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Gunga Din Movie Review

ballantine macchesney mclaglen cutter

1939 – George Stevens –

This landmark adventure film concerns three Cockney soldiers posted in India who face and overcome a series of threats from a Thugee cult. Sam Jaffe is the brave but lowly waterboy Gunga Din, who yearns to be a soldier. As Cutter, Ballantine, and MacChesney, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen form a prototypical trio of pals. The film has gone down in history as one of the greatest adventure stories, but the action scenes, while good, would not work without the buddy element. The comradeship of the three manages to inject their sense of fellowship into the moments of danger and give the movie its infectious appeal.

The first appearance of the three friends establishes this tone of action and humor. While a British officer searches for them, they brawl with some locals over the authenticity of a map to an emerald mine. They keep up a shouting match with one another while they smash chairs, slug attackers, and toss people out of windows. The first threat to their solidarity comes from Ballantine's decision to leave the service in six days to marry Joan Fontaine. His two pals concoct a great scheme to discredit his replacement by spiking the punch at Ballantine's betrothal ball with the laxative MacChesney gives his favorite elephant. McLaglen has a hilarious comic routine in which he keeps two superior officers from sampling the punch by pretending to see a fly in it and plunging his hands in the bowl.

Most of the story's richness comes from the way the three friends seem to share their own wavelength so that even insults and abuse are understood as expressions of affection. To these career soldiers, friendship has become a rich form of game playing. (You can tell Howard Hawks, who was originally slated to direct, worked on the project; such indirect expressions of affection—what he called “three-cushion dialogue”—are a staple of his films.) One great example of such communication occurs later when MacChesney wants Ballantine to reenlist for another tour before granting permission for Ballantine to join him in rescuing Cutter. MacChesney lies, saying that he will later tear up the re-enlistment papers after they return. Ballantine signs but insists that he himself hold the papers. MacChesney looks angry. “Don't you trust me?” he asks. “No,” says Ballantine, and a big smile breaks out on MacChesney's face. This is just what he wanted to hear: his pal knows him after all.

Cast: Cary Grant (Archibald Cutter), Victor McLaglen (MacChesney), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Sergeant Ballantine), Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din), Edward Ciannelli (Guru), Joan Fontaine (Emmy Stebbins), Montagu Love (Colonel), Robert Coote (Higginbotham), Abner Biberman (Chota), Lumsden Hare (Major Mitchell), Charles Bennett (Telegraph Operator), George Du Count (Thug Chiefton), Ann Evers (Girl at Party), Bryant Fryer (Scotch Sergeant), Jamiel Hasson (Thug Chiefton) Screenwriter: Fred Guiol, Joel Sayre Cinematographer: Joseph H. August Composer: Alfred Newman Producer Pandro S. Berman for RKO Running Time: 117 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1939: Nominations: Black and White Cinematography Budget: $1.9M.

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