Seeing a restored 35mm print of a great movie like Gunga Din on the giant screen at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be a treat all by itself, but on June 12, two Oscar-winning filmmakers gave a half-hour presentation on the making of the film that was simply dazzling. Ben Burtt is a modern-day legend in the field of sound; he is responsible for the unforgettable audio elements of the Star Wars films (think of Darth Vader’s heavy breathing or C-3PO’s electronic utterances) and was the voice of WALL•E last year.Craig Barron is a talented matte artist—and head of Matte World Digital—who has more than one hundred films to his credit and shared a Visual Effects Oscar for his work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He also co-authored a terrific book on matte painting called The Invisible Art. But beyond their impressive credentials, these are movie geeks of the first order, and they happen to love Gunga Din. Using original research, computer technology, and the Academy archives they took us behind the scenes of this 1939 George Stevens classic to show how the RKO artists and technicians created a wide array of illusions and made great use of their Lone Pine location. (George Stevens, Jr. also offered a warm, personal introduction to his father’s film that night.)
Burtt has spoken in years past at the Lone Pine Film Festival about his fascination with movie gunshots—which figure prominently in Gunga Din—and gave us a brief demonstration. First he played some classic examples, then showed us video footage of him firing a Winchester rifle in real life: the sound is brief and hollow, like the popping of a balloon. It has no resonance or impact, compared to what we’re accustomed to hearing in movies. It was only when he took that same rifle on location to Lone Pine and documented himself firing off blank cartridges in a variety of settings that he fully understood the importance of “location, location, location.” The sound we associate with gunfire has everything to do with reverberation—based on shooting the rifle in just the right spot. He gave us an example from his raw footage and then demonstrated how he incorporated that very gunfire into the soundtrack of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
If you’ve seen George Stevens, Jr.’s documentary about his father, or the special features on the Warner Home Video release of Gunga Din, you’ve seen some of the 16mm color home movies the elder Stevens shot during his ten-week stay in Lone Pine. It turns out that two of Stevens’ stars also took their 16mm cameras along seventy years ago—and now Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s home movies reside in the Academy’s archives along with Stevens’. Burt and Barron edited this color footage together with finished scenes from the movie to provide a fascinating look behind the scenes: how some stunts were accomplished, how others were tried until they came off perfectly, what the sets looked like, and how the actors fooled around (or napped) between takes.
I worried that seeing some of this just before a screening of the film would pull the rug out from Stevens’ illusions—revealing the magician’s tricks, so to speak—but my fears were unfounded. The movie is so enjoyable, and its use of mattes, miniatures, and locations so skillful that I found myself just as caught up as ever. If anything, knowing how they achieved some of these effects made watching the movie even more interesting. The golden temple of Kali, for instance, was actually built, full-scale, on location—and our hosts showed us a modern-day photo of where it stood in the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine—while the wall of the city from which our heroes leap into a river below, in one spectacular shot, was a miniature strategically placed in front of the camera as dummies were hurled into Lake Sherwood (the only location used aside from Lone Pine).
When I think how I was first introduced to this film, on WOR TV’s Million Dollar Movie decades ago, substantially cut and interrupted, I appreciate seeing a full-length print all the more. As you may know, RKO not only shortened the film for reissue (not necessarily a terrible idea, as it has one leisurely section involving Fairbanks’ impending marriage) but had to remove the character of Rudyard Kipling, who appears briefly at the end. For the definitive account of the film’s creation, listen to Rudy Behlmer’s commentary track on the Warner DVD, or read about it in his book America’s Favorite Movies Behind the Scenes(reprinted as Behind the Scenes).
I also have to say what a pleasure it was to watch this film in 35mm. I’ve seen a number of digital presentations in recent months, even at the Academy, which like USC (where I teach) has impeccable video projection equipment. But there is a unique quality to the look of 35mm film, especially in a black & white movie of this vintage, that is somehow lost in a digital showing. Film grain is an organic ingredient of these movies and its removal is not always beneficial. Bravo to Randy Haberkamp and the Academy for a splendid presentation. (And how fortunate that New Yorkers had the same opportunity to see the film with Ben Burtt and Craig Barron two nights later.)