The ultimate adventure movie based on a Rudyard Kipling story is George Stevens’ Gunga Din, made by RKO in 1939 and starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a trio of British soldiers on misadventures in India. A near perfect film and blockbuster at the time of its release, it seems obvious it would be a format for Hollywood to copy.
However, it would take 12 years for the most blatant copy of Gunga Din – MGM’s Soldiers Three – to hit the screen. By that time, India was already independent and the idea of glorifying British occupation by an American film studio must have sounded preposterous to anyone paying attention to current events. Of course, Hollywood has never let a little thing like reality stop them.
Soldiers Three stars Walter Pigeon, Stewart Granger and David Niven, but only one of those three top-billed stars actually plays a member of the titular trio. Granger stars as Archibald Ackroyd, a character so obviously molded after Cary Grant he even has Grant’s real first name, the dashing leader of the “Queen’s Hard Bargain.” The other two are Robert Newton’s Bill Sykes and Cyril Cusack’s Dennis Malloy, two bumbling characters who have little defining traits aside from the ones the actors create.
Pigeon plays Colonel Brunswick, and the entire film is supposed to be told through his perspective. There is actually a framing story, where Brunswick shares his memories of India with a group of young soldiers heading off to fight World War I. Unfortunately, the script – credited to Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Marguerite Roberts and Tom Reed – does not care to keep that limitation going since we see plenty of scenes that Brunswick could not possibly know about.
At just 92 minutes, Soldiers Three does not have much time for big battle scenes, but the one we do get at the end is pretty spectacular. Archibald has to single-handedly save a group of soldiers holed up in a fort being attacked by Indian rebels. The film also has a preposterous barroom brawl that apparently left stunt men hospitalized.
All the action scenes are sadly the only decent parts of Soldiers Three. The script is quite ridiculous. There is one preposterous scene where the soldiers lose their clothes while crossing a river in the middle of a jungle. The solution: Archibald just happens to know of a mysterious white woman who lives in a luxurious mansion in the middle of nowhere and she can provide them with clothes. The result is a scene where Robert Newton wears a dress. That’s funny right?
That “mysterious white woman” is played by Norwegian actress Greya Gynt. Soldiers Three was her first American movie and she only appears in the one scene, laying in bed with Granger. There are no explanations for it. Was she supposed to have a bigger role and her other scenes were cut? And if this whole movie was told from Brunswick’s perspective, how the heck did he know about it? Hilariously, almost the entirety of that one scene is in the trailer, which Warner Archive included on the disc.
Like any film that glorifies imperialism (despite whatever attempts producer Pandro S. Berman tried to detach the film film from politics), it is difficult to watch today. The Indian terrorist Manik Rao (Michael Ansara) is supposed to be the villain, even though he wants his people to have self-determination. And we’re just supposed to sit back and laugh as our heroes try to keep him under control.
No one involved in Soldiers Three looked back on it fondly. The film’s failure to light up the box office stalled Granger’s career just a year after his star-making hit King Solomon’s Mines, and Granger said the best part of the whole process was working with legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Even director Tay Garnett (China Seas, Bataan) admitted his failures in his autobiography.
Via TCM Film Archive
“[The cast and story] should have made a good picture, but the miscasting of one principal, which I failed to recognize until it was too late, threw the show completely out of balance. Trying to restore equilibrium with jokes and gags was like trying to cure bubonic plague with warm beer.”
Soldiers Three is a lazy movie, trying to capitalize on the success of a film that was already more than a decade old by 1951. It was painfully old-fashioned by the time it was released and it has rightfully been forgotten about by now. There’s a neat supporting performance from Niven, but that’s not enough to recommend this movie. Go watch Gunga Din instead.
“You’re a better film than I am, Gunga Din.”
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review! You can buy it at WBshop.com.