Alt Film Guide
Classic movies. Gay movies. International cinema. Socially conscious & political cinema.
Home Film Articles Gunga Din (Movie 1939): British Colonialism Homage

Gunga Din (Movie 1939): British Colonialism Homage

Gunga Din movie Cary Grant Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Victor McLaglenGunga Din movie with Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Sam Jaffe (in the background): Directed by George Stevens, RKO’s 1939 pro-British colonialism action-adventure epic was the studio’s most expensive production up to that time.
  • Gunga Din (movie 1939): Produced and directed by George Stevens, RKO’s action-adventure classic pays homage to British colonialism while bringing to mind Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway hit The Front Page. Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen star.

Gunga Din (movie 1939): Directed by George Stevens, and starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., RKO’s action-adventure was its big-budget homage to British colonialism

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Officially derived from Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem of the same name but featuring key elements from Kipling’s 1888 short story collection Soldiers Three, the 1939 British Raj-set action-adventure Gunga Din was RKO Pictures’ costliest release up to that time (budget: $1.9 million; approx. $41 million in 2023).[1][2]

RKO contract director George Stevens inherited the project from the originally assigned Howard Hawks,[3] who had run into trouble at the studio after the previous year’s comedy Bringing Up Baby went over schedule and over budget, resulting in a $365,000 loss (approx. $7.8 million in 2023).[1]

A number of hands worked on the various drafts of the Gunga Din screenplay, but only four writers were given screen credit: Former Chicago-based reporters turned playwrights-screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were responsible for the “screen story,” while the final script was credited to Joel Sayre (who had worked with Stevens on the 1935 Barbara Stanwyck Western Annie Oakley) and Fred Guiol (Stevens’ collaborator on the modestly budgeted mid-1930s comedies The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble, Kentucky Kernels, and The Nitwits).

Gunga Din plot: Raj-scented The Front Page

As the three bombastically heroic British soldiers fighting a bunch of villainous South Asian types, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Best Actor Academy Award winner Victor McLaglen (The Informer, 1935) found themselves cast in roles – not coincidentally – similar to those Hecht and MacArthur had created for their 1928 Broadway hit play The Front Page.[4]

In The Front Page, Chicago tabloid editor Walter Burns does whatever it takes to keep ace reporter Hildy Johnson on the beat and away from the arms of his dainty fiancée. In Gunga Din, Royal Engineer Sergeants Grant and McLaglen do whatever it takes to keep fellow Sergeant Fairbanks Jr. in uniform and away from the arms of his dainty fiancée (a pre-stardom Joan Fontaine, the female lead in Stevens’ 1937 musical A Damsel in Distress).

Admittedly, missing from The Front Page is Gunga Din’s title character.

Self-sacrificing ‘darkie’ saves British rule

Covered in brown make-up, future Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Sam Jaffe (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) plays a middle-aged Gunga Din (a role originally intended for the far younger Sabu[5]), the British Indian Army’s water-carrying, bugle-playing “darkie” who, aspiring to one day become a Soldier of the Queen, ultimately saves the day, sacrificing himself while helping his lighter-skinned, English-speaking Christian rulers defeat a cult of murderous heathens known as the Thuggee (based on real-life South Asian criminals known as Thugs).

Besides its blatant racism and utter corruption of the message conveyed in Kipling’s poem[6] – and in spite of its generally first-rate production values (e.g., Joseph H. August’s black-and-white cinematography[7]) – there are a number of problems with Gunga Din: The humor is juvenile; future Best Actress Oscar winner Joan Fontaine (Suspicion, 1941) is wasted in a non-role; and at nearly two hours, the movie itself is more than a tad overlong.

Compounding matters, Cary Grant – at his best as sophisticated urbanites – brazenly overacts alongside ravenous scenery-chewer Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whose performance, even if less effusive than those in The Exile and Sinbad the Sailor, is a patent emulation of his silent-era superstar father.

Studio era classic

As for director George Stevens, he had fared much better – and would continue to fare much better – in more humanistic, less Saturday-matinee-oriented efforts (e.g., Alice Adams, I Remember Mama, Shane, Giant).

