Gunga Din is a 1939 American adventure film from RKO Radio Pictures directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., loosely based on the 1890 poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling combined with elements of his 1888 short story collection Soldiers Three.
The film is about three British sergeants and Gunga Din, their native bhisti (water bearer), who fight the Thuggee, an Indian murder cult, in colonial British India.
On the Northwest Frontier of India, circa 1880, contact has been lost with a British outpost at Tantrapur in the midst of a telegraph message. Colonel Weed dispatches a detachment of 25 British Indian Army troops to investigate, led by three sergeants of the Royal Engineers: MacChesney, Cutter, and Ballantine, long-time friends and veteran campaigners. Although they are a disciplinary headache for their colonel, they are the right men to send on a dangerous mission. Accompanying the detail are six Indian camp workers, including regimental bhisti (water carrier) Gunga Din, who longs to throw off his lowly status and become a soldier of the Queen.
They find Tantrapur apparently deserted and set about repairing the telegraph. However, they are soon surrounded by hostile natives. The troops fight their way out, taking heavy losses. Colonel Weed and Major Mitchell identify an enemy weapon brought back by the survivors as belonging to the Thuggee, a murder cult that had been suppressed 50 years previously. Weed intends to send MacChesney and Cutter back with a larger force, in order to retake the town and complete the telegraph repairs. Ballantine, however, is due to muster out of the army in a few days; Weed orders Sergeant Higginbotham, disliked by both MacChesney and Cutter, to join the expedition as Ballantine’s replacement.
Once he is discharged, Ballantine plans to wed Emmy Stebbins and go into the tea business, a combined calamity that MacChesney and Cutter consider worse than death. MacChesney and Cutter are invited to the engagement party; intending to cause mischief, they spike the punch, which is subsequently drunk by Higginbotham. Higginbotham is so sick the following morning that he is unable to march out with the expedition, so a reluctant Ballantine is ordered to replace him.
At Tantrapur, Ballantine is eager to complete as much of the repairs as possible before his enlistment ends, while Cutter and MacChesney are frustrated and bored by the lack of action. Both suspect that if he could see some combat, Ballantine would change his mind about leaving the army. Ballantine’s enlistment ends while the detachment is still at Tantrapur, and a relief column led by Higginbotham, with Emmy riding along to surprise Ballantine, arrives. Meanwhile, Gunga Din tells Cutter of a temple he has found, one made of gold. Cutter is determined to make his fortune, but MacChesney will have none of it and has Cutter put in the stockade to prevent his desertion. That night, Cutter escapes with Din’s help and goes to the temple, which they discover belongs to the Thugs when the cultists return for a ceremony. Cutter creates a distraction and allows himself to be captured so that Din can slip away and sound the warning.
When Din gives MacChesney the news, he decides to go to the rescue, while Higginbotham sends word to headquarters to call out the entire regiment. Ballantine wants to go, too, but MacChesney points out that he cannot, as he is now a civilian. Ballantine reluctantly agrees to re-enlist, on the understanding that the enlistment paper will be torn up after the rescue. Emmy tries to dissuade him from going, but he refuses to desert his friends. MacChesney’s eagerness leads him to head to the temple without questioning Din in detail. As a result, MacChesney, Ballantine, and Din foolishly enter the temple by themselves and are easily captured. They are thrown into a cell with Cutter, where they discover he has been tortured since his capture; the guru demands that they reveal the details of their regiment’s location. MacChesney tricks the Thuggee guru into thinking he is prepared to betray his friends and the British army, and the soldiers use the opportunity to take the guru hostage. A standoff ensues, and the soldiers take the guru to the roof of the temple, where they discover the true size of the Thuggee forces.
