- May 7, 2001
Studio: Warner Brothers
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 117 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
Audio: DD Monaural
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
Package: Single disc/Keepcase
To celebrate the 100th birthday of the late - great director, George Stevens, Warner Brothers is about to release four DVD’s that have never been released to the format. Most notably, the 1939 classic Cary Grant adventure film, Gunga Din will be released as will George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin and George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey. Also slated for release is the 1948 feature film, I Remember Mama. I know Gunga Din was a highly anticipated title but the DVD screener was held up by manufacturing, so my apologies for the delay in getting this posted.
George Stevens’ resumé resembles a who’s who of films from the mid 1930’s up and into the late 1950’s, responsible for the direction of such films as Alice Adams (1935), Penny Serenade (1941), Woman of the Year (1942), Talk of the Town (1942), Shane (1953), Giant (1956), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and one of my personal favorites, A Place in the Sun from 1951. During his long career, he was recognized with five Academy Award nominations for directing which resulted in wins for A Place in the Sun and Giant.
Gunga Din is a film that was inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem of the same name, published in 1892 and the film was produced by RKO Studios. The film takes place during the 19th century in colonial India. It is a story of bravery and honor, with the title character Gunga Din (played by Sam Jaffe) who was a loyal water carrier (known as a bhisti) and yearned to be a soldier in the British Army.
Gunga Din is assigned to assist three British Army Sergeants who are the best of friends, drinking companions and all around rascals. Sgt. Cutter (played by Cary Grant) is the soldier with dreams of wealth, seeking a fortune in gold and his older and wiser comrade is Sgt. MacChesney (played by Victor McLaglen) who always manages to keep the trio in check. The other member of the inseparable group is Sgt. Tommy Ballantine (played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) whose military enlistment is up in a matter of days and his plans in civilian life include marrying his fiancée Emmy Stebbins (played by a very young Joan Fontaine) and opening up a tea business – much to the chagrin of his two cohorts.
The trio is given an assignment which takes them on an expedition to find out what happened to a downed communications line. As they enter the mostly deserted town (or so they think), they commence with the necessary repairs and soon find a few of the residents-in-hiding to be not so welcoming. Soon after, they are attacked by a group of violent militants and barely make good their escape back to base. It’s eventually determined that they have been attacked by a group of Indian religious fanatics known as Thuggees, who have a long history of murdering and pillaging throughout India.
When Sgt. Cutter and Gunga Din make off with Sgt. MacChesney’s elephant Annie in an attempt to find a lost fortune in gold, Cutter soon finds himself a prisoner of Kali and his evil supporters at the Kali temple. Gunga Din is sent to fetch help and his loyal friends, MacChesney and Ballantine arrive with Din, but they too are captured by the tribe.
Held up in the temple, they are faced with being killed as they helplessly watch as their Regiment comes to rescue them. The religious sect is set up and about to ambush the British Regiment. Will the British troops be able to battle their way through and what will happen to the three sergeants and their loyal and courageous companion?
Howard Hawks was the original director, but was fired from the project after his previous film, Bringing Up Baby (1938), was a box office bomb. Their rationale, was that Hawks was too slow (and thus too expensive) for a project of this magnitude, and the dependable and conservative George Stevens was brought on board to complete the project. Ironically, Stevens was even slower than Hawks had been resulting in costs that far exceeded what Hawks would have incurred. The film was also the source of inspiration for the 1962 movie, Sergeants 3 starring the “Rat Pack” which was directed by John Sturges who was an uncredited film editor in Gunga Din.
The film had exceeded an already enormous budget (particularly for the RKO studio) and wound up costing upwards of two million dollars – the largest budget for an RKO at that time. The film endured another major setback when a fire raged through one of the main sets virtually destroying it in the middle of the California desert. A crew of carpenters was dispatched from Los Angeles and ten days later the set was rebuilt and production of the film resumed. Shot throughout various locations of California (mostly in Lone Pine), the film was nominated for one Academy Award for Best Cinematography – Black & White, but Joseph H. August lost out to Gregg Toland for his work on Wuthering Heights.
As for the package, Gunga Din comes as a single disc housed in a Keepcase adorned with period looking cover art, some of which is taken from elements of original poster art. There is an insert, however, it is nothing more than a folded advertisement for TCM, hawking various books and magazines etc.
