'Gunga Din' 1939: Cary Grant & Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Academy Screening

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gunga Din

George Stevens' rousingly politically incorrect – and for the most part much admired – action-adventure tale Gunga Din will have a special screening on Friday, June 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Prior to the film, Oscar winners Ben Burtt and Craig Barron will discuss the sound and visual effects used in this 1939 classic starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen.

Gunga Din will also will be presented in New York City on Monday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy Theater.

Written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol, from a story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which in turn was based on Rudyard Kipling's poem, Gunga Din follows the adventures of three British soldiers as they fight for Queen and Country in savage India, where the evil deeds of dark-skinned men – a murderous sect known as the Thuggees – threaten to make the sun finally set in the British empire.

Ah, but those schemers weren't counting on the the loyalty of another dark-skinned folk: Gunga Din, a simple waterbearer who'll do whatever it takes to save India for the British, thus preventing night from ever falling on the Jewel of the Queen's Crown. And to think the guy didn't even get knighted for his troubles. (By the way, the Good Gunga, plastered with dark make-up, is played by Sam Jaffe, the wise, 350-year-old Shangri-La monk from Lost Horizon.)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Joan Fontaine

Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant in Gunga DinOne curious thing about Gunga Din is a discussion I saw on Turner Classic Movies between Robert Osborne and film historian Molly Haskell, in which she stated that the film adaptation of Gunga Din is (at least to a certain extent) The Front Page set in British India.

That had never crossed my mind, though it should have been obvious – especially considering that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page. In Gunga Din, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wants to leave behind the happy-go-lucky carousing soldiers get into when they're not killing people so as to lead a peaceful existence with none other than a pre-stardom Joan Fontaine. Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, however, just won't let the poor guy go. (Much like Walter Burns wouldn't let Hildy Johnson leave the newspaper office to get married.) But back to Gunga Din, really, what Man would let a mere woman get in the way of his, ahem, friendship with his very, very close buddies?

So, Gunga Din may not offer a very enlightened view of war, colonialism, ethnic relations, gender relations, et al., but at least after watching it you'll understand the origin of the English word “thug.”

Presented as an installment of the Academy's George Stevens Lecture Series, Ben Burtt and Craig Barron will talk about the techniques used to create the film, for which Lone Pine, California, was used as the stand-in for India.

Burtt has won Academy Awards for Sound Effects Editing on Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He was most recently nominated for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing on WALL-E (2008).

Barron won an Oscar for the visual effects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and was nominated for his work on Batman Returns (1992). He currently serves as a governor representing the Academy's Visual Effects Branch. Barron also worked as matte cameraman in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which also features those pesky Thuggees.

Reginald Sheffield, George Stevens on the set of Gunga Din
Reginald Sheffield (who plays Kipling in the film), George Stevens on the set of Gunga Din

Tickets for Gunga Din (Los Angeles or New York City) are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at www.oscars.org or by mail (a printable order form is available in the Events & Exhibitions section of the Web site). Tickets may also be purchased at the box office on the night of the event (subject to availability). All seating is unreserved.

Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library

'Gunga Din' 1939: Cary Grant & Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Academy Screening © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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