Gunga Din The Making of a Classic Part 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 the Miracle Year the Making of a Classic. Pt 2

July and August were busy months for the cast and crew of Gunga Din. And they were hot ones too. Temperatures soared in the semi desert location of Lone Pine, topping out officially at 115 degrees, and unofficially at 120.

Once the village set of Tantrapur was put back together after the fire, director George Stevens, tackled the all action skirmish scenes that pitted the three British sergeants and their small British company against the murderous Thuggees. The fights ranged from the village streets up to the rooftops.

      Stevens kept his stuntmen going at full tilt, in the main, falling from everywhere – out of windows, from the rooftops, and off of charging mounts. One of the men who subbed for Cary Grant was a name that is familiar to me, Mike Lally, whom I hope write about in a future post.

Aside – Variety reported in November, after shooting had completed, that RKO had spent a total of $85,353.97 for the stuntmen and extras for location work on Gunga Din at Lone Pine.

Stevens kept the action flowing at a furious clip, notably using a camera technique from the silent comedy days. He undercranked the camera speed which in effect speeds the movement. Not at a severe rate that would have rendered them versions of the Keystone cops, but just slightly under the norm to lend the action a determined edge, not giving the audience time to catch their breath.

And at a crucial juncture Stevens ‘plays with time’ again, in this instance by overcranking (again by only a slight difference) slowing the images, to add tension and suspense when a lit stick of dynamite lands beside Doug Fairbanks Jr. who is struggling to extract his leg from a hole in the roof.

Besides the brutal temperatures, unpredictable winds created havoc and would bring filming to a halt. One such wind incident caught a camera crew atop a 35 foot parallel*. Cast and crew rushed to their aid and kept the structure from toppling and taking the three men with it. A similar parallel was caught in a wind sheer but thankfully no one was on it at the time.

(*Not being exactly sure what a parallel is in its film context, I contacted my producer friend and he provided this explanation – “a parallel is similar to scaffolding except it is usually a six by six platform on top of a six by six platform or as many levels as one might need.  If it is too high on stage it is secured by 2×4’s or something like that on an angle to the metal brace.  If built for an exterior scene we would use wires (cable) to steady it if it is built too high.”)

Watching the sequence unfold on screen one marvels at all that was going on. Clearly days and many setups had been needed to capture all this action. Stevens was known for his improvisation and there are stories about nightly meetings between him and his writers and cast members to plot out the following day’s shots. A methodology that also had a touchstone in his former work in comedy shorts.

Late in August, the company returned to the studio for interior work. During the short weeks there they covered some important sequences, including the interiors for the temple.

After their sojourn in the relative ease of the city, Stevens again took his production back out to the wilds of Lone Pine for the climactic battle scenes that wind up Gunga Din. They would find altogether different conditions there at the end of September 1938.

Shall We Gather in the River

“HOW-WARD!”

The intonation in Peckinpah’s voice brought the normal hubbub on the set to a halt. Everyone fell silent, and all eyes turned to Howard Kazanjian. And Howard braced himself for the tongue lashing to follow. He was getting accustomed to the “attention,” for he realized that he was the one consistent face in the revolving directory of ADs coming on and off the film.  So in this sense, his director was counting upon him heavily to do his job, and to do it well. And Howard did just that.

When shooting ended for the day, the actors and crew knocked off and looked for a bar. Howard, however still had work to do. The call sheets for the following day had to be prepared, then delivered. Which tended to be a problem, for in most locations the members of the cast were spread all over the town. The stuntmen were usually the furthest out, and hence the last ones served. In Parras, all the stuntmen were put up in a well appointed hacienda.  The first time Howard arrived with their call sheets, they were just sitting down to dinner, attended to by servants [Howard – “Wow, do you guys really have a place here.”]. Upon returning from his rounds, Howard tidied up any remaining paperwork before turning in, many times without dinner. (He lost twenty pounds over the course of filming, dropping down to 120 by the end).

The stuntmen were hired on as units – man and horse. The horses were specially trained – to be responsive to their masters, and to be unheedful of noises (i.e. gunshots), horse falls and other distractions on set. The head wrangler saw to their needs and care, and all the paperwork associated with bringing them across the border.

