The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of the best movies ever made about war. It is about class and the thin line that separates foolishness from bravery on the battlefield; the aloof decisions of powerful men who choose between life and death for other human beings. Extensively researched, it tells the story of one particular battle in the Crimean War, the Battle of Balaclava, later made famous by Lord Tennyson in his poem of the same title.
That movie, of course, was directed by Tony Richardson in 1968 and starred John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave. But this is Flynn Week, so we shall discuss the version made thirty-odd years before that, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Patric Knowles.
If you’re the kind of person who finds Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom offensive then The Charge of the Light Brigade is definitely not for you. In fact, eating monkey brains at a dinner hosted by a manic Amrish Puri playing the head of a cracktastic Kali temple is probably the kinder depiction of the two.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, The Charge of the Light Brigade begins on the Northwest frontier of British India. A clearly know-nothing envoy of the crown is in “Suristan” to meet the cagey new ruler Osama bin Laden Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) and somehow convince him to remain friendly to British interests while cutting off the annual allowance with which the British government bought the cooperation of his predecessor and the tribesmen he ruled.
Captain Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn), a veteran of this treacherous terrain, doesn’t really think much of the mission, the envoy or the supposedly “gentlemanly” Surat Khan who lives in an amazingly chic mausoleum with some truly fashion forward pillars in the midst of which he naps on his throne and breeds vultures that he keeps in giant birdcages right smack in the middle of his audience chamber. Coz he’s a savage, see, fancy British education or not.
With England firmly embroiled in The Great Game, rulers in sensitive and potentially hostile areas like Suristan are vitally important. Vickers isn’t all that keen on the idea but ends up saving his hide anyway when a gorgeous spotted kitty is about to make him her dinner while they’re out on safari. Surat Khan immediately pledges friendship and eternal debt to Vickers.
Meanwhile in Calcutta, Vickers’ fiancee Elsa (Olivia de Havilland) is reconsidering quite another pledge. Love being blind, she has fallen for Vickers all right – Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles), Geoffrey’s dorky little brother. Elsa’s father, predictably, doesn’t think much of a man who would make out with his brother’s fiancee, even if he thinks his elder brother is the jolliest of good fellows who’d be willing to hand the love of his life over to his younger brother, all neatly tied up in a bow. He’s much kinder to his daughter as he points out that Geoffrey is Errol freakin’ Flynn, dummy!
Turns out Elsa’s dad was on to something as Geoffrey chews his brother out when he comes clean about Elsa and him falling in love with each other. This creates a misunderstanding between the brothers, especially since weepy Miss Elsa is “a respectable lady” who can’t bring herself to hurt wee Geoffrey’s feelings even though she managed to fall in love with his brother in his absence. Oh, boo fucking hoo. Not even Olivia de Havilland can sell this selfish little drama queen to me.
Now I know what you’re thinking because I was thinking the same thing by this point – why are we spending all this time in India when the movie is about a battle fought in Ukraine?
Well… here’s the thing: when your popcorn movie is based on a poem, no matter how stirring its lines, you need to jazz it up a little. All that stuff about office politics and incompetent aristocrats running the army is all well and good, but when you’re making a movie about Errol Flynn leading a suicide charge against an enemy many times the size of his force, there better be a honking great reason for it.
The filmmakers chose the massacre of the surrendered British, including their women, children, and servants, at Kanpur (or Cawnpore as they spelled it in those days) during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (or The First War of Independence as we learned to call it in India) as the motivational event. Except the Battle of Balaclava took place before that so they relocated the events to a fictional outpost and made savage, vulture breeding, Russki-loving Surat Khan the aggressor.
Although Vickers is sadly mistaken about how low Surat Khan’s willing to go, even the blackest of villains has their limit. He spares Vickers his life (and that of Elsa) for having once saved his own. Just as Vickers lived to regret his good deed, Surat Khan will presently repent his momentary lapse into honor when the two come face to face in the Crimea.
Apparently, when the Russians saw the incredibly outnumbered British charge the guns at Balaclava, they thought the Brit soldiers must be drunk. A French Marshal said: “It is magnificent but it is not war. It is madness.”
Curtiz takes this sentiment and runs with it. When Vickers comes to know that Surat Khan is present behind enemy lines in The Charge of the Light Brigade, he unilaterally takes the decision to change the more sensible orders handed him by his superior to avenge the deaths of the women and children Surat Khan murdered. Naturally, a spot of insubordination and horrific carnage is incidental to the whole process as befits an officer as bold, principled and courageous as Vickers.
It’s almost genius. At one stroke the movie reclaims an act of such foolhardiness that it actually worked; and sanitizes the very real revenge the British exacted for Kanpur by way of the extremely bloody suppression of the revolt, all of which took place in India instead of some faraway country and was visited on the heads of all sorts of Indians instead of just one villainous one.
It’s a little difficult to find a copy of The Charge of the Light Brigade as Warner Brothers never re-released it, owing to the production’s practice of using trip wires to bring down the horses during the battle scenes, which led to hundreds of the animals getting either killed or having to be put down. Yeah. Um. But another way of looking at it, to follow in the movie’s silver lining example, is to remember that the American government was so horrified, Congress passed the law about harming animals during shoots. Yay?
If you can look past the fact that The Charge of the Light Brigade is stolidly a product of its times, it’s a great blast from the thankfully past and includes a performance by a young David Niven, who went on to use one of Curtiz’s phrases from this movie as the title of his memoir Bring on the Empty Horses. Always worth it.