard Kipling's poem, and blends action with comedic moments to create a script that gives both the director and his fabulous cast something to really work with.
Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. have great screen chemistry, as three flawed but good-hearted sergeants who depend on each other both on the battle field and off. All three actors are great at physical acting and faking punches during their various fight scenes.
Victor McLaglen as the sly, boisterous Sergeant 'Mac' MacChesney, really fits the part in both build and temperament. A favorite scene is the fly in the punch bowl ploy described above. His facial expressions, timing and line delivery perfectly bring the full humor of the situation out for the audience.
Cary Grant is convincing as Sergeant Archibald Cutter, who, while a good loyal friend and soldier, has a big weakness for treasure and gold.
Douglas Fairbanks Junior does a fine job as Sergeant Thomas 'Tommy' Ballantine, a man swept away by cupid, and in love with beautiful Emma, who MacChesney calls a viper! Though angrily annoyed by the punch bowl antic which forced him away from his true love's arms, he rises to the occasion to go on a rescue mission to save Cutter.
The lovely Joan Fontaine makes a lovely Emma, who is determined to get her man out of service into civilian life, but she faces the powerful influence of male bonding.
Eduardo Ciannelli as the head priest of the Kali worshipers is wonderfully creepy and evil. Ciannelli had quite a career specializing in the "portrayal of cold-blooded heavies," though he was equally good at playing comical parts as well. Ciannelli was a doctor and an opera singer before he started to act.
Stevens sets the stage wonderfully for the sinister appearance of Ciannelli. At dusk, while Gunga Din and Cutter hide in the temple, they see a droning, chanting line of torch-carrying Kali worshippers walk over the dark hills into the temple and up to the altar area, gathering around the head priest to hear his words of encouragement to kill for Kali. In his distinctive, accented voice, Ciannelli sends chills down one's back with his hate speech. His wild eyes have a light shining around them, to make him even creepier.
Sam Jaffe does a good job playing the water boy Gunga Din, who longed with all his heart to be a soldier, and when the opportunity arose, he showed what a brave one he was.
The wonderful 1939 musical score was written by the vastly talented Alfred Newman, who won 9 Academy Oscars and was nominated 36 times for his work over his life time. The music he composed for each scene appropriately complemented what was going on, never over powering or redundant. This film is rated PG.
This film is recommended for family entertainment with the following mild reservations.
However, the uplifting ending makes the audience feel better about this unhappy occurrence. While this uplifting ending might be considered corny to some, it served its purpose in 1939, reflecting the values of self-sacrifice needed to get through difficult times, like the upcoming World War 2.
If you liked GUNGA DIN you may like THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM , SOLDIERS THREE, CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, SERGEANTS 3, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, KELLY'S HEROES, and ZULU.