The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
“The reckless lancers sweep on and on – so that a woman’s heart might not be broken! You’re not fighting a single legion – you’re fighting the entire British army, Surat Khan!”
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Patric Knowles
Synopsis: A major countermands orders and attacks to revenge a previous massacre of men, women and children.
Warners’ The Charge of the Light Brigade sees Errol Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood) following his breakthrough role in Captain Blood with another rousing adventure epic which, as you’d expect, has virtually nothing to do with the true events upon which it purports to be based. As Major Geoffrey Vickers, Flynn certainly looks dashing in a number of uniforms, and it’s difficult to see why Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland – The Adventures of Robin Hood) his betrothed, would throw him over for his far less heroic-looking kid brother, Percy (Patric Knowles – The Adventures of Robin Hood, How Green Was My Valley). But dump him she does, which understandably causes something of a rift between the two brothers. This ordinary romantic sub-plot is played out almost as an afterthought against skirmishes in India with a rogue Sultan (C. Henry Gordon), whom the dastardly Russians are wooing. This unholy alliance traps a small band of lancers and their families in a mission and then slaughters most of them after promising safe passage, leading to the infamous charge of the 600 which, rather than an act of noble revenge was, in reality, something of a military cock-up which you would think would be quietly swept under the metaphorical carpet rather than being given the heroic failure treatment.
That act of revenge, orchestrated by Vickers, comes across all wrong in the movie. Here we have the film’s hero taking it upon himself to doom his comrades to certain death in direct contradiction of the orders issued to him. Which makes him more of a villain than a hero when you think about it, even if the movie does half-heartedly attempt to justify his actions by claiming the doomed charge helped the British defeat the Russians elsewhere. The other thing that spoils our enjoyment of a genuinely stirring finale is those horses going down two or three at a time in a straight line as their legs meet the carefully positioned trip wires. Dozens died, and according to legend Flynn was so outraged that he physically assaulted an uncaring Michael Curtiz. There’s no denying that knowing those horses lost their lives for the sake of some essentially meaningless adventure movie takes the gloss off that finish.
There are other things to admire, though. Flynn gives a typically polished performance — typical for this stage in his career, anyway, when his boozing was still under control — and he’s once again paired with Olivia de Havilland, probably the leading lady with whom he appeared most at ease on screen. They’re supported by a cast that was probably nothing out of the ordinary when the movie was released, but which reads like a roll call of legendary character actors today. David Niven (Wuthering Heights, A Matter of Life and Death) plays Flynn’s best mate (so you know what fate holds in store for him…), while Nigel Bruce (The Hound of the Baskervilles, Roxie Hart), Donald Crisp (Broken Blossoms, How Green Was My Valley) and Henry Stephenson (Tomorrow at Seven) play assorted military bigwigs. J. Carrol Naish can also be glimpsed in black make-up as an Indian soldier, while the redoubtable Spring Byington (Werewolf of London, Roxie Hart) plays Bruce’s gossipy wife who immediately spies Elsa and Percy’s mutual attraction.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is a perfect example of just how polished Hollywood cinema could be back in the 1930s. It’s just a shame about all of those damn horses…
(Reviewed 13th October 2014)