Now they were at a new location, the Nazas River. Things were winding down to the middle (speaking of the story chronology) – or the end of shooting. This last sequence would cover a huge stunt – the blowing up of the bridge while the bounty hunters crossed it in pursuit of the fleeing Wild Bunch – no camera tricks or special effects, just five men and their horses falling off a bridge and into the waters of a river.

Fred Gammon was now the 1st AD. Howard worked under him, having charge this time of the stuntmen. The day they were scheduled to begin shooting this sequence ended up a bust. The flow in the river was judged to be too swift (16 mph) and hence too dangerous for the stuntmen and their horses.

The day following, conditions looked more favorable. Howard had the stuntmen and their horses ready, but Sam concentrated on taking shots of burning fuses – closeups that would serve as inserts. When it appeared that the director was winding up that action, Howard would move the stuntmen into position on the bridge, only to be waved off. This was repeated over and over, with understandable, unintended consequences. The stuntmen were getting more apprehensive as uncertainty grew. Psychologically they were getting psyched out.

And this was not the only problem adding to the tension. One of the stuntmen, Joe Canutt lodged a complaint when he learned that the charges to blow the bridge were much bigger than necessary. (Again, Sam was the mover behind the “bigger and better” explosions). Plus there was the concern about explosions in and around water, and the consequent danger to the men on account of the lethal increase in water pressure. They finally acquiesced to the stunt men’s concern and reduced the size of the charges above, and eliminated those below the water line altogether.

Six cameras were set up to catch the optimum angles on all the action, three on shore; three on barges in the river, secured by cables. Peckinpah and Ballard chose to be with two of the cameras afloat, in one of the barges.

Finally they were set. The stuntmen were mounted on their horses and in place on the bridge. Howard was on the near bank of the river out of view of the cameras, when Peckinpah called “action.”

The charges exploded and the bridge roadbed swung down like a trapdoor plunging horses and riders into the swiftly moving river. Though one of the riders was knocked out and had to be fished unconscious from the water, none of the stuntmen were seriously injured. The only “casualty” was one of the cameras.

Following the form, Howard negotiated with the stuntmen their pay after the stunt.  The SAG set their normal rate for pay, overtime and meals. Special stunts, as I mentioned in last week’s post, called for separate negotiations. By the time that Howard was done negotiating with them, he had earned their respect. They walked away with $2000 a piece, pretty good pay for the time.

Howard had already been subject to the process himself when he met with the studio Production Manager Dutch Meyer before heading to Mexico. And did not fare as well. The normal rate for an AD was one hundred dollars per week – stateside. According to DGA guidelines when you were on foreign soil, an additional foreign location fee was called for. But Dutch was into rounding figures – downward – and made that small increase nearly disappear. Welcome to Hollywood.

But picking up back at the scene, and still on the subject of respect, there was the matter of getting the director safely back onto dry land. With the shot over, some of the hands began to haul on the cable to bring Peckinpah and Ballard back in. As they neared the bank, a voice called out, “Cut the cable! Cut the cable!”

Peckinpah shouted back, “Who said that!”

Some one on the crew shouted in reply. “That was Howard!”

Peckinpah didn’t say a word. Instead an appreciative grin lit up his face. Howard had earned his respect.

Howard had lasted out the entire shooting schedule. But now with principal photography over, he returned stateside.

Back at Burbank, Howard had not seen the last of the mercurial director. When Sam returned from Mexico, he enlisted Howard’s help to shoot some brief inserts – low angle shots of some of the leads against neutral backgrounds that could be cut in with the principal footage.

And then there was that one chance encounter on the WB lot that Howard will always remember. Howard was walking on one of streets between the sound stages, when Peckinpah was passing in his Porsche. Sam saw Howard, stopped the car, got out and hugged him. And thanked him for his contribution to the making of The Wild Bunch.

Howard will return sometime in the beginning of 2015 with the “Adventures of Howard Kazanjian – the Musicals” – Camelot and Finian’s Rainbow and working with Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; and Petula Clark, Tommy Steele and the immortal Fred Astaire. And with director Francis Ford Coppola.

So stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Shooting the Train

In the morning, the actors were the first ones on set. They had to be there early for the ministrations of Al Greenway, who was in charge of make-up. As an AD Howard Kazanjian had to be sure that they were there in place to get their make up on and if necessary their mustaches glued in place. Wardrobe would follow. However, the director Peckinpah was always late, usually last on the set. Borgnine always complained about Sam’s tardiness. But that was nothing compared to when Ernie noticed Sam handing out live ammo to the Mexican extras. To Sam it was an aesthetic concern, they were the only thing that looked good in their bandoleers. Noticeably not all of the cartridges were returned, however, with fifteen or twenty going missing, and afterwards gunfire could be heard at odd times. At the following day’s distribution, Ernie left the set in protest and returned to his room.  He stayed there until he was notified that all the ammunition had been returned.

Difficulties of a different sort for an AD awaited Howard in Sonora.  They were there to capture the sequence in which the Wild Bunch plunders a train for the weapons shipment being transported on it, all by agreement to be handed over to General Mapache.

First, there was the stunt that went bad. The engineer was to be thrown from the cab, as the Wild Bunch seized control. All was set for him to be flung off the moving train onto some crash pads, but the stunt person did something he shouldn’t have. Instead of just sailing free over the side, he grabbed one of the handrails, thinking to ease his fall. With the train moving forward and with the point of contact acting as a fulcrum, he was spun in an arc, and all he succeeded in doing was cracking his head against the coal car. It fell to Howard to handle the aftermath. ADs had the duty to negotiate with the stunt people the recompense for special stunts which was always done after the trick, and not before. But it can be a particularly ticklish affair when the stunt didn’t come off.

In one of the next setups, Peckinpah was in his director’s chair beside the track at a little distance from the locomotive with Pike (Bill Holden) aboard. Howard was tasked as a runner between the two. Howard is not sure what set off all the tension at this point between the director and his star, but tension there was. Perhaps it was just the fact that it was hot out, and even hotter in the cab of the locomotive. After a spell of doing nothing but sweat, Holden yelled to Howard, “What’s happening?” This sent Howard bouncing back and forth between them relaying messages of rising ire on both sides. Sam would often stall while he was considering his next move. Holden finally retorted to one of Sam’s evasions, “What am I supposed to  be doing?” By this time both were clearly hearing one another, since both were yelling at the top of their lungs, but kept up the fiction that they didn’t. At the last, Sam yelled to Howard, “You tell Holden, I’ll tell him when I decide.”

Who knows if this didn’t lead to the next accident.

Further down the rail line and the next setup, Sam reigned from above on a crane with the camera. Sam had insisted that Holden drive the train himself and bring it in at full speed, and stop it quickly next to the buckboard into which they were to load the stolen weapons. Several takes in succession ate up the morning and Sam didn’t like any of them. It was another hot day. And Holden was getting tired of it, so for the next take he just pushed it to the stops.

Just ahead out of view of the camera and beyond where the train was supposed to a stop, was a small bridge upon which a flatcar was parked with all their equipment – generators etc. The train was barreling and the brakes were thrown – the wheels locked –  sparks were flying and it looked like an accident were imminent. Howard was beside the crane and saw it all.

Warren Oates who was riding on the flatcar attached in front of the engine, saw the gap closing between his flatcar and the stationary one. He turned and ran for the comparative safety of the engine behind him. The two flatcars collided and the heavily laden one bounced about a foot in the air.  Crew members who had been keeping out of sight under the bridge bolted from that haven, running up the arroyo and away from the bridge and their fears of an explosion, or worse yet the flat cars falling off the bridge down to where they were hiding.

Thankfully no one was hurt. The camera did not catch the crash, which was just as well for the script did not call for such a stunt. The engine’s cowcatcher was severely bent. With any movement it would now plow the ground ahead of it.

It fell to Howard Kazanjian, the second assistant director to fill out the report about the accident and send it off to the studio.


Join us next Wednesday as we bring to a close this series on Howard Kazanjian’s time working on the Wild Bunch with “Shall We Gather in the River.” Stay tuned and Watch This Space.