And yet … Gunga Din is considered by many one of the most rousing action-adventure releases of the studio era[8][9], on a par with other acclaimed pro-British colonialism fare like Henry Hathaway’s Academy Award-nominated The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Michael Curtiz’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Zoltan Korda’s British-made The Four Feathers (1939).

And let’s not forget William A. Wellman’s Beau Geste (1939), which exalts British “values” and overall moral superiority.

Gunga Din movie Cary Grant Ann EversGunga Din movie with Cary Grant and Ann Evers: Sgt. Archibald Cutter was initially meant for RKO contract player Jack Oakie, while Cary Grant (born Archibald Leach) was cast as the enamored Sgt. Thomas Ballantine. There are conflicting versions as to how Grant ended up playing Sgt. Cutter.

Gunga Din (movie 1939) cast & crew

Director: George Stevens.

Screenplay: Joel Sayre & Fred Guiol.
From a screen story by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur.
Online sources list Lester Cohen, John Colton, William Faulkner, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols, and Anthony Veiller among various uncredited contributors.

Cary Grant … Sgt. Archibald Cutter
Victor McLaglen … Sgt. MacChesney
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. … Sgt. Thomas Ballantine
Sam Jaffe … Gunga Din
Eduardo Ciannelli … Guru (the Thuggee leader)
Joan Fontaine … Emmy Stebbins
Montagu Love … Colonel Weed
Robert Coote … Bertie Higginbotham
Abner Biberman … Chota
Lumsden Hare … Major Mitchell
Ann Evers … Girl at Party (uncredited)
Cecil Kellaway … Mr. Stebbins (uncredited)
Reginald Sheffield … Rudyard Kipling (uncredited)

Cinematography: Joseph H. August.

Film Editing: Henry Berman & John Lockert.

Music: Alfred Newman.

Producer: George Stevens.

Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase.

Costume Design: Edward Stevenson.

Production Company | Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures.

Running Time: 117 min.

Country: United States.

Gunga Din (Movie 1939)” notes

Inflation-adjusted figures

[1] Gunga Din’s and Bringing Up Baby’s inflation-adjusted budget/loss figures via the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Needless to say, “movie inflation” isn’t the same as “general inflation.” In other words, take the adjusted figures with a sizable grain of salt.

Blockbuster in the red

[2] As a result of its hefty $1.9 million budget (as always, not including marketing and distribution expenses), Gunga Din ended its global run in the red – loss $193,000 – despite earning RKO an impressive $1.9 million in domestic rentals* and $919,000 in international rentals. (Note: World War II, which would close off several key European markets, began in September 1939 – or about eight months after Gunga Din’s domestic release.)

Also, as found in Jonathan Stubbs’ Historical Film: A Critical Introduction, Gunga Din added another $1.4 million from rereleases in the 1940s. If accurate, that would mean RKO’s action-adventure epic ultimately ended up in the black.

* Rentals (whether domestic or international) refer to the studios’ share of their films’ total box office gross, after deducting the exhibitors’ share and various local fees/taxes. Using the National Association of Theater Owners’ annual average domestic movie-ticket price estimates (not directly correlated to the Consumer Price Index), the $1.9 million in domestic rentals that Gunga Din earned during its initial release would represent approximately $87 million in 2022. (Note: In 1939, RKO’s share [rentals] of the domestic box office gross was 35.3 percent; theoretically, that would mean Gunga Din’s domestic gross would have been around $245 million in 2022.)

Important: Bear in mind that inflation-adjusted box office estimates should be taken with extreme caution, as they rely on average domestic ticket prices, whereas many major releases – e.g., Gunga Din – earned a large chunk of their grosses at top-price movie houses.

Howard Hawks & Cary Grant movie collaborations

[3] Although Howard Hawks failed to be reunited with his Bringing Up Baby leading man Cary Grant on Gunga Din, he and Grant did team up on another popular 1939 action-adventure set in an “exotic” locale and in which the star was badly miscast: Columbia Pictures’ Only Angels Have Wings, about American aviators at a remote South American outpost.

The following year, another Hawks-Grant collaboration was released: The comedy His Girl Friday, with the star now officially playing tabloid editor Walter Burns (opposite Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson) in this generally well-regarded The Front Page revamp.