As the regiment marches toward the temple, the guru boasts that they are falling into the trap he has set. He orders his men, still clustered around the temple, to take their positions, but they refuse to abandon him. When he sees that they are unwilling to leave him in enemy hands, he commits suicide to remove that obstacle; the Thuggee force moves into position, while other cultists swarm up the temple in order to kill the sergeants. Thugs shoot and bayonet Cutter. Gunga Din is also bayoneted, but manages with the last of his strength to climb to the top of the gold dome of the temple and sound the alarm with a bugle taken from a dead Thug. He is then shot dead, but the British force is alerted and defeats the Thuggee forces. At Din’s funeral pyre, the colonel formally inducts Gunga Din as a British corporal – then he asks visiting journalist Rudyard Kipling to hand him the draft of the poem Kipling has just completed, so that he might read the final words himself over Din’s body. Ballantine announces his intention to remain in the army, and instead of tearing up his re-enlistment papers, gives them to the colonel, much to the approval of MacChesney and Cutter. The film ends with a final image of Gunga Din’s spirit, standing proudly and saluting at attention, now in British uniform.
- Cary Grant as Sergeant (Sgt) Archibald Cutter.
- Victor McLaglen as Sgt. ‘Mac’ MacChesney.
- Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Sgt. Thomas ‘Tommy’ Ballantine.
- Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din.
- Eduardo Ciannelli as Guru.
- Joan Fontaine as Emaline ‘Emmy’ Stebbins.
- Montagu Love as Colonel Weed.
- Robert Coote as Sgt. Bertie Higginbotham.
- Abner Biberman as Chota.
- Lumsden Hare as Major Mitchell.
- Cecil Kellaway as Mr. Stebbins (uncredited).
- Reginald Sheffield as Rudyard Kipling (uncredited).
- George Regas as Thug Chieftain (uncredited).
- Roland Varno as Lieutenant Markham (uncredited).
The rights to Kipling’s poem were bought by producer Edward Small’s Reliance Pictures in 1936 in exchange for £4,700. RKO took the rights as part of a production deal with Small when he moved to the company. William Faulkner did some preliminary script work then the project was assigned to Howard Hawks. He got Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to write the screenplay and the film was set to start in 1937 but was delayed to find suitable cast. Hawks was fired from the project following the commercial failure of Bringing Up Baby and George Stevens was assigned to direct.
Originally, Grant and Fairbanks were assigned each other’s role; Grant was to be the one leaving the army to marry Joan Fontaine’s character, and Fairbanks the happy-go-lucky treasure hunter, since the character was identical to the legendary screen persona of Fairbanks’ father.
According to Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, when Grant wanted to switch parts, director George Stevens suggested they toss a coin; Grant won and Fairbanks Jr. lost his most important role.
On the other hand, according to a biography of director George Stevens by Marilyn Ann Moss entitled Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film, the Cutter role was originally slated for comedy actor Jack Oakie until Grant requested the part because it would enable him to inject more humour into his performance, at which point Fairbanks, Jr. was brought on board to replace Grant as Ballantine.
On a more recent showing of the film on TCM, Ben Mankiewicz has contradicted the story told about the coin-flip by his colleague Osbourne, and has stated that while Grant was originally slated to play Sergeant Ballantine, and did indeed decide to switch to the more comedic role of Sergeant Cutter, he claimed that after taking over the role that may or may not have already been filled, Grant actually recommended that his former role go to his friend Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and was primarily responsible for him gaining the part.
Fairbanks Jr. claims he was cast as Cutter by Howard Hawks then asked to change.
Filming began on June 24, 1938 and was completed on 19 October 1938. The film premiered in Los Angeles on 24 January 1939. California’s Sierra Nevada range, 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. The original script was composed largely of interiors and detailed life in the barracks. The decision was made to make the story a much larger adventure tale, but the re-write process dragged on into principal shooting. Some of the incidental scenes that flesh out the story were filmed while hundreds of extras were in the background being marshalled for larger takes.
The movie includes a sequence at the end in which a fictionalised Rudyard Kipling, played by Reginald Sheffield, witnesses the events and is inspired to write his poem (the scene in which the poem is first read out carefully quotes only those parts of the poem that tally with the events of the movie). Following objections from Kipling’s family, the character was excised from some prints of the movie, but has since been restored.
