Saturday, August 9, 2014

Stubs – Gunga Din

Gunga Din (1939) Starring: Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sam Jaffe, Eduardo Ciannelli, Joan Fontaine. Directed by George Stevens. Screenplay by Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol. Story by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur. Inspired by the poem "Gunga Din" in Barrack Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling (London, 1892). Produced by George Stevens. Run Time: 117 minutes. U.S.  Black and White Drama, Action, Adventure, Comedy

With 2014 being the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Year in Hollywood, 1939, Trophy Unlocked thought it would be interesting to take a look back at some films from that year. So many great films came out in one year that it is worth remembering films were once the main form of entertainment for most Americans, whether they were escaping the summer heat in an air-conditioned theater or they just wanted to be taken to some place exotic.

Such was the setting for RKO’s 1939 feature, Gunga Din. At the time, India was a far away and mysterious place, then still under British rule. Most Americans had never met an Indian or traveled there and probably never would. What better place to set an action adventure film than a strange land with strange customs?

Our story opens circa 1880, on the Northwest Frontier of India, one of the far reaches of the British Empire. But the presence of troops is not appreciated by everyone. There are Thugges, a fanatic religious order that worships the goddess Kali, which believes in killing with strangulation and has sworn to annihilate the British in India. Members are trying to cut down the telegraph wires when a British Army patrol comes by. Pretending to be scared civilians on their way home, they tag along with the troops, but massacre them in their sleep that night.

They continue to raise havoc, raiding a British outpost at Tantrapur and killing the British telegraph operator while he is in the midst of messaging the Army. Alarmed, Colonel Weed (Montagu Love) dispatches a detachment of British Indian Army troops led by three sergeants of the Royal Engineers, 'Mac' MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant), and Thomas 'Tommy' Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to investigate. MacChesney, Cutter and Ballantine are long-time friends and veterans of the campaigns in the sub-continent.

The three, as we quickly learn, are also drunkards and disciplinary problems, who are out looking for quick riches. When they are located, they’ve been drinking and are in the middle of a fist fight with what appear to be other Army regulars. Cutter had bought a phony treasure map and this fight is somehow related, though the real purpose is to show us how rough and tumble they really are.

Sgt. MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Sgt. Cutter (Cary Grant) receive their orders from Colonel Weed.

Although they are a disciplinary headache for Weed, they are the right men for this dangerous mission. Accompanying the detail are six Indian camp workers, including regimental water boy Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). Din, we will learn, longs to become a soldier of the Queen.

When the troops arrive, they find Tantrapur deserted. They find the food in the mess is cold and stale. With the Indian regulars doing all the heavy lifting, they set about repairing the telegraph. However, they are soon surrounded by hostile Thugges, led by Chota (Abner Biberman). The troops are outnumbered, but fight their way out of the city, eventually leaping off the cliffs behind the outpost and escaping via the river that runs nearby.

Swords drawn, Cutter and MacChesney, flanked by  Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.),
try to hold off the Thugges, but are eventually forced to abandoned Tantrapur.

Colonel Weed and Major Mitchell (Lumsden Hare) identify an enemy weapon brought back as belonging to the Thugges, a murderous cult that thought to have been wiped out years before. Weed wants to send out parties to search and kill off these radicals before it’s too late. But one of our three heroes is dismissed from duty.

Ballantine is due to leave the army in a few days to wed Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and go into the tea business, and Weed wants to replace him in the field with Sgt. Bertie Higginbotham (Robert Coote). Neither MacChesney nor Cutter like Higginbotham and the thought of seeing Ballantine settle down seems to be a fate worse than death. The pair tries to disrupt Ballantine’s plans by spiking the punch at a wedding dance thrown by Emmy’s father (Cecil Kellaway), with Elephant Elixir. When Weed and Mitchell try to partake, MacChesney sticks his hand in the punchbowl to stop them.

Sgt. Bertie Higginbotham (Robert Coote) is not an acceptable replacement for Ballantine.

When Higginbotham shows up, Cutter makes sure to have him sample the concoction. When he becomes ill as a result, Ballantine is called back into service, though he promises Emmy he will only serve until his stint is over in a few days.

Meanwhile, Din has told Cutter of a temple made of gold and Cutter is determined to make his fortune. But MacChesney won’t let him go and Cutter tries to fight with him, but MacChesney is too big. After knocking Cutter out, he has him thrown into the stockade to prevent his desertion.

On his way to the stockade, the rarely sober Cutter grabs the bottle he's been drinking from.
But that night, with the help of Din and an Annie the elephant, Cutter escapes. Din leads him to the temple but they unfortunately find that it belongs to the Thugges. They return for an initiation of new members and a speech from their Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli). Knowing that the Colonel needs to know, Cutter creates a distraction and allows himself to be captured so Din can escape.

Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) and Sgt. Cutter listen to the Guru encourage his Thugges.