Hawks and Grant would join forces on two other classic comedies: I Was a Male War Bride (1949), costarring Ann Sheridan, and Monkey Business (1952), costarring Ginger Rogers.

Gunga Din Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Joan FontaineGunga Din with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Fontaine: Shades of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page.

The Front Page movies

[4] In October 1985, Dave Kehr wrote in the Chicago Reader, “George Stevens’s 1939 adventure classic was ostensibly based on Kipling’s imperialist paean [sic?] to the noble Indian water boy who sacrifices his life to save a British regiment. But the actual source of the film’s tone, characters, and much of its plot is The Front Page, cheerfully plagiarized by its own authors, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.”

In the early 21st century, film critic Molly Haskell discussed the Gunga DinThe Front Page connection while chatting with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies.

The Front Page was officially transferred to the screen four times:

Besides, the 1934 Howard Hawks comedy Twentieth Century has key elements in common with The Front Page, as Broadway impresario John Barrymore (reportedly inspired by David Belasco) does whatever it takes to get back the star (Carole Lombard) – and box office draw – of his plays. Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on their own 1932 play, itself adapted from Charles Bruce Millholland’s unproduced play “Napoleon of Broadway.”

On TV, CBS’s 1949 series The Front Page featured John Daly, Mark Roberts, and Janet Shaw.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Staged by George S. Kaufman, the original Broadway production featured Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony Perkins), future Warner Bros. star Lee Tracy, and Frances Fuller.

Rudyard Kipling movies of the late 1930s

[5] Following Rudyard Kipling’s death at age 70 in January 1936, no less than five major big-screen adaptations of his works would be released before the end of the decade.

Besides Gunga Din, there were:

  • Robert J. Flaherty and Zoltan Korda’s British-made documentary/fiction mix Elephant Boy (London Films, 1937), with Sabu as the title character.
  • Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (MGM, 1937), starring Freddie Bartholomew and eventual Best Actor Oscar winner Spencer Tracy.
  • John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (20th Century Fox, 1937), starring Shirley Temple as the title character (who underwent a sex change for the movie version) and Gunga Din’s Victor McLaglen.
  • William A. Wellman’s The Light That Failed (Paramount, 1939), starring Ronald Colman and featuring Ida Lupino in her breakthrough role.

‘Limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust’

[6] Below are the final lines in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, in which one of the verbally and physically abusive British soldiers finally acknowledges the worth of the now deceased “limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust” Gunga Din:

At the place where ‘e is gone—
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
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!

Note: In spite of the seemingly anti-colonialist critique found in “Gunga Din,” the Bombay-born Kipling was an avid (if nuanced) imperialist who believed in the superiority of “British civilization.”

Gunga Din 1939 Cary Grant Sam JaffeGunga Din 1939 with Cary Grant as Sgt. Cutter and Sam Jaffe, in brown makeup, as the middle-aged water carrier and bugle player Gunga Din – a role originally intended for the far younger Sabu.

Bypassed at the Oscars

[7] Gunga Din failed to receive a single Oscar nomination.

Even so, several online sources list Joseph H. August as a Best Cinematography – Black and White nominee.

In reality, Gunga Din and August (representing RKO) were included in a preliminary list for Academy consideration, alongside Universal’s First Love (Joseph A. Valentine), Paramount’s The Great Victor Herbert (Victor Milner), David O. Selznick/United Artists’ Intermezzo (Gregg Toland), Warner Bros.’ Juarez (Tony Gaudio), MGM’s Lady of the Tropics (Norbert Brodine), Columbia’s Only Angels Have Wings (Joseph Walker), and 20th Century Fox’s The Rains Came (Arthur C. Miller).

The two official 1939 nominees in that category were Walter Wanger/UA’s Stagecoach and, the eventual winner, Samuel Goldwyn/UA’s Wuthering Heights.

Critical praise

[8] At the time of Gunga Din’s January 1939 release, the New York Times’ Benjamin Crisler (as B.R.C.) raved:

“With a poet in the credit lines, it is hardly surprising that Gunga Din (at the Music Hall) should turn out to be as jaunty as a Barrack Room Ballad, as splendid as a Durbar, as exciting and at times as preposterous as a Pearl White serial. Thanks to the collaboration of the late Mr. Kipling, who wrote for the cinema without knowing it, it moves with all the discipline, dash and color of a vanished time, when Mr. Disraeli was Prime Minister and the empire had a good conscience. Although its mid portions tend to sag a bit under the weight of Victorian destiny, it blossoms at both ends into sequences of magnificently explosive action.All movies, as a matter of fact, should be like the first twenty-five and the last thirty minutes of Gunga Din, which are the sheer poetry of cinematic motion.

