Wednesday, September 26, 2012

LIVE: Flyboys

               Words on the screen tell us it’s 1916.  9 million are dead and the plane has become a weapon with pilots becoming heroes.  This movie is “inspired by a true story”.  Yeah, sure!  This will be a small unit movie.  Survivor? #1:  a cowboy (James Franco) who has to get the hell out of Dodge.  Survivor? #2:  clean-cut fiance of an all-American girl.  Survivor? #3:  black boxer fighting in Paris because the French are not racist.  Survivor? #4:  fat rich boy who is a disappointment to his father.  Survivor? #5:  who is this dude?  No back-story.  Mysterious or cutting room floor?  How many of the five will survive?  I’m guessing two (Franco plus whoever is black).

                They have joined the Lafayette Escadrille – an all-American fighter unit in the French air force.  (It really existed!)  They are based at Verdun and housed in a chateau.  No mud for these “knights of the air”.  The seasoned veteran is an ace who is cynical due to seeing all his buddies go down in flames.  He is not exactly welcoming to the dead meat newbies.  He has a pet lion named “Whiskey”.  Cowboy starts typically cocky, but soon turns all sensitive and role modelish.  Rich boy doesn’t like blacks.  Will he learn to respect Boxer?  Seems likely.

                First trip to the canteen for our virgins results in your clicheish “get your non-bloodstained asses out of here” moment.  Training montage.  Mystery Guy crashes and he and Cowboy end up in a brothel where Cowboy meets a whore with a heart of gold.  New replacements arrive so more characters can get killed.  One is a holy roller.  Jesus is his co-pilot.  They paint nose art and nick-names.  Did they do that in WWI? 

                First mission.  Pep talk from Cynical Vet:  here’s a pistol, shoot yourself instead of burning to death.  Good CGI flak.  Dogfight.  Good thing we have that nose art to tell who’s who!  One newnewbie gets shot down but lands safely.  He is ecstatic and yells “I made it, I’m all right.”  Has he ever seen a war movie?  Strafe-bait for  Evil German (in the only black tri-plane in their air force).  Hiss!  I hope this guy gets his.  Seems likely.  CGI dogfighting is okay and boy can they fly close when the computer has the controls.  Back at the base, the canteen door is open for our blooded warriors.  Everyone is morose about the friends they lost that day.  Just kidding.  Singing and getting drunk is what the dead would want us to do.

                Hey, the whore is not a whore!  She’s a country girl.  Language barrier doesn’t deter Cowboy.  Throw in some cute kids.  Franco rides a horse.  Is there anything he can’t do?  (Don’t say “act” – that would be cruel.)

                Attack on a bomber.  Holy roller is singing hymns.  Good German decides not to kill cowboy when he is a sitting duck.  Chivalry is not dead.  Will Cowboy get a chance to return the favor?  Seems likely.  Is Mystery Guy a German spy?  It’s obvious to Rich Boy because he has a German name, knows a lot about German planes, and he always misses.  Turns out he had no back-story because he’s on the lam from a botched bank robbery.  His mates support him because everyone wants to see if he will ever hit anything.  Seems likely.  Meanwhile, Clean-Cut draws the straw labeled “crack up”.  Will he get a chance to redeem himself?  Seems likely.

                Cool German strafing attack results in our boys riding to the rescue.  Cowboy gets the chance to return the favor to Good German, but later has to shoot him down to save Rich Boy.  War sucks.  No-longer-Mystery-Guy crashes in no man’s land.  It would be insane for Cowboy to land nearby (not to mention impossible), but guess what?  Cowboy runs a gauntlet of bullets with everyone purposely missing because they recognize it’s James Franco.  Cowboy amputates Unsure-Shots (otherwise known as Mystery Guy) trapped arm with an entrenching tool.  (James Franco will later use this experience.)  Looks like the war’s over for him.  Seems unlikely.

                An introspective Cynical Vet tells Cowboy the war won’t change anything.  He’s fighting to avenge his dead buddies.  He won’t rest until he shoots down Evil German.  Franco keeps his mouth shut although he clearly knows Evil German is reserved for him.

                Some romantic suspense as Cowboy rescues French Girl and cute kids from advancing Germans.  Rape is implied.  He lands a WWI biplane after dark in a French field – twice!  (Hell, anyone who can land in No Man’s Land…)   It’s a close call (are there any other types of calls in war movies?)  She is wounded and he is given a medal in lieu of a court-martial for disobeying orders.  In war movies, it’s okay to disobey orders as long as you’re heroic and successful.

