“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

How is it that a movie about one of the most famous blunders in British military history could remain so entertaining after 74 years? Can someone explain this? Warner Brothers’ take on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the Light Brigade of the British cavalry charged straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights during the Crimean War, is not what one would call historically accurate. Most of the movie took place in British occupied Northern India in the 1850s. Aside from the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie really has nothing to do with the Crimean War. And yet . . . who cares? ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” is so damn entertaining that I found myself not even thinking about historical accuracy.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, and written by screenwriters Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh; the movie is an entertaining mixture about vengeance against the leader of a treacherous local tributary rajah in Northern India named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon); and a love triangle between Geoffrey and Perry Vickers – two brothers who are British Army officers (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles) who happened to be in love with the same woman – the daughter of a British general (Olivia DeHavilland) named Elsa Campbell. I might as well start with the love story.

On the surface, the love triangle in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” seemed pretty simple – one woman torn between two men. Instead of having two best friends in love with the same woman, we have two brothers. But even that is nothing unusual. What turned out to be so unusual about this particular love story – especially in an Errol Flynn movie – is that the leading lady is NOT in love with the leading man. Within fifteen minutes into the story, the movie revealed that the leading man – namely Flynn – lost the affections of the leading woman (and fiancée) – De Havilland – to the secondary male lead – namely Knowles.

At first, it boggled in the mind. What woman in her right mind would prefer Patric Knowles over Errol Flynn? The latter had a more flamboyant character and was obviously the movie’s main hero. However . . . Knowles was not exactly chopped liver. Knowles was just as handsome as Flynn in his own way and a competent actor to boot. And his character – although less flamboyant than Flynn’s – had a quiet charm of its own. I also got the feeling that Flynn’s character seemed more in love with his job as an Army officer during the British Raj than he was with dear Elsa. Geoffrey Vickers seemed to have it all . . . until his brother Perry and Elsa’s little romance pulled the rug from under his self-assured life. And yet, he seemed damn reluctant to admit that Elsa loved Perry more than him. Reluctant may have been a mild word. Geoffrey seemed downright delusional in his belief that Elsa loved him only . . . and that Perry was merely harboring an infatuation for his fiancée. What made matters worse was that everyone – including Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) and diplomat Sir Charles Macefield (Henry Stephenson) – supported Geoffrey’s illusions. Only Lady Octavia Warrenton (Spring Byington), wife of British General Sir Benjamin Warrenton (Nigel Bruce) seemed aware of Elsa and Perry’s feelings for one another.

Before I discuss the movie in general, I want to focus upon the cast. Flynn, DeHavilland and Knowles were ably supported by a talented cast drawn from the British colony in 1930s Hollywood (with the exception of two). American-born Spring Byington and British actor Nigel Bruce were charmingly funny as the verbose busybody Lady Octavia Warrenton and her husband, the long-suffering Sir Benjamin. They made a surprisingly effective screen pair. Donald Crisp was his usual more than competent self as Elsa’s loving, but humorless father, Colonel Campbell – a by-the-book officer unwilling to accept that his daughter had switched her affections to the younger Vickers brother. Henry Stephenson gave an intelligent performance as the competent diplomat, Sir Charles Macefield, who is charged with not only keeping the peace, but maintaining British control in a certain province of Northern India. It was easy to see why Flynn’s character seemed to hold him in high regard. David Niven was charming, but not very memorable as Geoffrey Vicker’s best friend, James Randall. Only in one scene – in which Randall volunteers to leave the besieged Chukoti Fort in order to warn Sir Benjamin at Lohara of Surat Khan’s attack – did Niven give a hint of the talent that would eventually be revealed over the years. And of course, one cannot forget American actor C. Henry Gordon’s portrayal of the smooth-talking villain, Surat Khan. Gordon could have easily portrayed Khan as another ”Oriental villain” that had become typical by the 1930s. On one level, Gordon’s Khan was exactly that. On another . . . Gordon allowed moviegoers to see Khan’s frustration and anger at the British handling of his kingdom.

Olivia DeHavilland once again proved that even in a costumed swashbuckler, she could portray an interesting female character without sinking into the role of the commonplace damsel-in-distress. With the exception of the sequence featuring the Siege of Chokoti, her Elsa Campbell spent most of the movie being torn between the man she loved – Perry Vickers, the man she has remained fond of – Geoffrey Vickers, and her father’s determination that she marry Geoffrey. Elsa spent most of the movie as an emotionally conflicted woman and DeHavilland did an excellent job of portraying Elsa’s inner conflicts with a skill that only a few actresses can pull off. And DeHavilland was merely 20 years old at the time she shot this film.

