Inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem, three British comrades-in-arms are assisted by a lowly water-carrier in ferreting out a cult of murderers.
In India telegraph wires are cut as natives revolt against the British. Col. Weed (Montagu Love) orders Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), and Sergeant Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) to repair it. They find a town deserted except for Chota (Abner Biberman) and his family. Ballantine is attacked and helped by Cutter and MacChesney. Chota refuses to talk and prays to Kali. A sniper starts a battle, and cavalry attacks. Ballantine throws Cutter dynamite to use. They escape by jumping from the wall into the river and march back. Col. Weed identifies the weapon of the murdering cult of Thugs. Ballantine is resigning to marry Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine). Water-carrier Gunga Din (Sam Jaffee) practices to be a soldier, and Cutter lets him keep his bugle. MacChesney gives his elephant medicine. At the dance for Emmy and Ballantine, Cutter and MacChesney spike the punch. MacChesney keeps Col. Weed from drinking any. Higginbotham (Robert Coote) is to replace Ballantine and is given punch by Cutter and MacChesney. With Higginbotham in the hospital Ballantine has to march, and he works to finish his job. Cutter drinks and tells MacChesney they should take gold from a temple; but MacChesney knocks him out and arrests him.
Gunga Din uses the elephant to get Cutter out of jail, and they flee. Cutter and Gunga Din cross a foot-bridge and find the temple. They witness the Kali rites of the strangler Thugs. Cutter strangles one and sends Gunga Din for help as he sings. Cutter sees Chota, hits him, and is arrested. On a road Higginbotham replaces Ballantine, who is greeted by Emmy. MacChesney gets his elephant back. Gunga Din reports that Cutter was captured. MacChesney won't take civilian Ballantine unless he re-enlists; but Ballantine keeps the paper. Emmy complains and calls him a liar.
In the temple MacChesney and Ballantine are locked up with tortured Cutter. MacChesney is whipped too. Shown snakes, MacChesney tells the Guru (Edouardo Ciannelli) of Ballantine's paper and takes it and the Guru hostage. On the roof Cutter sees gold. British troops approach the trap, and the Guru orders his men; but Chota says they won't sacrifice him. So the Guru jumps into the snake pit. Cutter is shot. Gunga Din fights and is bayoneted. MacChesney is overcome, and Ballantine is captured. Gunga Din climbs up and blows the bugle to warn the British until he is shot down. Col. Weed deploys his troops. Cutter shoots the man about to behead MacChesney and Ballantine. In the battle Ballantine gets his paper back. Facing machine guns, the Thugs surrender. Ballantine submits his paper to Col. Weed, who appoints dead Gunga Din a corporal. Col. Weed reads Kipling's poem,
Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the living Gawd that made you.
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
This entertaining movie contrasts the superior British
imperialists to the murderous Thugs while praising a slavish Indian
for helping the British cause. Yet the only strangling was done
by Cutter while he is trying to rob a temple of its gold. Was
the Indian resistance any more terroristic than the British imperialists?