Gunga Din (1939): George Stevens’ Epic Adventure, Starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1890 poem, “Gunga Din” (Barrack Room Ballads), was meant to be a soldier’s tribute to a native Indian water boy who remains at his job even after being mortally wounded.

Gunga Din
Gunga Din (1938 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

RKO producer Pandro S. Berman converted Gunga Din into a feature tale of three brawling British sergeants stationed in colonial India: Cutter (Cary Grant), McChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

Ballantine intends to break up the trio by marrying Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine), while Cutter and McChesney devise schemes to keep Ballantine in the army.

The three sergeants face a native revolt by the Thuggees, and a fanatical religious cult headed by a Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli). Coming to the rescue of the three heroes is humble water carrier Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), who aspires to become the regimental trumpeter.

The epic tale was penned by many scribes. Nominally, it was written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol from a storyline by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (“The Front Page”). But there were also uncredited contributions from Lester Cohen, John Colton, William Faulkner, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols, and Anthony Veiller.

Originally slated to be directed by Howard Hawks, Gunga Din was ultimately helmed with great panache by George Stevens.


Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

On the Northwest Frontier of India, contact is lost with a British outpost at Tantrapur in the midst of 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, friends and veteran campaigners.

Although they defy discipline, they are the right men for the dangerous mission. Accompanying the detail are six Indian camp workers, including regimental bhisti (water carrier) Gunga Din, whose goal is to become an honorable soldier of the Queen.

With Tantrapur deserted, the men set about to repair the telegraph, but 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 cult that had been suppressed for decades.

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 Sgt. Higginbotham, who’s disliked by MacChesney and Cutter, to replace Ballantine.

Once discharged, Ballantine plans to wed Emmy Stebbins and go into the tea business, an idea that MacChesney and Cutter consider worse than death. MacChesney and Cutter are invited to the engagement party, where they cause mischief by spiking the punch/  Drinking it, Higginbotham gets so sick that he is unable to march out with the expedition, and Ballantine is ordered to replace him.

At Tantrapur, Ballantine is eager to complete the repairs 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.

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 made of gold. Cutter is determined to make his fortune, but MacChesney prevent his desertion. That night, Cutter escapes with Din’s help and goes to the temple, which they discover belongs to the Thugs. Cutter allows himself to be captured so that Din can slip away and sound the warning.

MacChesney decides to go to the rescue, while Higginbotham sends word to headquarters to call out the entire regiment. Ballantine wants to go, too, but he cannot, as he is now a civilian. Ballantine reluctantly agrees to re-enlist, contingent that the enlistment paper will be torn up after the rescue. Emmy tries to dissuade him from going, but he refuses to desert his amigos.

MacChesney’s heads to the temple without asking Din for details. As a result, MacChesney, Ballantine, and Din are captured, and thrown into a cell with Cutter. They are tortured, when the guru demands information about their regiment’s location. MacChesney tricks the Thuggee guru into thinking he is about to betray his friends and the British army, and the soldiers use the opportunity to take the guru hostage. During a standoff, the soldiers discover the true size of the Thuggee forces.

Boasting about his successful trap, the Guru orders his men, still clustered at the temple, to take their positions, but they refuse to abandon him, and he commits suicide. The Thuggee force moves into position, while other cultists intend to kill the sergeants. Thugs shoot and bayonet Cutter. Gunga Din is also bayoneted, but manages to climb to the top of the temple’s gold dome and sound the alarm with a bugle taken from a dead Thug.

Gunga Din is then shot dead, but the British unit is alerted and defeats the Thuggee forces. At Din’s funeral pyre, the colonel formally inducts Gunga Din as British corporal—then  asks visiting journalist Rudyard Kipling to hand him his poem so that he can read the final words over Din’s body.

Ballantine decides to remain in the army, and instead of tearing up his re-enlistment papers, he gives them to the colonel.

The film ends with an image of Gunga Din, now in British uniform, proudly saluting.

Critical Status:

In 1999, Gunga Din was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Cinematography (b/w):  Joseph H. August

Oscar Awards:  None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the black-and-white Cinematography Oscar was Gregg Toland for “Wuthering Heights,” directed by William Wyler.

August was also nominated that year for “Portrait of Jennie.”

Of similar interest:

Lives of a Bengal Lancer

The Charge of the Light Brigade


Cary Grant as 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 Col. Weed
Robert Coote as Sgt. Bertie Higginbotham
Abner Biberman as Chota
Lumsden Hare as Maj. Mitchell
Cecil Kellaway as Mr. Stebbins (uncredited)
Reginald Sheffield as Rudyard Kipling (uncredited)


Produced, directed by George Stevens
Written by Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Edited by Henry Berman

Production and distribution company: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: February 17, 1939 (U.S.)

Running time: 117 minutes
Budget $1,915,000
Box office $2,807,000