BY SHANE CRABTREE
Thus far into our travels, we have visited much of the North American continent. On the international scale, however, we have only been across the Atlantic Ocean, when we visited the locale for John Ford’s “The Quiet Man.”
For this week’s journey, though, we will trek to the Far East and spend a short while in the Northwest Frontier of late nineteenth century India during the British occupation.
This week’s film is entitled “Gunga Din,” and is based on an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name.
Directed by George Stevens, the film gently morphs Kipling’s poetic short story into a two-hour film about three British sergeants and Gunga Din, their native bhisti (Hindi for “water bearer”), who fight the Thuggees, a cult of murderous Indians who ravaged the region during the era of British colonization.
Hosting an all-star cast consisting Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., not to mention Sam Jaffe starring as the title role, the film was an instant hit on the 1939 box office.
The film begins by showing Tantrapur, a British outpost, being overrun by Thuggee forces. Prior to being murdered, however, the outpost’s telegrapher sent a desperate emergency message down the line, hoping to at least warn nearby outposts.
The scene then cuts to the core British outpost, from which a detachment troops are dispatched to investigate the emergency message.
Led by three sergeants, MacChesney (McLaglen), Cutter (Grant), and Ballantine (Fairbanks Jr.), the detachment is ambushed by Thuggees and nearly eliminated.
However, the three sergeants and their regimental bhisti, Gunga Din, manage to fend off the attack and escape.
The storyline does not end there, believe it or not. After a friendly prank gone wrong, Cutter (Grant) and Din (Jaffe) are taken prisoner by the Thuggee warlord, who plans on torturing them and forcing them to watch their entire battalion massacred.
But Gunga Din, though merely a lowly and bullied water bearer, plans to make his mark on history by saving his friends.
Now, before you are carried away, I feel obliged to inform you that the film was not legitimately recorded in India.
Instead, Stevens set the film up in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, which looks eerily akin to the region surrounding the Khyber Pass.
This was dissimilar to the actions most directors took during this time period, especially noting that most action films were captured in the studios, complete with painted background sets, and as a result, “Gunga Din” was extremely expensive to film.
In the end, though one of the most popular films of the year, “Gunga Din” took a massive loss of more than $193,000.
The story itself, though carrying a bit of that old-fashioned slapstick comedy, is certainly enhanced by the deep and emotional storyline surrounding the honorable regimental water bearer.
Be prepared for a fun-filled blast from the past. And, by the way, you may have to look a little harder to find this classic.
But take my word for it — it is worth the effort and the time.