"Gunga Din," starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., premieres

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"Gunga Din," starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., premieres

Sgts. MacChesney and Cutter (Victor McLaglen and Cary Grant) from "Gunga Din" (1939)
Trailer screenshot, RKO Pictures
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military/Cinematic History: January 24, 1939

The year 1939 is regard by most movie critics and movie-goers as one of the greatest years in Hollywood history for well-loved, highly acclaimed motion pictures. Everyone knows of "Gone With The Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." However, leading off the year was one of the great adventure/buddy pictures of all time, based on a Rudyard Kipling poem: "Gunga Din."


British author Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was an English short-story writer, poet, and novelist chiefly remembered for his tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his tales for children. He was born in Bombay (modern Mumbai), in the Bombay Presidency of British Indian, and was taken by his family to England when he was five years old. He is most famous for a number of children's books (The Jungle Book, Kim, Captains Courageous). However, Kipling is likely best known for a number of adventure and poetry books, many related to the life of British soldiers as they lived in and protected India during "the Raj," the period of England's rule of modern-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Among the better known poems were "Take Up the White Man's Burden" and "Gunga Din."

Kipling, age 60, on the cover of Time Magazine, September 27, 1926
Kipling, age 60, on the cover of Time Magazine,
September 27, 1926

"Gunga Din" was first published in 1892, in a book of poetry entitled Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses." [The book also contains the poems "Mandalay" and "Fuzzy-Wuzzy."] The poem concerns a Muslim regimental bhishti (water-carrier) continually mistreated by most of the British soldiers. During a firefight, Din saves the life of the poem's narrator, and shortly thereafter is killed. Regretting the way he treated the bhishti, he finishes the poem with these lines:

Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

The film script was expanded to include a story of a native revolt in India sometime in the 1880s (the film is not specific about the time period), proposing a revival of the Thuggee cult. Further, to give the Gunga Din character some substance, he is portrayed as yearning to be a soldier with the native forces under British control. [I'm not going to give much more than this description; the movie simply must be seen.]

The "Sergeants Three" – Grant, McLaglan, Fairbanks – and Gunga Din

When a "Gunga Din" film was green-lighted, it was decided to expand the story into an amalgam of an adventure-"buddy" film, two genres of motion pictures which were popular in the 1930s. RKO Pictures recruited some of Hollywood's finest leading men and bit players.

Cary Grant, RKO publicity still, 1941
Cary Grant, RKO publicity still, 1941

Cary Grant (1904-1986) was one of Hollywood's definitive leading men. Suave, sophisticated, and incredibly handsome, he was both a fine dramatic and comedic actor. Born in England as Archibald Leach, his father abandoned him after placing his clinically-depressed mother in an institution and remarrying. He traveled to America, worked in vaudeville and on stage, then began film-acting in 1932. Grant had already done 32 movies before "Gunga Din," most notable were "Alice in Wonderland" (1933), "Topper" (1937), and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938). Still in Grant's future were some of his most famous films, including "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), "Notorious" (1946), "The Bishop's Wife" (1947), "To Catch a Thief" (1955), "North by Northwest" (1959), and "Charade" (1963).

'The Informer' theatrical release poster (1935)
"The Informer" theatrical release poster (1935)

Victor McLaglen (1886-1959) was born in England, one of 9 brothers and one sister. He was a professional wrestler and heavyweight boxer, once even fighting a six-round exhibition match with world champion Jack Johnson. McLaglen also toured with a circus, enlisted in the British Army, then about 1920 started acting in British silent films. He moved to Hollywood soon afterwards and became a popular character actor, with a particular knack for playing drunks. He also usually played Irishmen, leading many film fans to mistakenly assume he was Irish rather than English. McLaglen won an Academy Award for Best Actor in "The Informer" (1935). After "Gunga Din" he would co-star in director John Ford's "U.S. Cavalry Film Trilogy" of "Fort Apache" (1948), "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (1949), and "Rio Grande" (1950) – all three films starring John Wayne. McLaglen would receive another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1952 for "The Quiet Man," again playing second fiddle to John Wayne.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (with Maureen O'Hara) in Sinbad the Sailor (1947) Movie trailer screenshot, RKO Pictures
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (with Maureen O'Hara) in "Sinbad the Sailor (1947)
Movie trailer screenshot, RKO Pictures