                Attack on the Zeppelin.  Omenous Zeppelin music.  All the German planes are red except you know boo.  Man, you can do impossible aerobatics with CGI!  Cynical Vet plays machine-gunning chicken with Evil German.  Bad guy wins duel, but cynic has the last laugh as he crashes into the blimp.  Explosions!!  The torch is passed to Cowboy, but he won’t have to tone down his cockiness since he lost it long ago.  Last meeting with Frenchette.  We’ll meet in Paris and live happily ever after.  Seems likely.

                Attack on the ammo dump (the same one as in “The Dawn Patrol”?).  One-Handed (otherwise known as Mystery Guy or Unsure-shot) is going, but not Clean-Cut.  Wait, what about his redemption?  Is the movie suddenly going all realistic on us?  Seems unlikely.  Rich Guy’s plane catches on fire.  He remembers the pep talk from cynical.  See you in Hell, Dad.  Unsure-shot shoots surely to save Black Guy.  Lots of bomb explosions on the depot.  Hollywood!  Suddenly the sky is clear.

                Cowboy challenges Bad German.  Come up and play, if you dare.  Another chicken head-on attack except this time they approach upside down!  Cowboy is ambushed by two of EGs henchmen, but who comes to his rescue?  None other than the redeemed Clean-Cut!  Cowboy gets the two lackeys to run into each other, but EG still swiss- cheeses him and pulls alongside to gloat as Snidely Whiplash would.  Remember that pistol Cynical gave him in case of fire?  Well, he is a cowboy and does what a cowboy would do.  Audience cheers.  He is joined by his surviving mates and they fly off into the sunset – I kid you not!  For those of you of the intelligentsia that think the movie was predictable – Cowboy does not hook up with French Girl and live happily ever after.  This was either a “take that” move by the director or they ran out of film (which seems more likely).


                Why do you want to know?   It said it was inspired by a true story didn’t it?  Being the jerk that I am I decided to check up on it.  Here’s the good news:  there was a unit of American volunteers in the French air corps called the Lafayette Escadrille and it did have a pet lion named “Whiskey”.  Inspirational!  End of accuracies.

                The movie purports to use real people for its characters, but changes the names.  Cynical Vet is based on the famous Raoul Lufbery and Cowboy is obviously meant to be Frank “Balloon Buster” Luke.  Problem is that very little in the characters relates to the real person.  For instance, the most memorable thing about Lufbery is his death from jumping out of a burning air plane.  He didn’t use the pistol.  Luke is memorable for shooting down balloons which Cowboy does not even see an observation balloon in the movie.  Is CGI not capable rendering a balloon?  As far as Mystery Guy and Rich Boy being based on actual persons – balderdash!  However, kudos for giving some recognition to Eugene Bullard (the black guy).  He was an ex-patriate boxer in France, but joined the Escadrille after fighting in the trenches and being decorated for bravery.

                Red triplanes were not the sole aircraft in the German air force.  They were not even the most common. Some planes had squadron insignia (like the “Hat in the Ring” Squadron), but I found no evidence that individual pilots had insignia.


                The movie did not do well at the box office which is ironic because most of the bull shit was aimed at the core audience of historical morons and to hell with people like me.  It’s not a terrible movie, it’s just easy to make fun of.  The score is stirring and not bad for a film of its nature.  The acting is satisfactory with Martin Henderson as Reed Cassidy (aka Cynical Vet).  Franco is merely adequate.  There is some chemistry in the romance.  The movie is bogged down by clichés and implausibilities.  It gets more ridiculous as it goes on.   The CGI is okay and makes for exciting action.  Technology should make air combat films awesome, but unfortunately it is usually carried too far by depicting aerobatics that are impossible.  Pilots must really loathe movies like this.

Grade = C+

Friday, September 21, 2012

WATCHALONG: Johnny Got His Gun

I am participating in a Watchalong hosted by my peer at All About War Movies Watchalong .  The movie we are jointly watching is "Johnny Got His Gun" which is based on the famous anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo.  Please join in.  I have provided the link-up to the You Tube full movie.  Enjoy and be vocal!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

SHOULD I READ IT? The Cranes Are Flying

               “The Cranes Are Flying” is a Soviet film directed by the acclaimed Mikhail Kalatozov and released in 1957.  It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1958 and is still the only Russian movie to win that prestigious award.  It is set on the home front during the Great Patriotic War (World War II on the Eastern Front).

                The movie opens with the heroine Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and her fiancé Boris watching a flight of cranes before traipsing through the streets of their Soviet city.  Their wedding has to be postponed because Boris does his patriotic duty and volunteers when the Germans invade.  In a remarkable tour de force by cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, we follow Veronika through the crowd as she tries to say goodbye to Boris at the train station.  The military band, the tears of loved ones, and the excitement that comes with war are all apparent.  Veronika does not make contact with Boris which is an inkling that this will be a post-Stalin movie that will allow its audience to mourn their losses along with Veronika.

