Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#26 - The Charge of the Light Brigade

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-


  1. Great review. I was stunned when I first watched Curtiz's Charge of the Light Brigade, not because it was a strange mix of the Sepoy Rebellion and the Crimean War, but because it was so bad. I am a sucker for the Flynn/DeHavilland movies but everyone seemed to be going through the motions. It was early in Flynn's relationship with Curtiz, so they may have been ironing out the kinks, but still...not a fun movie.

  2. I'm not as harsh. I just don't see what the big deal is. The only thing remarkable is the disclaimer. It is certainly not as fun as "The Sea Hawk" which placed #48. It is also not as good as the similar "Lives of a Bengal Lancer".

  3. I'm familiar with the title but sot of expected something else. I'm not sure at all whether I would want to watch that. I find it shouldn't be on the list considering what movies are not on it and certainly not on that position. Maybe it was influential in some way.
    On the other hand I liked the trailer of the 68 version but you say it's boring.

  4. I enjoy the '36 version well-enough. It's about middle-of-the-road for Flynn's filmography but it's certainly entertaining on its simple-minded swashbuckler level. The battle scene is amazing, if nothing else.

    The '68 version is a mish-mash of styles: battle epic, character study, social satire. As such it's very uneven, with lots of great moments mixed with slow, saggy sections. The animation and score are my favorite points. I disagree with your comments on the acting, Trevor Howard's Cardigan is brilliant.

    1. Entertaining yes, but the 26th greatest war movie of all time? That is insane!

      I would possibly rethink my opinion on Trevor Howard's performance, but there is no way in Hell I would ever watch him in a sex scene again!


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