Gunga Din (1939): An Original Blockbuster

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It’s summertime, which means we’re eyeball deep in the season of the blockbuster. These popcorn flicks widely vary in quality and entertainment value, but they all have one thing in common: they make money. And if they don’t make enough money during their run in the theater, they’ll rake it in with lucrative marketing deals with retail partners, toy manufacturers and home video sales. With all of the billion-dollar movie franchises that dominate our screens—Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, James Bond, among others—I’ve been thinking about the greatest blockbusters. The concept of the summer blockbuster is usually attributed to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, and while that film certainly set the trend for many popular films that followed, there are numerous movies from classic Hollywood that served as proto-blockbusters, including Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Gunga Din (1939).

British author Rudyard Kipling was very protective of his literary works, refusing most offers to adapt his stories for the screen. But when Kipling died early in 1936, his wife sold the rights to many of his works, resulting in some of the greatest action adventure films ever made. Producer Edward Small, who mainly made indie “B” pictures including Brewster’s Millions (1945), Kansas City Confidential (1952) and Khyber Patrol (1954), purchased the rights for Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din.” To adapt Kipling’s story for the screen, Small originally hired author William Faulkner, but Faulkner’s vision and tone for the screenplay was far too dark. Small brought in additional writers to work on the story, but there just wasn’t enough to Kipling’s poem to inspire a complete script, so the project never took off. Eventually, Small sold the filming rights to RKO. The studio brought on director Howard Hawks to head up the project and he hired writers and frequent collaborators Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to write the script. The pair used both Kipling’s poem and his Soldier’s Three stories, combining them to make a fun and thrilling action adventure. Hecht and MacArthur were known best for their 1928 play The Front Page– which also inspired their screenplay for Gunga Din, and would later be adapted for the screen in 1931 and later reimagined as Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday in 1940. But with filming delays and the miserable box office returns for Bringing Up Baby (1938), RKO pushed Hawks out of the production and hired George Stevens. With the change, Stevens brought in two more writers to work on the script, Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol, to help bring all of it together. Sayre and Guiol added the Thuggee cult storyline that would drive the three leads on their adventure. With the screenplay in good shape, Stevens and company set off for the High Sierras. And while Stevens eventually pulled off the unimaginable by finally bringing this project to the screen, it wasn’t without its share of drama.

Insisting on shooting on location, Stevens convinced RKO to allow him to set up production in the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California. In a shoot that was only supposed to last a short two months, Stevens and his crew ran into every possible problem while filming. For starters, the weather was damn near uninhabitable with sweltering temperatures well over a hundred degrees. There were unexpected dust storms, snow and brutal winds which hampered the production. The impressive set built for the village of Tantrapur, where our heroes first meet the Thuggee, caught fire and was completely destroyed. The cast and crew were being tested at every single turn, and it was costing RKO a fortune in both time and money. With a blown schedule and two million dollars poorer, RKO was in deep with this thing. Fortunately, the film received both critical acclaim and audience approval, with impressive box office returns. But with the cost of production, the most expensive film released by RKO at that time, the studio couldn’t recoup their expenses. However, with numerous theatrical rereleases that followed, RKO eventually made a healthy profit, and proved they could make films other than the screwball comedies and musicals they were most known for.

GUNGA DIN

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were cast as the three British soldiers and close friends. They are perfect in their respective roles, especially Grant who gets to have fun as the treasure-hunting Cockney, Sgt. Archibald Cutter (the first name chosen by Grant as it was his real first name). For the title role of Gunga Din, Stevens originally wanted to cast Sabu, but the actor was under contract to British producer Alexander Korda. Stevens instead went with Sam Jaffe, who is excellent, but a problematic choice. Not only was he far too old to play the young Din (he was 47), he was of Russian Jewish descent—far from the Indian character Kipling created. Also, hundreds of extras were spray-painted in brown face, not to mention the portrayal of Indians as savage. An embarrassing, offensive and culturally insensitive moment in film history, that unfortunately is still problematic in media today.