                Veronika’s family is stock Russians including the typical grandmother.  During an air raid, Veronika takes refuge in the subway, but her parents refuse to abandon their apartment and you can guess the rest.  What can’t be anticipated is the shot of Veronika running up the stairs and opening the door to find only the grandfather clock left.  Awesome.

                Veronika moves in with Boris’ family.  His cousin Mark is in love with her.  During an air raid (didn’t she learn her lesson?), they are alone in the apartment and he apparently rapes her in spite of numerous nyets and slaps.  I assume this because the scene fades with him carrying her off and next thing you know, they’re married.  No one is happy about this (except Mark) as Boris’ family feels she has abandoned Boris.  Meanwhile, Boris gets killed rescuing a friend.  He gets a great death scene where he fast-forwards to their joyous wedding.  No word arrives about his death.

                The family relocates and Veronika is working in a military hospital with Boris’ father who is a doctor.  As though she is not depressed enough being married to a rapist and cheater, the doctor makes an impassioned speech against Russian women who do not remain loyal to their soldier boyfriends.  I'm looking at you, Veronika.  She runs away in a wild scene and plans to commit suicide, but instead ends up saving a little boy from being run over by a truck.  His name is Boris!  Go figure.  She brings him home.  Mark gets kicked out when the doctor discovers he lied about his exemption and in fact bribed his way out of being drafted.  Good riddance.

                Veronika does not get closure until the war ends.  In a mirror of the leaving scene, Veronika works her way through a crowd to Boris’ friend Stepan.  Stepan gives her the bad news and makes a speech to the audience telling them to remember the dead and move on with their lives.  Veronika gives her bouquet to other soldiers.  Cranes fly over.  Get it?

                This movie was a pleasant surprise.  I am not a big fan of Soviet war movies because they can be pretentious.  Kalatosov keeps the avante-garde elements to a minimum.  The movie is not overly propagandistic or preachy, but it definitely has a patriotic message to convey.  Ladies, stand by your soldier man.  People, it’s okay to mourn your dead and move on.  The movie goes beyond these trite themes into uncharted territory for a Soviet film.  Not coincidentally, with the death of Stalin, the film boldly does not focus on the greatness of the regime.  It bravely covers draft dodging, war profiteering, and the black market for the first time in a Soviet film.

                This is a director’s movie.  It’s one of those films where you are aware of the craft that went into it.  This is mainly apparent from the astounding cinematography.  There are several scenes that should be film school staples – the bombed apartment, the death of Boris, Veronica’s attempted suicide, the departure and return of the soldiers.  There is one shot where Urusevsky uses a hand-held camera to track Veronika from a bus into a crowd and then suddenly he is on a crane ascending above the crowd!

                The acting is better than most Soviet movies.  The cast is solid, but Samojlova dominates.  It made her a celebrity.  She is not hard on the eyes.  Unfortunately, the Soviet government pressured her to turn down offers to go West.  The characters are pretty stereotypical – the stern father, the loving boyfriend, the cad – but they are not caricatures.  The plot is the standard war-parts-the-lovers-and-their-lives-change-for-the-worse plot.  As such, it is better than most, including American and British equivalents.

                “The Cranes Are Flying” is a must see for all war movie lovers and cinephiles, but it will not make my 100 Best.  However, I’m glad I watched it.  It impressed me more than similar Soviet films like "Ballad of a Soldier" and "Come and See".

grade =  B+
POSTER:  Terrible!  Is that because it's Soviet and their poster technology was inferior to that of the West?  It provides absolutely no inkling what the movie is about.
the trailer
the stairs scene

 TRAILER:  Great.  Even if you can't understand the Russian, you can understand the mastery of the cinematography.  A

Saturday, September 15, 2012

CRACKER? Born on the Fourth of July

               “Born on the Fourth of July” is the second in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy.  It was released in 1989.  It is sandwiched between “Platoon” and “Heaven and Earth”.  The film shares eleven actors with “Platoon”.  It is based on the memoir by Ron Kovic who wrote the script with Stone.  Kovic was on set to counsel Cruise.  Interestingly, the two veterans (Kovic and Stone) both won Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.  Kovic gave his Bronze Star to Cruise at the end of the film.  Stone also produced and directed the film.  It was a huge success at the box office and with critics.  It was nominated for eight Oscars and won for Director and Film Editing.