But when Din arrives in camp, MacChesney at first wants to shoot him as a deserter. But Din persists and tells him that Cutter is being held hostage at the temple. MacChesney decides to go to the rescue, but Ballantine wants to go too. MacChesney points out that he cannot, as he is now officially a civilian. But if Ballantine re-enlists, on the understanding that the enlistment paper will be torn up after the rescue, he can go. Ballantine doesn’t tell Emmy, who tries to dissuade him from going, but he refuses to desert his friend in need.

Due to miscommunication between Din and MacChesney, the trio foolishly enter the temple by themselves and are easily captured. They find that Cutter has been tied up and whipped, but has refused to give them information about troop movements. The guru has them try the same on MacChesney, but he withstands the torture. Next, the guru threatens to throw him into a snake pit (more about that later). But the three manage to free themselves and take the guru hostage.

MacChesney discovers that Cutter has been whipped by the Thugges.
But the Thugges won’t give up and they are forced up to the roof with Din and Guru and a stand-off ensues. In the distance, the bagpipes of a British regiment coming to the rescue can be heard and the Guru boasts that they are marching into his trap he has set, with the three sergeants as bait.

He orders his men to take positions, but they are unwilling to leave him in enemy hands who are threatening to kill him if they move. In order to get things going, he takes his own life leaping into the snake pit.

Meanwhile, Thugges have climbed to the top of the temple and overwhelmed the soldiers. Din, who takes the lead, is bayoneted, as is Cutter. But Din manages, with the last of his strength, to climb to the top of the temple and sound the alarm with a bugle taken from a dead Thug.

Gunga Din blows a bugle to warn the British troops of the Thugges' ambush.
He is shot dead by a Thug, but the British force, led by Weed and now accompanied by a journalist, Rudyard Kipling (Reginald Sheffield), are alerted to the danger and win the ensuing battle.

After the battle, Ballantine officially submits his re-enlistment papers to Weed; the marriage and Emmy apparently all but forgotten. Weed formally inducts Din as a British corporal and reads the last lines of a poem Kipling had just written about the battle and the man, ending with the famous “You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” The film ends with a final superimposed image of Gunga Din's spirit standing proudly in a British uniform.

Heroic Gunga Din shown at the end of the film.
Reliance Pictures, formed in 1932 by Edward Small and Harry M. Goetz, financed by a division of United Artists in a deal brokered by Joseph Schenck, purchased the rights to the poem in 1936 for £4,700. RKO acquired the rights when Small left Reliance to become an associate producer at the studio which bought out Reliance. Howard Hawks was originally signed to direct the film, but after the disappointment of Bringing Up Baby (1938), he was fired by Pandro S. Berman, the head of production at RKO, and replaced by George Stevens.

The adapted screenplay by Charles MacArthur seemed to emphasis the barracks and this wasn’t considered right for the action movie this was to become. Apparently several writers made attempts at writing treatments and screenplays, including William Faulkner, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols and Anthony Veiller. When Stevens came onboard to direct, so did Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol, but the script wasn’t finished before the production went on location, with 600 extras/actors in tow, to Lone Pine, California, which substituted for the Khyber Pass, for six weeks of shooting. The production cost about two million dollars; Gunga Din was one of the most expensive films that RKO had made up to that time. It got so bad that Berman had to visit Stevens on the set to encourage him to finish the film as quickly as possible.

While the film was popular at the time of release, its high production costs resulted in it actually losing money, about $193,000.

Cary Grant was originally cast to play the role of Ballantine and Fairbanks Jr. was cast as Cutter. Depending on whose story you hear, either Berman capitulated to Grant’s request to switch parts or Stevens had Grant and Fairbanks flip a coin. While I am a big fan of Grant’s and rarely think he misfires on film, Gunga Din is the exception to the rule. This is far from his best performance, in my opinion. As Sgt. Cutter, he tries his best to be funny, but his performance just seems off. Even the British-born actor’s accent is inconsistent.

Cary Grant as Sgt. Cutter. Not his best performance.

Given his pedigree, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had little choice but to be an actor. Born to his famous father and his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, Jr., he was signed to an acting contract by Paramount Pictures at the age of 14. When his films proved unsuccessful, he turned to the stage and there he impressed his father, his step-mother, Mary Pickford, and his father’s close friend, Charlie Chaplin. All encouraged the actor not to give up on acting.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Sgt. Ballantine.

When he was 19, Fairbanks married Joan Crawford, but the marriage only lasted a few years. By then, Crawford had already begun her affair with Clark Gable. Fairbanks would marry twice more, to Mary Lee Epping until her death in 1988 and lastly to Vera Shelton until his death in 2000 at the age of 90.

Fairbanks did appear in a lot of films, but he never came close to the superstardom his father enjoyed in silent films. He is best remembered for his role in this film and for being Rico’s (Edward G. Robinson) friend in Little Caesar (1931), one of the quintessential gangster films.