The Feature: 4.5/5
I have to admit, when I first plunked this into my player, I had concerns. I’ve seen enough RKO films transferred to our shiny format to know that many of them aren’t in the best of shape and throughout the opening credits and first couple of minutes, the picture looked rough.
Stick with it… it only lasts for a few minutes.
The opening shows a heavy (exceptional) amount of grain and what looks to be some compression artifacting or video noise, but as I said, it doesn’t last long and turns out to be more than a worthwhile endeavor. What impressed me the most throughout the course of the film was the level of detailed sharpness. Definition was outstanding with hardly any softness at all to speak of save for the few shots where Joan Fontaine appeared. Very impressive indeed.
Again, typical with many of the RKO titles, black levels were deeply dark and whites were clean and stark, offering a grayscale that was terrifically broad. Contrast levels and shadow detail were also perfect.
There was a moderate amount of fine to medium film grain that remained throughout the entirety of the film rendering a beautiful film-like image.
I don’t know what/if any work was done to the original elements here but there were signs of dust and dirt as well as the infrequent scratch and blemish but they never become intrusive or bothersome. The first few minutes were also affected by light shimmer and jitter although that seemed to clear up after the first five minutes or so and from that point forward the image was rock solid and always appeared to be stable.
Despite having spent the first few minutes worrying, the payoff was gratifying. The video presentation of this 65 year old film looks terrific.
The disc is encoded in DD mono and for the most part does an outstanding job.
Something I did notice with this disc is a slightly greater amount of hiss than usual – “usual” meaning recent WB classic films. And admittedly, the hiss does seem to settle down after the first third of the film or so. Not a distracting amount, but it is present. There were no pops or other noisy distractions.
The overall tonality of the track was natural that never became edgy or shrill. In fact, considering the vintage, I was impressed with the dynamics of the track with the many gunshots, explosions and action sequences that occurred throughout the film. Not demo material by any means, but terrific for a 65 year old film.
Dialogue was always exceptionally bold and clear and the musical score for Gunga Din, which was written by Alfred Newman, highlights all the action packed and tranquil moments of this wonderful film which sounded fantastic.
The disc contains several outstanding special features starting with:
[*] A Commentary. Typical of Rudy Behlmer’s commentaries, this one is terrific. Mr. Behlmer unleashes an avalanche of highly informative trivia and information relating to the production of the film. He starts with the history of the RKO radio tower and the Morse code and includes the history of the opening title sequence and the “mercury” effect that was used to create the rippling sequences on the gong. He also discusses various scenes that were cut and added throughout the years, the firing of Hawks, and the various initial casting choices. He also offers up several extensive bios on a few of the lesser known cast members. Absolutely outstanding.
[*] On Location With Gunga Din is a collection of interview clips – old and new. Those included are Pandro Berman (RKO), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and George Stevens Jr., Also included is several clips from Stevens’ 16mm home movie collection showing behind-the-scenes footage. Nice little feature. Duration: 11:15 minutes.
[*] The Film Fan is a Bob Clampett B&W Looney Tunes short from 1939. Porky Pig gets sidetracked while out running grocery errands when he discovers he can enter the theater for free. After three or four movie trailers, he is beckoned by the usher that his mother is one the phone and that he better come home immediately. Great stuff. Duration: 6:51 minutes.
[*] 1939 Theatrical Trailer if this trailer is indicative of what the original elements were like, we have a lot to be grateful for. It’s how I remember the film looking during regular TV broadcasts, and it’s not pretty – at least compared to the feature on the DVD. Duration: 1:38 minutes.
[*] 1957 Re-release Trailer while this looks a great deal better than the ’39 trailer, it still looks rough. But both inclusions are welcomed additions to the set. Duration: 2:11 minutes.
A terrific set of features which complement the film quite nicely.
Special Features: 4/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
Though the film might be somewhat short on plot, the fact remains, Gunga Din is one of the greatest adventure epics of all time. No doubt, part of the reason is the perfect and outstanding cast. The three leading actors in this movie are the legendary gruff but likeable character-actor, Victor McLaglen, the charming Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the charismatic, suave and dry-witted Cary Grant. Beyond two hours of terrific action, the film is hilariously funny as well.
Aside from a fantastic movie, the presentation is superb and the special features are highly entertaining and extremely informative. With all of these ingredients, my job of recommending this disc is an easy one.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5 (not an average)
Release Date: December 7th, 2004