                The movie opens symbolically with a young Kovic playing war – an American rite of passage.  This flows into a Fourth of July parade featuring crippled veterans (including the real Kovic).  Next, he listens to an inspiring speech by JFK.  This trio of images establishes the template of pre-disillussioned ("Leave it to Beaver") America.

                Kovic is recruited by the Marines and seduced by the desire to “find out if you got what it takes.”  He doesn’t want to miss the chance to go toe to toe with Communism.   In a twist, his veteran father (Raymond Barry) is not thrilled, but his mother (Caroline Kava) is supportive.

he's not playing war now
                The movie jumps abruptly forward to Kovic’s second tour in Vietnam.  The viewer is wrenched out of their comfort zone as is Kovic.  His unit is attacking a village and find a whole family slaughtered accidentally by the Marines.  The combat is visceral and graphic.  In the chaotic retreat, Kovic kills one of his men named Wilson in a friendly fire incident.  When he tries to accept responsibility, his CO brushes the incident under the rug  (standard operating procedure).  This adds to Kovic’s anguish and creates an ominous vibe.  Sure enough, in the next combat set piece, Kovic is badly wounded in the assault on another ville.  The action is intense and frenetic.  Both scenes evidence the “fog of war”.  Tragically, the military hospital is more hellish than the front line.  He is given last rites, but survives to end up in the Bronx Veterans’ Hospital.

the tannish tinged lensing
                The hospital is like Purgatory.  Viewers eyes are opened to how our warriors were treated by the system they fought for.  Rats, filth, uncaring staff, drug abuse, faulty equipment.  (This makes it even more damning that some similar examples of mistreatment greeted veterans of Iraq!)  In spite of this, Kovic remains a hawk and rails against anti-war protestors.  “America, love it or leave it!”  Kovic's athletic competitiveness makes him believe that he will walk again.  A broken leg ends his optimism and begins his descent into depression.  He will be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

                His return home does not slow the descent.  The detached
atmosphere is similar to what faced Paul Baumer on leave in "All Quiet" and Michael coming home in "The Deer Hunter".  He is full of self-pity. The America he was proud to fight for is indifferent to his sacrifice.  He starts drinking heavily and who can blame him?  The family is dysfunctional with an anti-war brother to quarrel with and a mother who cannot deal with the broken copy of her golden boy.  The movie comes full circle with another Fourth of July parade.  Although predictable with its hippies causing trouble, the scene is a great bookend.  Even the requisite PTSD flinching at the fireworks and the failed speech with flashbacks do not feel clicheish.

                The worm turns when Kovic is caught up in a protest at Syracuse University.  During a speech by Abbie Hoffman, the police wade into the crowd with tear gas and billy clubs. This leads to a drunken rant against his mother and the heart-rending “who’s gonna love me, dad?”  This movie packs an emotional wallop.  He has to leave home now. 

                The third stage of his life takes him to a seedy town in Mexico inhabited by other mentally and physically damaged veterans.  It’s a life of frustrated whoring and binge drinking.  Kovic poignantly falls in love with a “whore with a heart of gold”  only to discover it’s just a job to her.  He leaves this “home” with his friend Charlie (Willem Dafoe) only to end up at rock bottom in a wheel chair fight on a deserted highway.  It’s more powerful than pathetic.

                The fourth stage begins with a soul-cleansing visit to Wilson’s family to tell them the truth about their son’s death.  Their reaction is genuine and sincere and very Middle American.  A weight has been lifted and Kovic begins his career as a fixture in the anti-war movement.  The climax of this evolution from naïve patriot to patriotic dissenter comes at the 1972 Republican Convention where Kovic and others disrupt Nixon’s speech and get violently throw out of the hall.

                Here’s a cliché for you;  “I’m not a big Tom Cruise (Oliver Stone) fan, but…”  How often do you hear that?  This is one of those movies where both men are at their best.  I had not seen it in years and did not look forward to reviewing it with relish.  I was wrong.  It is a very impressive movie.  There are few weaknesses.  Stone controls himself (you know how he can be) and deserved the Oscar as Best Director.  It is astounding that the movie lost to “Driving Miss Daisy”.  You can definitely argue that was more egregious than the infamous “Shakespeare in Love” win over “Saving Private Ryan”.  The cinematography of Robert Richardson mixes chromes to match the moods.  For instance, the combat scenes have a tannish tinge.  (It lost to “Glory”.)  The two combat scenes stand out for me, of course.  Richardson uses a hand-held and gets the you-are-there feel that has become common in modern war films.  The soundtrack by John Williams was also nominated (losing to “The Little Mermaid”!).  It matches the mood perfectly. 