Victor McLaglen was a former English boxer and World War I veteran who found stardom in Hollywood in the 1920’s. He made his first film, The Call of the Road, in 1920. He successfully transitioned from silent to sound films and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Gypo Nolan in The Informer (1935). The barrel-chested actor seemed like a natural for the part of MacChesney. Still, he seems to be trying too hard in the role. There is a scene in which he talks baby-talk to a favorite elephant, the same one Din would use to free Cutter from jail, who takes ill. No doubt a chance to show the softer side of his character, but it comes off as embarrassing to watch.

Victor McLaglen plays Sgt. MacChesney.

Joan Fontaine has the unenviable part of Emmy. This is a very one-dimensional character. We really learn nothing more about her than she’s Ballantine’s fiancée, she has a father and that Ballantine would rather spend his time with MacChesney and Cutter than be settled down with her. We last see her being lied to by Ballantine as he rides off on the noble quest to save his friend, but her story is wrapped up off screen.

Joan Fontaine has little to do as Ballantine's fiancee Emmy.

Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland’s kid-sister, started acting in 1935, appearing in a West Coast stage production and being signed by RKO that same year. She must have inherited her acting genes, because she would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Rebecca (1940) the very next year, win one for Suspicion (1941) and be nominated again for The Constant Nymph (1943). Her role in Gunga Dun does not really tap into her acting talents.

For the titular character of the Indian water-bearer or "Bhishti", Hollywood cast Sam Jaffe, a Russian Jewish actor who was 47 at the time. It seems like an odd choice. He wears so much make-up that at first you might not recognize him. The role, despite the title drop, is really quite small and he really doesn’t come to prominence until the third act, when suddenly he becomes the bravest fighter and ends up being the hero for the British and perhaps a traitor to his own people. His story seems tacked on, which isn’t the actor’s fault, as the film is really about MacChesney, Cutter and Ballantine. The film only has a passing relationship to the poem that inspired it.

Sam Jaffe might seem an odd choice to play Gunga Din.

Jaffe, who was a longtime friend of John Huston, would go on to star in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of my favorite film noirs. Blacklisted as part of Hollywood’s witch hunt for communist sympathizers, he would still be hired by Robert Wise to appear in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and by William Wyler for Ben-Hur (1959). He would later co-star in the television series Ben Casey as Dr. Zorba from 1961 to 1965.

George Stevens, Gunga Din’s director, got his start in films as a cameraman for Laurel and Hardy films, including Night Owls (1930). He would go on to direct films in all sorts of genres, including romantic films: Alice Adams (1935), Quality Street (1937) and Vivacious Lady (1938); biographies: Annie Oakley (1935); musicals: Swing Time (1936) and A Damsel in Distress (1937); dramas: A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959); comedy/dramas: Woman of the Year (1942) and Talk of the Town (1942) and westerns: Shane (1953). Quite a career.

There is something about setting a film in India, and I’m not talking about the 700 plus films made by that country’s industry every year, that requires the story be given a certain treatment by Hollywood. Gandhi (1982) is a good example, as is A Passage to India (1984). Anytime we’re outdoors, which is quite often, the landscape has to be presented in massive scale, even wide screen isn’t big enough to capture it all. And the story has to move slowly as if being weighed down by the heat.

An example of the Indian landscape used as backdrop for the stobe ry.
It's actually Lone Pine, California.
These elements are present in Gunga Din, one of the early big screen films to feature India as a backdrop. Even though we’re limited by the Academy ratio, the landscape, which is actually California, is shown as dwarfing everyone and sadly the film moves at a snail’s pace. There are action sequences, but to get to them you have to go through long sequences of British Army maneuvers, marching and drilling. Since the film brought in no less than five technical advisors, I’m sure they got all of that right, but it doesn’t make for a lot of exciting action.

Now I know that a film can’t just be battle after battle, with apologies to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), but there could easily be less marching and still get the same point across. That is unless the point was to show hundreds of men marching slowly against the larger than life backdrops of the Khyber Pass. In that case, mission accomplished.

While I don’t usually like to pick on a film’s special effects, there is a particular sequence in this film that sadly looks like nobody really cared. When Guru is trying to make MacChesney reveal secrets about Army maneuvers he threatens to drop him into a pit of snakes. You don’t have to look too closely to see the strings manipulating the rubbery stand-ins. I’m sure this was preferable to working with a pit of real vipers and cobras, but they look more comical than menacing. I have to give the actors credit for keeping straight faces, but I would love to see the outtakes from this bit.

Look closely and you can see the strings. The snakes look less menacing
 and more like the work of a drunk puppeteer.
Gunga Din is a film that most fans of older films have seen or will want to see. While I don’t think this is the great film I’d heard it was, I do see how it influenced such diverse films as the Indiana Jones series of adventures and even The Beatles’ Help! (1965). The film has all the elements: great actors, a great director and a bigger than life story, but they don’t quite come together. This film has not aged as well as others from that era. While I would suggest you see it, I would tell you to go in with lowered expectations.

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