I really enjoyed Patric Knowles’ performance in this movie. Truly. One, he managed to hold himself quite well against the powerhouse of both Flynn and DeHavilland. I should not have been surprised. His performance as a sleazy Southern planter in 1957’s ”BAND OF ANGELS” was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre film. And two, his Perry Vickers was a character I found easy to root for in his pursuit of Elsa’s hand. I especially enjoyed two particular scenes – his desperate, yet charming attempt to be assigned to Chokoti (and near Elsa), despite Sir Charles’ disapproval; and his anger and frustration over Geoffrey’s unwillingness to face the fact that Elsa’s affections had switched to him.

There are four movie performances by Errol Flynn that have impressed me very much. Three of those performances were Geoffrey Thorpe in ”THE SEA HAWK” (1940), James J. Corbett in ”GENTLEMAN JIM” (1942) and Soames Forsyte in”THAT FORSYTE WOMAN” (1949). The fourth happens to be his performance as Captain/Major Geoffrey Vickers in”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”. Not many film critics or fans have ever paid attention to his performance in this film, which is a pity. I suspect they were so flabbergasted by the idea of him losing Olivia DeHavilland to Patric Knowles that they had failed to pay any real attention to his performance as the complex and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers. Superficially, Flynn’s Vickers is a charming, witty and very competent military officer. He seemed so perfect at the beginning of the film that it left me wondering if there were in cracks in his characters. Sure enough, there were. Thanks to a well written character and Flynn’s skillful performance, the movie’s Geoffrey Vickers became a complex, yet arrogant man who discovers that he is not very good at letting go at things that seem important to him, whether it was Elsa’s love or a desire for revenge against the villain. In the end, Geoffrey’s flaws became the instrument of his destruction. The amazing thing about Flynn’s performance as Geoffrey Vickers was that it was his second leading role. And the fact that he managed to portray such a complex character, considering his limited screen experience at the time, still amazes me.

As I had stated before, the movie’s historical account of the Crimean War and the infamous charge hardly bore any resemblance to what actually happened. The movie seemed to be about the British’s interactions with a Northern Indian minor rajah named Surat Khan. The British, led by diplomat Sir Charles Macefield, struggle to maintain a “friendly” relationship with Khan, while his men harass British troops in the area and he develops a friendship with a visiting Russian Army officer Count Igor Volonoff (Robert Barrat). The phony friendship and minor hostilities culminated in an attack by Khan against one of the British forts in his province – Chukoti, which is under the command of Colonel Campbell. The battle for Chukoti eventually turned into a massacre that only Geoffrey and Elsa survived. But more interesting, it seemed like a reenactment of an actual siege and massacre that happened at a place called Cawnpore, during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58 . . . three to four years after the setting of this movie. For a movie that is supposed to be about the Light Brigade Charge and the Crimean War, it was turning out to be more of a fictional account of British history in India during the 1850s.

But the movie eventually touched upon the Crimean War. After the Chukoti Massacre, Surat Khan ended up in hot water with the British government in India. Due to his friendship with Volonoff, he found refugee with the Russians. And he ended up as a guest of the Russian Army during the Crimean War. Following her father’s death, Elsa finally convinced Geoffrey that she is in love with Perry. And the regiment of both brothers – the 27th Lancers – is also sent to Crimea. According to Sir Charles, their posting to the Crimea would give them an opportunity for revenge against Khan. But when the 27th Lancers finally received an opportunity to get their revenge against Khan, Sir Charles denied it. And so . . . Geoffrey took matters in his own hands and ordered the Light Brigade – which included his regiment – and the Heavy Brigade to attack the artillery on the heights above the Balaklava Valley. This is so far from what actually happened . . . but who cares? I enjoyed watching Flynn express Geoffrey’s struggles to contain his thirst for revenge and eventual failure.

And then the charge happened. My God! Every time I think about that sequence, I cannot believe my eyes. Part of me is horrified not only by the blunder caused by Geoffrey’s desire for revenge . . . but by the fact that 200 horses and a stuntman were killed during the shooting of that scene. Flynn had been so outraged by the deaths of the horses that he openly supported the ASPCA’s ban on using trip wire for horses for any reason. At the same time, I cannot help but marvel at the brutal spectacle of that scene. No wonder Jack Sullivan won the Academy Award for Best Assistant Director for his work on this particular scene.

On the whole, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” is a very entertaining and well-paced spectacle. Frankly, I think that it was one of the best movies to be released during the 1930s and certainly one of Errol Flynn’s finest films. For those who honestly believed that the Australian actor could not act . . . well, they are entitled to their opinions. But I would certainly disagree with them. On the surface, Flynn seemed like his usual charming and flamboyant self. However, I was very impressed at his portrayal of the self-assured and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers, who found his private life slowly falling apart. Olivia DeHavilland, Patric Knowles, Donald Crisp, C. Henry Gordon and Spring Byington gave him excellent support. Thanks to Jacoby and Leigh’s script, along with Michael Curtiz’s tight direction, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” turned out to be a first-class movie with an interesting love story with a twist, political intrigue, well-paced action and a final sequence featuring the charge that remains mind blowing, even after 74 years.

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