                The acting is outstanding.  Cruise is amazing and must have finished second to Daniel Day-Lewis.  He is fully into a role that took great physical commitment.  Leave your feelings about him at the door and admire his performance.  The other standout is Defoe.  Their scenes together are highlights.  You can easily imagine Charlie as Elias from "Platoon" if he had survived the war.

                  In less capable hands, the movie could have been maudlin and heavy-handed.  Stone is obviously sending a message, but he does not bludgeon us with it.  The overall theme is simple: the evolution of a patriotic warrior to a disillusioned pacifist.  The arc is realistic mainly because it’s a true story.  Kovic’s role in the production gives it cred.  It makes it difficult to doubt the accuracy.  However, the two protest scenes (Syracuse and the Convention) are up-violenced for understandable reasons.  These are not major flaws.

                  Although Stone struck out with “Heaven and Earth”, the first two in his trilogy are important films.  “Platoon” has lost luster for many war movie fans (not me), but the fact is that it opened the Vietnam combat experience to many Americans for the first time.  Its theme is the effects of war on the young and naive.   On the other hand, “Born” opened people’s eyes to the plight of the wounded veteran.  Its theme is the effects of the post-war on the naively patriotic.  This theme is rarer with the inferior “Coming Home” the obvious competitor.  "Birdy" is a similarly themed film that you might want to check out.  The sad thing is the limited impact it had on treatment of future veterans.  It also should be mentioned that the movie did the service of bringing Ron Kovic to public recognition.  For the Vietnam War, it is appropriate that we get a crippled, but resilient hero to replace Col. Kirby of “The Green Berets” (a movie that is the polar opposite of this movie).
                 Does it crack the 100 Best?  Definitely!  "Platoon" is #9 and although I still believe it is the better film, "Born on the Fourth of July" is not that far behind.  It is hard to imagine how it did not make Military History magazine's Greatest 100 list.
Grade = A
the trailer
the wounding
TRAILER -  Excellent.  Great use of the song "Stop, Hey What's That Sound".  Gives a clear impression of the plot arc.  grade = A
POSTER -  A little too simplistic.  Makes it look like a regular war movie.  Does have the flag which appropriate because its a recurring motif in the film.  grade =  C

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#26 - The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

1.  Full Metal Jacket
2.  Apocalypse Now
3.  Where Eagles Dare
4.  Kelly's Heroes
5.  The Bridge Over the River Kwai
6.  Guns of Navarone
7.  The Duellists
8.  The Man Who Would Be King
9.  The Thin Red Line
10.  Pork Chop Hill


BACK-STORY:  “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was released in 1936 and is one of the “British Empire movies” like “Lives of the Bengal Lancers”.  It falls into the historical adventures subgenre.  The movie was directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.  The film was one of twelve made by Curtiz and Flynn (with de Havilland appearing in eight).  It was filmed in California with the Sierra Nevadas standing in for the mountains of India.  The movie had a large budget of $1.23 million.  It was a box office success and was nominated for Academy Awards for Sound and Original Score (Max Steiner).  The production was difficult with Flynn and Curtiz at odds and Flynn tormenting de Havilland with schoolboy pranks including the use of a whoopee cushion.

OPENING:  The film begins with a dedication to the members of the Light Brigade that died in the Battle of Balaclava in 1856 and thanks Alfred, Lord Tennyson for his poem.  This is followed by a remarkably frank disclaimer that apparently was a one-time attempt by Hollywood to ease its conscience.  Note:  this frankness did not catch on.  “This production has its basis in history.  The historical basis, however, has been fictionalized for the purposes of this picture and the names of many characters, many characters themselves, the story, incidents, and institutions, are fictitious.”  If this had run at the end of the film, it would have evinced a hearty “no shit, Sherlock!”

                The year is 1854.  A unit of lancers led by Capt. Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) escorts a British diplomat to the northwestern Indian frontier province of Suristan.  The diplomat has to break the bad news to the rajah Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) that the East India Company will not be renewing the subsidy it had been paying his recently deceased father.  Surat snidely insists he will maintain the peace in spite of this insult.  He treats the Brits to a leopard hunt using elephants.  During the hunt, Vickers saves the Khan’s life so now Surat owes him one.  Cliché alert!  By the way, those shot guns sound just like rifles (Best Sound?) and did they actually shoot two leopards (ask the charging horses:  see below).

