This 1939 favorite is a rousing, rip roaring, action/adventure buddy movie that takes place in India during the British Raj in what looks to be sometime during the latter part of the nineteenth century. There, the British run into a spot of trouble, as the notorious Thuggee cult that worshipped the goddess Kali and was ostensibly wiped out by the British years earlier seems to be enjoying a resurgence.
At one time, this ancient murderous cult of professional thieves numbered as many as ten thousand, and it members, called Thugs. At the height of their power, Thugs would kill approximately thirty thousand unsuspecting people a year, often innocent travelers on the road. Thugs had an interesting modus operandi, as they would kill their victims by garroting them with a weighted scarf, relieve them of their worldly possessions, and then quickly bury them in graves, so that the victims would appear to have vanished off the face of the earth. This killer cult flourished for centuries in India, until the British, with the cooperation of the existing Indian government of the time, decimated their ranks, making them a curious relic of India's colorful past.
So, when it becomes apparent that Thugs are once again on the rise, it is of utmost concern to British officers, especially as these Thugs seem to be destroying communications by cutting down the lines over which telegraph signals are transmitted. Meanwhile, in one British outpost, three military buddies, cut-up Sgt. Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant), blustery Sgt. 'Mac' McChesney (Victor McLaglen ), and dashing Sgt. Thomas Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are involved in a free wheeling brawl with others. This is the viewer's introduction to these three buddies, whose motto seems to be all for one, and one for all. They are the functional equivalent of the three musketeers in the army of the British Raj. They are also the one's selected to investigate the mysterious downing of the lines of communication. What they discover ends up in a rousing skirmish by a small band of Thugs.
When they return to their outpost, down but not out, they are going to be sent back out for further investigation, only this time it initially appears that Ballantine will not be going, as his enlistment is up and, much to the chagrin of his comrades, he is scheduled to marry a young, beautiful woman (Joan Fonataine). Of course, boys will be boys, and peer pressure wins out. So, Ballantine goes off with his buddies, ostensibly for one last time. Accompanying them and their men is the garrison's regimental water bearer or bhisti, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), a simple man who harbors a secret desire to be a soldier and bugler in the British army.
When Cutter and Gunga Din accidentally stumble upon the ancient golden temple of Kali and its Thug adherents, they discover that the Thugs are led by a charismatic, highly articulate and intelligent Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli). This Guru, angry at the decimation of the Thuggee cult, has gathered its remaining adherents in order to attack the British and drive them out of India. He is determined to oust the British Empire from India, so that his own may flourish as they did in the old days. In order to allow Gunga Din to go back for help, Cutter then does the unthinkable. This leads to a series of rousing events that are sure to keep the viewer riveted to the screen.
While the film is not an adaptation of Rudyard's Kipling's poem of the same name, the essence of the character Gunga Din, played by Sam Jaffe, is that of the character in Kipling's poem. In fact, Rudyard Kipling appears as a minor character at the end of the film and a few lines of that poem are read.
I loved this film as a child, and I still love it today. This is simply a marvelous film that, by the standards of today, may be a bit politically incorrect in parts, but remains, nonetheless, wholly entertaining.
The role of Cutter, which is essentially a comedic role, was originally to be played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the role of the dashing Ballantine was to be played by Cary Grant. When Grant read the script, he insisted on playing Cutter or he would not play anyone at all. Of course, as Grant was then in top form as a box office star, his wish was granted, and he does not disappoint. He is positively marvelous as the cheeky Cutter. The role of Ballantine is well-served by the debonair and handsome Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen is excellent in the role of the blustery, slightly misogynistic McChesney. This trio of comrades and their adventures will keep the viewer riveted to the screen.
Of course, Sam Jaffe is terrific as Gunga Din. By the time the end of the film rolls around, one can understand the line in Kipling's poem, "Gunga Din" that pretty much sums up the character in the film, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" As touching a performance as Sam Jaffe gives, however, there is one performance that stands out above all others in the film. Given the cast in this film, it is high praise, indeed! That singular recognition goes to the Italian born, veteran actor, Eduardo Ciannelli. Known mostly for the gangster roles that he played, Ciannelli outdid himself with his hypnotic and compelling performance as the fanatical Guru. His is the standout performance in a film riddled with excellent ones.
To my surprise, the film was shot on location in Lone Pine, California, although, while watching it, I would have sworn that it had been shot in the Northwest Frontier of India, somewhere along the Khyber Pass. George Stevens did a great job of directing this film and making it a favorite of many film buffs. This is a film worthy of a place in one's personal film collection. Bravo!