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The Kipling That Would be Video

June 03, 1990|JOE SALTZMAN

It was a time of uninhibited racism, the white man's burden, British jingoism, red-blooded men, comradeship and courage, a time when women were in the way and anyone who didn't look British was an inferior.

It was the end of the 19th century and no English writer was more popular than Rudyard Kipling, who celebrated the British Empire with prose and poetry that were recited everywhere by voices happy to be part of the noblest empire in the history of the world.

The movies were quick to discover Kipling's lusty adventures, and they became some of the most popular films ever. None more so than "Gunga Din," a 117-minute spectacular inspired by a Kipling poem that ran a mere 85 lines, ending with the famous, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."

There is nothing in the powerful Kipling poem to prepare you for the sparkling script written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol with strategic contributions by journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, whose play "The Front Page" made movie history in its own right, spawning one fast-talking, fast-thinking movie after another.

The Hecht-MacArthur influence is obvious in the rapid-fire exchanges among the three swaggering British soldier-heroes serving in colonial India-Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

RKO has issued an "Original Studio Edition" of the 1939 film and, if you put away your 1990 sensibilities, it can be a rousing time (RKO Home Video, black and white, a pristine copy from the opening RKO antenna beaming signals to the final nighttime scenes).

Director George Stevens mixes equal parts of spectacle, action, adventure, comedy and romance.

In a neat touch, a journalist watches the climactic battle scene when the British put down an uprising by an Indian cult and the dying Gunga Din bugles the call to arms. That journalist turns out to be Kipling, who scribbles the last 20 lines of the poem just in time to have them read in the movie's final, two-handkerchief scene.

Din, the hero of the poem who carries water to the embattled men and who dreems of being a soldier, is played by a smiling, self-effacing Sam Jaffe. Somehow he brings dignity to a part that until the final scene is written to coincide with the period's sneering look at anyone small and dark.

Kipling also makes an appearance in another rousing, old-fashioned adventure film about friendship, human frailty and a special kind of courage, "The Man Who Would Be King" (127 minutes, CBS/Fox tape and laser video disc). It's directed by John Huston with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as corrupt soldiers in 1880 India who stumble into remote Kafiristan where Connery is accepted by a tribe as a king and comes to believe it is true. Caine, who escapes, tells the story to Kipling, played by Christopher Plummer. An exceptional film that makes for the perfect home-video experience: It gets better upon repeated viewings.

For the most part, Kipling has been well-served on the screen:

"The Jungle Book" (109 minutes, Republic video tape, Image Entertainment laser video disc) is a marvelous 1942 film with Sabu as Mowgli, the baby who grows up with wolves in an Indian forest, meets human goodness (his mother) and human evil (everyone else), avenges both man and beast by killing their sworn enemy, Sher Khan the tiger, and finally survives with a foot in both worlds.

Based on the famous Kipling stories, it is a tour de force, directed by Zolton Korda with a Miklos Rozsa musical score that is arguably the best ever written for a film.

Also recommended for the family is the 1967 cartoon version by Walt Disney, a bright 78-minute tuneful lark with voices supplied by George Sanders, Phil Harris, Louis Prima, Sebastian Cabot and Sterling Holloway.

What was possibly one of the first docudramas made was the 1937 "Elephant Boy," based on Kipling's "Toomai of the Elephants." It starred Sabu and was directed by Korda, in a dry run for "The Jungle Book," and Robert Flaherty, the celebrated Rdocumentary" filmmaker. It's on Embassy video tape.

"Captains Courageous" (MGM/UA tape and laser video disc) also was made in 1937 and stars Freddie Bartholomew as a spoiled rich kid who falls off a cruise liner and is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman (somehow played by Spencer Tracy, who won an Oscar).

Lovingly, if not carefully adapted from the Kipling novel, the film shows how w e fisherman teaches the poor little rich kid humility, loyalty and the value of honest work. It's great melodrama directed by Victor Fleming.

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