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-2000) began life with the legacy of his more famous father, one of Hollywood's greatest action heroes. He established himself as an actor in his own right, making a number of action films reminiscent of those done by his father in the silent film era (note photograph above). Fairbanks Jr. also served in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. His most notable films were "The Dawn Patrol" (1930), "Little Caesar" (1931, starring Edward G. Robinson), and "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937, with Ronald Colman, Mary Aston, David Niven, and Raymond Massey).

Sam Jaffe in title role of 'Gunga Din' (Image courtesy of www.movieactors.com)
Sam Jaffe in title role of "Gunga Din"
(Image courtesy of www.movieactors.com)

Sam Jaffe (1891-1984) was born in New York City, and began acting in 1915. He played a large number of supporting roles in films right up until his death. His most famous roles in addition to Gunga Din include "Lost Horizons" (1937), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), "Ben-Hur" (1959), and "Battle Beyond The Stars" (1980). He also starred in the TV series "Ben Casey" in the early 1960s.

The Making of "Gunga Din"

Principal shooting on the film took four months (June to October of 1938). The original script called for large numbers of interior shots, but when it was decided to expand the story, more writers were called in to expand the script. The film was written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol from a storyline by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with uncredited contributions by Lester Cohen, John Colton, William Faulkner, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols and Anthony Veiller.

When Fairbanks and Grant were cast for the film, they were originally assigned different characters (Grant had Sgt. Ballentine and Fairbanks was to be Sgt. Cutter). According to film experts, Grant wanted the happy-go-lucky treasure hunter Cutter's part. The film's director George Stevens suggested the two men flip a coin, and Grant won. Grant personalized the Cutter role even further, using his original first name for the character's (Archibald).

California's Sierra Nevada mountains, the Alabama Hills, and surrounding areas doubled as the Khyber Pass for the film. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. reported in a featurette interview on the DVD release that in his travels, he has met several Hindi Indians who were convinced the external scenes were filmed on location in Northwest India at the actual Khyber Pass. A few interiors were made on sets at RKO Radio Pictures Hollywood sound stages, and one exterior scene filmed on the RKO Encino movie ranch.

Narrow pass in the Alabama Hills of California's Sierra Madres doubled as Khyber Pass in 'Gunga Din'
Narrow pass in the Alabama Hills of California's Sierra Madres doubled as Khyber Pass in "Gunga Din"

Footnote #1: "Gunga Din" was the second biggest money-making film of the year, next to "Gone with the Wind."

Footnote #2: Cinematographer Joseph H. August was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematograpy, Black-and-White (there were separate categories for black-and-white and color cinematography between 1936 and 1966).

Footnote #3: In 1999, "Gunga Din" was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film has also been nominated for a number of the "100" lists published by the American Film Institute (AFI).

Footnote #4: When this film's producers were considering actors for various roles, they wanted prominent Indian actor Sabu for the film's title role. [He would later star in "The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and "The Jungle Book" (1942).] When he was unavailable, Sam Jaffe was cast. It was an unusual choice, as Jaffe was a first-generation American of Russian-Jewish descent and 47 years old. Interviewed years later, Jaffe was asked how he managed to play the role so well. He replied that during the entire shoot, he kept saying to himself, "Think Sabu."

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I have used the Kipling poem, "Gunga Din," to characterize the deceased at memorial services: loyal,
obedient, proud, humble, faithful. I saw the movie in 1939, and never forgot it.

I have used the Kipling poem, "Gunga Din," as a characterization of the deceased at memorial services: obedient, proud, humble, loyal. I saw the movie in 1939.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.