Along with all of the issues with the production, are countless stories from the set of Gunga Din, and many are quite humorous. In Evenings with Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best by Nancy Nelson, Grant recalls a couple entertaining anecdotes from the shoot. In the first, Grant discusses the drunk scene between his Sgt. Cutter and Sgt. MacChesney, played by McLaglen. When Cutter declares that he’s leaving the mission to go on an expedition, he and MacChesney have a fight. Grant said that while the fight was choreographed, he took a false step and McLaglen clocked him right on the jaw, knocking him out. Of course, McLaglen, who was a big, athletic guy, didn’t know he had hurt Grant. When Grant came to, he chased after McLaglen with a bottle, but never caught him. The actors also played lots of pranks on the set, but there was one in particular that was so funny and so crude that Grant didn’t talk about publicly until his theater tour in the mid-1980s. And it’s best told by Grant himself (from Nelson’s book):

We were dressed in heavy boots and uniforms, and waiting around the set dressed this way could get tedious. We’d amuse ourselves by taking a handful of gravel and letting the pebbles slowly fall onto one another’s boots. When the pebbles made contact with the boots, it sounded like someone relieving himself. One day we were up shooting on a cliff. It was about a hundred and ten degrees. We drank a great deal of water on those kinds of days. And I had to go to the loo. Vic said, “Well, why don’t you just pee on Fairbanks’s boots?” I said, “I can’t do that.” And McLaglen said, “Why don’t we both do it?” [Fairbanks was meanwhile distracted, looking down, taking directions from George Stevens, says his son.] Doug, thinking he heard pebbles again, said, “Oh, come on fellows. Cut it out.”

The issues on-location, anecdotes, color home movie footage, technical achievements, special effects and impressive set pieces all add to the legend and story of Gunga Din, making it not only an interesting story both onscreen and behind-the-scenes, but it inspired films to come, such as Richard Lester’s Help! (1965) starring The Beatles, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Gunga Din is one of the truly great action-adventure popcorn films. So, if you’re frustrated with this summer’s blockbuster offerings, give this one a watch.

Jill Blake

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6 Responses Gunga Din (1939): An Original Blockbuster
Posted By Charles Berger : July 1, 2017 8:45 am

Great review of one of my all time favorite films. As you noted, the three adventurous soldiers were perfect in their roles. Grant again showed another dimension of his ability as an actor. McLaglen played his part as he was later to do in a couple of Ford
movies. I thought Douglas Fairbanks,Jr. looked the part of the swashbuckler that made his father so famous. He was more physically mature and the mustache gave him that really dashing look.A great flick. One of the best of that golden year of 1939.

Posted By Doug : July 1, 2017 9:13 am

As I’ve noted, I watched “His Girl Friday” last week and it was perfect.
I love “Bringing Up Baby” and am surprised to read that it wasn’t well received when it opened-more of “Kate’s Curse”-Hepburn being considered ‘box office poison’?
She certainly got back on track with “The Philadelphia Story”.
I’ve read Kipling, but I don’t think I’ve seen more than a few scenes of the film “Gunga Din”-I should correct that.
Thank you, Jill-I love ‘Blockbusters’.

Posted By tolly devlin : July 1, 2017 3:46 pm

One of my all time favorite actin films. The humor & camaraderie of the three stars 7 Steven’s direction make this one a winner. All week before I even knew this was posted McLaglen’s line “Oh, mate look at your back ” has been on my mind. I guess that means I should watch this one again. Thanks for the post.

Posted By George : July 1, 2017 5:03 pm

There would be no INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM without GUNGA DIN.

Although TEMPLE OF DOOM pulled off the trick of being more racist and sexist (in 1984) than GUNGA DIN was (in 1939).

Posted By Alan : July 1, 2017 5:57 pm

one of my families favorite movies. I even got production still of Fairbanks in the movie. This is still one best buddy action films of all time.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall (Caftan Woman) : July 2, 2017 10:48 am

One of the most fun movies of all-time.

What you think about Cutter, MacChesney and Ballantine as great cat names?

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