The film earned $1,888,000 in the United States and Canada and $919,000 elsewhere, but because of its high production cost, it recorded a loss of $193,000. The film was the sixth highest grossing film nationally in 1939; however, in the ten states of Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, it was the third highest grossing film, coming only behind Gone with the Wind (which came in first place nationally, as well as in each of these states individually) and The Wizard of Oz (which came in fifth place nationally and second place in the aforementioned ten states).
Cinematographer Joseph H. August was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.
Gunga Din was one of novelist and screenwriter William Goldman’s favourite films. His first novel, The Temple of Gold, is named after the location of the film’s climax, and the movie is mentioned by name in the introduction to Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride.
The film was remade in 1962 as Sergeants 3 by members of the Rat pack; the part of Gunga Din was played by Sammy Davis Jr.
Several later films have paid homage to scenes from Gunga Din. In Help! (1965) the Beatles are pursued by a thuggee like cult, in The Party (1968) Peter Sellers plays an actor starring in “Son of Gunga Din” and parodies the Bugle scene, and in the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (set in India in 1935), many of the events and scenes are taken directly from Gunga Din.
Rian Johnson, the director of the 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, listed Gunga Din as one of the six movies for the cast and crew to watch before starting production.
- In 1999, Gunga Din was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Production & Filming Details
- George Stevens.
- George Stevens … producer.
- Joel Sayre … (screenplay).
- Fred Guiol … (screenplay).
- Ben Hecht … (story).
- Charles MacArthur … (story).
- Rudyard Kipling … (poem).
- William Faulkner … (contributing writer) (uncredited).
- Lester Cohen … (contributing writer) (uncredited).
- John Colton … (contributing writer) (uncredited).
- Vincent Lawrence … (contributing writer) (uncredited).
- Dudley Nichols … (contributing writer) (uncredited).
- Anthony Veiller … (contributing writer) (uncredited).
- Alfred Newman.
- Joseph H. August … director of photography.
- Henry Berman.
- John Lockert.
- John Sturges … uncredited.
- RKO Radio Pictures (as RKO Radio Pictures Inc.).
- RKO Radio Pictures (1939) (USA) (theatrical).
- RKO Distributing Corporation of Canada (1939) (Canada) (theatrical) (as RKO Distributing Corporation of Canada, Ltd.).
- RKO Radio Pictures (1939) (UK) (theatrical).
- Imperial Film AB (1939) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Kinografen (1939) (Norway) (theatrical).
- Filmituonti (1939) (Finland) (theatrical).
- RKO Radio Pictures (1942) (USA) (theatrical) (re-release).
- RKO Radio Pictures (1949) (USA) (theatrical) (re-release).
- RKO Radio Films (1951) (West Germany) (theatrical).
- RKO Radio Pictures (1954) (USA) (theatrical) (re-release).
- C&C Television Corporation (1955) (USA) (TV).
- Lii-Filmi (1959) (Finland) (theatrical).
- United Artists Television (1960) (USA) (TV) (for C&C).
- United Artists Television (1971) (USA) (TV) (for MBI).
- MGM/UA Entertainment Company (1982) (USA) (TV) (for MBI).
- RKO Home Video (1985) (USA) (VHS).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1988) (Finland) (TV).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1988) (Finland) (TV).
- Magna Entertainment (1990) (Australia) (VHS).
- Image Entertainment (1991) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- Image Entertainment (1995) (USA) (video) (LaserDisc).
- Vértice 360 (2000) (Spain) (DVD).
- Pan Vision Oy (2003) (Finland) (DVD).
- Warner Home Vidéo (1996) (France) (VHS).
- Éditions Montparnasse (2003) (France) (DVD).
- Versus Entertainment (2009) (Spain) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (2004) (USA) (DVD).
- Schröder Media (2018) (Germany) (DVD).
- Release Date: 24 January 1939 (Los Angeles Premiere, US).
- Rating: Approved.
- Running Time: 117 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.