SUMMARY:  At army headquarters, a ball (and the sappy music) indicates romance is in the air (and a war on the way).  Vickers returns to his fiance Elsa (de Havilland) who happens to be his COs daughter, and by the way, cheating (in a 30s movie way) on him with his brother Percy (Patric Knowles).  That’s right, she has betrayed Errol Flynn for Patric Knowles!  Ah, the heart.  Two brothers in love with the same woman – groundbreaking scriptwriting.  Before the newsome twosome can break it to the poor sap (played by Errol Flynn), Elsa’s father catchs them at first base and justifiably accuses the REMF brother-of-a-dashing-war-hero (played by Flynn) to takes his paws off his future son-in-law’s wife.  Percy is undeterred and tells Geoffrey in the usual “I didn’t plan this and never wanted to hurt you” style.  Geoffrey believes Percy is fantasizing because what woman would choose Patric Knowles over Errol Flynn.  They part company dysfunctionally.  Elsa looks in Geoffrey’s (Errol’s) eyes and revows her love, but her heart is not in it.

                To wash the taste of this scene out of our mouths, Geoffrey goes off on an adventure which involves an ambush by Indians, oops – I mean Indian rebels.  Geoffrey gets his unit out of this tight scrape by disguising himself as a rebel leader (after killing him) and ordering them to flee.  Did I mention he’s played by Errol Flynn?  He is then tragically shot by his own men when he returns still in disguise.  End of movie.  Actually, they missed so the movie continues.

                Vickers gets assigned to a border post with penis-shaped towers and an upside down Union Jack (they must have been looking at the towers when they raised the flag) named Chukoti.  It is appropriate to ask at this point – how the hell is the movie going to end up at Balaclava?!  Word has it the Khan is planning an attack so Vickers suggests the politically and strategically unsound option of launching a pre-emptive attack.  Not only is he turned down, but most of the garrison is sent off on manuevers.  They do get a dubious reinforcement with the arrival of Elsa.  She is about to tell Geoffrey of her preference for Percy when… was that a gunshot?  The Kahn’s army (with his new Russian buddy) are assaulting the fort.  That villain is attacking those nice British who occupy his country and have refused to pay him the usual subsidy.  What an ingrate!

                The superior British soldiers immediately abandon the walls of the fort and take refuge with the women and children in the less defensible barracks.  (It looks braver and more sensible in the movie than on paper.)  The enemy stops firing so we can have some exposition and planning for a messenger to escape the Alamo, I mean Chukoti.  The dead meat or savior is Geoffrey’s friend Randall (David Niven).  Turns out he’s the dead meat variety of this stock character.  The next day the Khan humanely allows the doomed British to evacuate with all their arms in safety.  Could this be treachery?  He seems like a trustworthy fellow.  (This movie was probably a big favorite of Neville Chamberlain.)

                Would you believe the Indians open fire on the escaping British?  Wait, can they do that?  Apparently, yes.  Meanwhile, Elsa and Geoffrey are allowed to get away because of the leopard hunting incident.  A relief force finds Chukoti deserted, but with all the civilian hostages dead (including cute little Prema) and the British hostages (including Elsa’s father) executed.  This means war!  In the Crimea!  Wait, where?  Oh, it’s time to end this ninety minute prologue and move on to the subject of the movie.  What a shame that the Twentie-seventh Lancers are being sent to the Crimean War before they can get revenge against the Khan.  Unless…  guess who is in the Crimea with his new Russian buddies?  Kill two birds with one lance, anyone?  But first, let’s solve this pesky love triangle.  Elsa finally tells Geoffrey who naturally takes it like the stiff upper lipped bloke that he is.  Percy feels real bad about the whole thing.  You can tell from his face, but not his pants.  No gloating allowed.

CLOSING:  When Geoffrey finds out the Khan is with a Russian battery that holds a commanding position on the heights defending the besieged Sebastopol, he flashes back to the massacre and forges orders for a cavalry charge by the Light Brigade.  It will be a frontal attack by cavalry into cannon-fire from three sides, but Flynn knows that there is nothing more powerful than revenge in a movie.  Before the attack, he orders Percy to the rear, thus proving what an understanding chap he is or that he has hooked up with Florence Nightingale and has already forgotten what’s her name.

                It’s time for one of the great cinematic charges.  Horses might want to stop watching at this point.  The Lancers gallop through a hail of steel and explosions.  Numerous horses go down (from trip wires;  over twenty horses were killed in the filming; Flynn ratted out the film to the ASPCA and this resulted in the strict regulations we have today for animal safety in film making; oh, and a stuntman was killed when he was thrown onto a broken sword).  Khan watches from the Russian lines.  He’s pretty cocky at first.  What are the chances Vickers will survive a suicidal attack to duel with him?  But Custer, I mean Vickers, keeps coming on and breaches the Russian position with a valiant (and extremely lucky) few.  The Khan shoots him, but Geoffrey spears the villain and other lancers pin cushion him.  Vickers dies with the sweet taste of revenge in his mouth.

