Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to announce that one of our favorite pieces of cinematic frippery is director George Stevens’ entertainingly frenetic 1939 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s paean to British imperialism, Gunga Din.
It’s by no means a great picture but, by gosh (we are children of the Forties) it sure is entertaining every time we see it.
What an energetic cast — Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen as a trio of British soldiers battling long odds as they repel a torrent of rampaging natives in 19th century India. Joan Fontaine is along for the bumpy ride as Fairbanks’ fiancee.
Curious about Gunga Din’s source, we discovered that the movie is not based on a novel nor short story, but a poem. We immediately called in our Books2Movies expert Larry Michie — who revels in tracking often treacherous transitions from source material to the big-screen — to look into all this and report back.
Kipling was the outstanding hack poet of the Victorian era, grinding out patriotic poems by the score. Gunga Din was perhaps the most important of of the so-called barrack-room ballads. The poem was about the downtrodden Indian national who was used as a go-for by the British troops.
Here’s just a small slice of the Kipling poem: ‘Now in Injia’s sunny clime, where I used to spend my time, a-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen, of all them blackfaced crew, the finest man I knew, Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din! ‘ (The character is variously referred to as ‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, You squidgy-nosed old idol’ and ‘You ‘eathen.’)
Well, ok, say Joe and Frank. How to make a movie out of this? Nearly a dozen writers were given by RKO the task of adapting Gunga Din including such screenwriting luminaries as Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and William Faulkner. (Official credit went to Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol.)
Let’s say that liberties were taken.
For one thing, the movie was shot in mountainous Lone Pine, California, about 80 miles East of Fresno — not India. The cast included only one native Brit, a physically agile Grant then in his mid-30’s. (Fontaine came from British stock but was born in Japan.) The screenplay de-emphasized British imperialism in India, and turned Gunga Din into an adventurous ‘war is fun’ romp.
In her autobiography, Fontaine described her part (as the woman Fairbanks almost quit the military to marry) as a tiny role of little importance.
She complained of being lonely in Lone Pine, but kept somewhat busy by developing an infatuation with director Stevens. Accompanying Grant was his then romantic interest, actress Phyllis Brooks. Fairbanks had to settle for his date at the time, one Marlene Dietrich.
The ensemble could not have been thrilled by the fact that, according to Fontaine, Stevens, who was part American Indian, maintained a stoic mein, often keeping the cast and crew waiting for hours and even days while he sat in reverie or paced back and forth behind the set…I learned little or nothing from him as a director.
Given the movie’s title role was one of Hollywood’s best character actors, Sam Jaffe. He was born in 1891 in New York, into a theatrical Jewish family. His first name was Shalom. So what’s a nice Jewish boy doing playing a roughhouse 19th century Indian water-bearer? Why ask? Jaffe, heavily made up, is superb in the part.
As Larry writes, the movie concludes with the brave Gunga Din, played with broad humor by Jaffe, being killed in action and buried by the Brits, with the character of Kipling himself standing next to the British chief who recites the famous final lines of the poem as Din’s remains are lowered into the ground.
‘Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the Livin Gawd that made you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!’
War is never fun but seeing Gunga Din always is.