(American, 1939, 117 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
Directed by George Stevens
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
The presence of this anachronistic community-within-a-community made it possible to make ‘British’ movies in America more self-consciously British than those made in London’s studios. THE RAINS CAME, THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER, DISRAELI, CAVALCADE, CLIVE OF INDIA, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, FOUR SONS, SUSPICION, DAVID COPPERFIELD, LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, ANTHONY ADVERSE, WEE WILLIE WINKIE, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD… The list is virtually endless. The catalog of every British author from Dickens through Noel Coward to J.B. Priestley was ransacked for stories of British pluck, wit, and grace. Hollywood producers rarely read anything other than their own scripts in those days, but if there was a single British author they were likely to treasure, it was Kipling. His stories of adventure, dash, and boyish camaraderie in colonial lands, especially India, vividly captured their own adolescent fantasies and framed them in an orderly world of action and pomp, where the lower castes always stood by faithfully to serve their masters, and everyone had an equal opportunity to die gloriously for Queen and Empire. Of all Kipling’s works, none was more beloved by Hollywood than the critically-despised "Gunga Din," Kipling’s long poem depicting the childlike loyalty and surpassing bravery of a native water carrier for the British army in India.
A version of GUNGA DIN had been produced as early as 1911. In 1929, a newly matured Hollywood film industry turned again to "Gunga Din," and the first of a series of attempts to bring the story to the screen began with Irving Thalberg at MGM organizing the project, which came to nothing. So did several other concepts for "Gunga Din," notably independent producer Edward Small’s, which included the services of novelist William Faulkner as screenwriter. The quest to bring "Gunga Din" to the screen foundered on the problem of story: there simply wasn’t enough of it in the Kipling poem to furnish fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production. Frustrated, Small sold his version to RKO studios in 1936. When RKO bought "Gunga Din," the studio put director-producer Howard Hawks on the project, and assigned A-list screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to it, they of THE FRONT PAGE fame. They quickly beefed up the story by cribbing from Kipling’s collection of stories called SOLDIERS THREE, adding the memorable and essentially comic characters of three British infantrymen in foreign service ("Ballantine," "Cutter," and "MacChesney"), as a foil to the tale of the valiant water bearer, Din. Hawks, MacArthur, and Hecht made a rollicking team, as antic as the three soldiers they were creating for the screen. The three sent an exuberant wire to RKO’s front office announcing that they’d tackled the story at last:
HAVE FINALLY FIGURED OUT TALE INVOLVING TWO SACRIFICES, ONE FOR LOVE, ONE FOR ENGLAND, WHICH… CONTAINS SOMETHING LIKE TWO THOUSAND DEATHS, THIRTY ELEPHANTS AND A PECK OF MAHARAJAHS STOP WE HAVE THIS NOW IN A COCKTAIL SHAKER AND HAVE POURED OUT SOME THIRTY-FIVE PAGES OF GLITTERING PROSE WHICH LOOK GOOD.
The film was eventually reassigned to RKO contract director George Stevens, and other screenwriters were brought in to substantially revise the work Hecht and MacArthur had done. One of them, Joel Sayre, added the often objectionable (and inaccurate) depictions of the Thugee cult. Still, much of GUNGA DIN retains Hecht and MacArthur’s masculine humor and physical comedy, while the alternately funny and tragic ‘band of brothers’ sensibility is vintage Howard Hawks.
The cast was straight from the playing fields of Beverly Hills, with British and Commonwealth expatriates (and their American auxiliaries) playing most of the leading roles. Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. play the rowdy and sentimental trio of Tommies. For the role of Din, the studio had wanted Sabu, but when he proved unavailable, cast versatile character actor Sam Jaffe. Eduardo Cianelli played the sinister Thugee leader. The film’s carefully choreographed physical comedy, breathtaking action sequences and epic production values were costly; at nearly $2,000,000, the film was far and away the most expensive of its day. Location shooting at the venerable cowboy movie setting of Lone Pine, more than 200 miles from Los Angeles in the foothills of the Sierras, was torturous and long, with the huge company sweating out 100 degree days for weeks on end. In the end, it all proved to be escapism at its best, an image of a thrilling, well-ordered, romantic life in an exotic clime, a far cry from the shaky, post-Depression America into which the film was released. And if Americans of the time did not find the film’s crude ethnic and racial stereotyping at least bizarre, perhaps this was because the kind of big, splashy, no-holds-barred fun that the film delivered simply overwhelmed more serious concerns. Director Stevens recognized GUNGA DIN as the wonderfully preposterous adolescent fantasy it was, and called the film "The Rover Boys in India." The Hollywood Raj was never more faithfully served by its handsome, brave, fun-loving men-at-arms. Just a year after the release of GUNGA DIN, the Raj would begin to break up, as several of its members, including David Niven, went home to fight for England. But GUNGA DIN remains evergreen, a memento of a decade when England ruled not just the waves, but the hearts of moviegoers as well.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.