                Back at headquarters, the commanding general burns Vickers’ note explaining his forged order and decides to accept responsibility for the charge, especially since it was successful in cracking open Sebastopol.


Acting =  C

Action =  6/10

Accuracy =  D

Realism =  C

Plot =  C

Overall =  C

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Probably.  I did mention it is an Errol Flynn movie.  The romance is trite and lacks chemistry, but it is a romance.  The violence is not graphic and the action is not particularly macho.  The leads are attractive.  Even the villain is suave.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  I have already mentioned the disclaimer, so you know the movie is aware that it is mostly bull shit.  Kudos in that respect.  With that said, the movie is actually more accurate than many of the other “horse and sand epics”.  The two main set pieces are based on actual events and do bear some resemblance to them.  However, for a movie purporting to be about the Charge of the Light Brigade to start in India (where the Light Brigade was not stationed) and then end up in the Crimea, that takes some major balls.  Some of the chronology is also perplexing.  The dedication mentions 1856 when the Battle of Balaclava was in 1854, the same year as the publishing of the poem.  Sloppy!  (But not as sloppy as the numerous upside down Union Jacks.)

                The movie is clearly based on the Seventeenth Lancers.  There was no Twentieseventh Lancers involved in the Charge.  They were not in India, but the massacre is based on the Siege of Cawnpore.  There was no Suristan or Surat Khan, but one of the causes of the Sepoy Rebellion was mistreatment of local emirs like him.  The East India Company did routinely cut off subsidies to sons of deceased rulers, creating much ill-will.  In the movie, there is no reference to a rebellion by Indian soldiers serving the East India Company (sepoys).  Instead, the movie invents a local rebellion by an aggrieved ruler.  The attack on the fictional Chukoti is similar to what happened at Cawnpore.  A British unit and its civilian component were besieged in this fort by rebels led by Nana Sahib.  The Sahib was the adopted son of a ruler and when he succeeded, the East India Company cut the subsidy.  His personal grudge coincided with the anger of the sepoys.  The siege lasted three weeks and featured bombardment, sniping, and failed assaults.  Inside, the British suffered from heat and lack of food and water.  The Sahib offered safe passage which the British commander accepted.  Similar to the movie, the ambush occurred as the British boarded boats.  Unlike the movie, historians are unsure whether to blame the Sahib for treachery or chalk it up to itchy trigger fingers.  The elimination of the survivors was aftermathed accurately by the movie.  The actual murders were much worse than implied in the film.  Nana Sahib disappeared from history after the recapture of Cawnpore   by the British.  No revenge here.

                The Crimean War is not backgrounded in the movie.  It occurred from 1853-1856.  Russia was hoping to carve off part of the decaying Ottoman Empire, but when Turkey declared war, England and France joined it in a classic European balance the power scenario.  The Anglo-French forces invaded the Crimea and laid siege to Sebastopol.  The Battle of Balaclava was the historical highlight and Tennyson’s poem immortalized the Charge of the Light Brigade.

                The movie Hollywoodizes the Charge by making it into an act of revenge and totally avoiding the controversial aspect of the order.  Lord Raglan ordered the Light Brigade (with the Seventeenth Lancers in the center) in response to the withdrawal of a Russian battery on one part of the heights.  When Capt. Louis Nolan delivered the already vague order to Lord Cardigan, Nolan broadly gestured toward a different part of the heights where the Russian artillery was firmly positioned.  Since Nolan was killed in the charge (possibly trying to rectify his error), the mystery will not be solved.  The charge is realistically depicted in the film.  The “valley of death” was indeed a killing ground with fire coming from three sides.  Like the movie, some horses were killed in the action.  This resulted in strict restrictions against shooting at horses in future wars.  Just kidding.   French Field Marshal Bosquat famously remarked:  “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”.  Some of the Lancers did make it into the redoubt, but soon after had to pull back due to lack of support and heavy losses.    They rode back with grapeshot and cannister chasing them.   Unlike the movie, Cardigan survived (and rushed home to a champagne dinner).   Of the plus 600 cavalrymen, 118 were killed, 127 wounded, and 60 were captured.

                Typical of a movie like this, it forces a happy ending where there was none.  It is strongly implied that the charge was successful in causing the fall of Sebastopol.  In reality, the Charge was a failure and the men died valiantly but in vain.  Sebastopol did not fall until the next year.