And here is a more recent rave:

Despite Gunga Din’s “smug colonialist attitudes,” Tom Milne wrote in Time Out (September 2012), “… this is a pretty spiffing adventure yarn, with some classically staged fights, terrific performances, and not too much stiff upper lip as Kipling’s soldiers three go about their rowdy, non-commissioned, and sometimes disreputable capers.”

Gunga Din remakes

[9] Gunga Din would be readapted – minus both Gunga Din himself and Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page-inspired “screen story” – as Soldiers Three at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1951. Veteran Tay Garnett directed Stewart Granger, Robert Newton, and Cyril Cusack as the titular soldiers, plus David Niven, Walter Pidgeon, Dan O’Herlihy, and Greta Gynt.

The 1962 United Artists comedy Western Sergeants 3 was a Gunga Din ripoff, with W.R. Burnett receiving screenplay credit.* Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford starred as the titular trio of U.S. Cavalry officers fighting fanatical Indians (the Ghost Dancers) in the American West, while Sammy Davis Jr. (not a Native American?) and Ruta Lee had, respectively, the Sam Jaffe and Joan Fontaine roles. John Sturges (reportedly an uncredited assistant editor on the 1939 Gunga Din) directed.

Additionally, several Gunga Din plot elements – including the Thuggee – are found in Steven Spielberg’s 1984 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was accused of racism at the time of its release. (One example: “…Moviegoers deserve more than the racism, sexism, and all-purpose mayhem on view here…” grumbled David Sterritt in The Christian Science Monitor.)

* In When Hollywood Came to Utah, author James D’Arc writes that the Rudyard Kipling estate “filed a lawsuit against the production company when the time came to distribute [Sergeants 3] in the United Kingdom,” adding that the lawsuit was settled out of court.

Gunga Din movie budget and box office figures: Richard B. Jewell’s article “RKO Film Grosses: 1931–1951,” found in Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television Vol. 14, No. 1, 1994.

Bringing Up Baby’s financial loss: Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin’s The RKO Story, 1985.

Information about RKO’s 1939 share of the domestic box office gross: Mae D. Huettig’s “Economic Control of the Motion Picture Industry,” found in The American Film Industry, edited by Tino Balio.

The casting of Jack Oakie and Sabu in Gunga Din is mentioned in the New York Times’ “News of the Screen” section (April 1938).

The preliminary list of contenders for the 1939 Academy Award in the Best Cinematography – Black and White category can be found in the awards database at

Gunga Din movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

Gunga Din’s vicious Thuggee leader Eduardo Ciannelli (“Oh, brothers of Thuggee, we are defenders of this earth!”) had played gangster-turned-tabloid-employee Diamond Louis in the original Broadway production of The Front Page.

Behind-the-scenes footage shot during the making of Gunga Din can be seen in George Stevens Jr.’s documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey.

George Stevens’ Gunga Din on DVD.

Gunga Din Academy screening.

Joan Fontaine, Ann Evers, Sam Jaffe, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Cary Grant Gunga Din movie images: RKO Radio Pictures.

Gunga Din (Movie 1939): British Colonialism Homage” last updated in April 2023.

Recommended for You

Leave a Comment

*IMPORTANT*: By using this form you agree with Alt Film Guide's storage and handling of your data (e.g., your IP address). Make sure your comment adds something relevant to the discussion: Feel free to disagree with us and write your own movie commentaries, but *thoughtfulness* and *at least a modicum of sanity* are imperative. Abusive, inflammatory, spammy/self-promotional, baseless (spreading mis- or disinformation), and just plain deranged comments will be zapped. Lastly, links found in submitted comments will generally be deleted.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. If you continue browsing, that means you've accepted our Terms of Use/use of cookies. You may also click on the Accept button on the right to make this notice disappear. Accept Read More