CRITIQUE:  “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is classic old school.  It is black and white, but that’s not a problem because most of the scenery in India is lacking in color.  The cinematography is crisp, but not special until we get to the Charge.  The score is what you would expect from a 1930s historical adventure.  It is hammy and sappy and designed to manipulate your emotions.  The acting is not a strength.  Flynn is satisfactory playing a 1930s hero who is too good to be true.  The characters are all stereotypes.  The torn-between-two-gentlemen female.  The dashing, but sensitive hero.  The likeable romantic rival.  The bonhomme best buddy.   We even get the busy-body, husband-nagger for comic relief.  Surat Khan starts out interesting, but ends up stock.  His motivation for the massacre is out of character and unclear.

                The movie is very predictable and cliché-ridden.  Nothing happens that is unusual.  Of course,  American audiences could have been shocked if the result of the Charge had been shown historically accurate.  The last twenty minutes piles on the cliches.  A duel between the hero and the villain at the climax – check.  The love triangle solved by the noble death of one of the two men – check.  A postscript which assures that the hero did not die in vain (or commit a court-martial offense) – check.

                The biggest problem with the movie is the lack of realism.  For instance, with all the dusty marching the British uniforms remain pristine.  Geoffrey’s calm reaction to his brother’s betrayal is possible, but improbable.  The Khan’s appearance in the Crimea is laughable.  These types of things are pretty standard for movies of this kind, however.  They are what they are.

CONCLUSION:    Once again, a head-scratcher.  You could possibly make a case for it making it into the Greatest 100, but #26 is astounding.  Some of the overrated Greatest 100 could possibly have gotten their higher than deserved rankings because the panel deemed them “important”, but that could not have been the case here.  “Lives of a Bengal Lancer” would fit better if you are looking for a similar movie that is important in cinematic history.  It did not even make the list. And, on a similar note, this movie is inferior to the other Flynn vehicle that made the list at #48 -  "The Sea Hawk".


                Perhaps you would like to see a movie that just covers the Charge of the Light Brigade and has no scenes in India, of all places.  Well, you might want to check out the 1968 version.  It is vastly different than the original.  It sacrifices entertainment for realism.  It juxtaposes the cushy lives of the upper class officers and the grungy lives of the enlisted men.  All of the main characters are officers and all are pompous.  Many are assholes.  Throw in a heavy dose of incompetence.  The enlisted are depicted as pathetic drones.

                The main character is an idealistic Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) who becomes the object of Lord Cardigan’s (Trevor Howard) insane ire over ordering the wrong liquor at a dinner (the “black bottle incident” which was actually a different officer).  Nolan is the closest we get to Vickers.  There is even a tepid love triangle involving Nolan and his best friend and his best friend’s wife.  Yawn.  Nolan is depicted inaccurately as a sympathetic character who rails against the inhumanity of war.  Cardigan is an incredible boor.  His mirror image brother-in-law Lucan (Harry Andrews) and he have an intense hatred for each other.  Stuck in the middle is the senile fool Raglan (John Geilgud).  It would have been a miracle if there had not been a military disaster.

                The battle scenes are well staged and look like they used re-enactors for authenticity, but this is no “Gettysburg”.  The Charge is the highlight and is pretty good historically.  It handles the confusion of the order well.  Nolan pushes for the counterattack, but when he delivers the order he seemingly becomes unhinged in the presence of Cardigan and makes his tragic gesture up the valley.  The movie takes the approach that Nolan was attempting to rectify his mistake when he was killed by shrapnel.  The Charge has lots of action and some blood.  Surprisingly it does not improve on the earlier version.  It is certainly more accurate with the Russian cavalry counterattacking at the cannons.  The movie then suddenly jumps to the survivors returning and closes with Cardigan, Lucan, and Raglan arguing over responsibility.

                I hate to say this but in this case fiction is better than the truth.  The movie is boring with no likeable characters.  Although possibly true to life, the movie is very harsh on the officer class.  There is even a gold-digging officer’s wife who is cuckolding him with Cardigan.  Watching this ugly actress bed Trevor Howard hurts the eyes.  Nolan is treated sympathetically which is better than the real person deserved.  The enlisted life sections cover from recruitment through training to camp and are well meant and realistic but the movie unwisely does not feature any of the common soldiers (or scum as Wellington would have called them).

               The best thing about the movie is some bizarre animation influenced by Punch Magazine’s political cartoons.  These appear periodically to fill in background on European events.  For this reason, the big picture is much clearer than in the 1936 version.  You definitely learn more about the Crimean War and the Battle  of Balaclava from this version, but at the cost of entertainment.

                I am tempted to say that if you watch both movies, you would have one complete movie on the Charge of the Light Brigade.  However, this would mean spending more than four hours of your life watching two less than outstanding movies.  Save the time and just read the poem.
1936 version = C-