Errol Flynn in lancer's helmet in The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



28 March


Crimean War escalates, 1854

On this day in 1854, Britain and France declared war against Russia. Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been at war since October the previous year, when conflict had broken out ostensibly about the rights of Christians in the Holy Land – being restricted by Muslim Ottomans and being protected by Orthodox Russian if you accept the Russians’ diplomatic rhetoric. In fact the war was about territory, the Turks being on the decline after centuries of dominance in the region, the Russians keen to continue their expansion west into Europe and particularly south to the Black Sea, which offered them “warm water” ports which wouldn’t freeze in the winter. As one of the major planks of the foreign policy of both Britain and France had been the containment of Russia at least since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, both countries felt compelled to join after the Russians destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Black Sea port of Sinope. With Russia now masters of the Black Sea, which led into the Mediterranean (which both Britain and France saw as “theirs”), the campaign to stop Russia focused on the Russian fortress Sevastopol, home of the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, though battles were also fought in the Caucasus, the Baltic, the Pacific, the White Sea and Greece. The war continued until early 1856 with the loss of around 350,000 lives on all sides. It was the first European war to be photographed and the first to use the telegraph, which allowed rapid communications both on the battlefield and between the theatre of war and the public back home, via the newspapers.




The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936, dir: Michael Curtiz)

The actual charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (a light brigade being lightly armoured troops mounted on horses – ie no cannons) was a disaster, with under-armed men being sent off in the wrong direction thanks to a communications cock-up. So instead of taking on a retreating Russian artillery regiment they found themselves heading into the line of fire of a completely different artillery battery, this one dug in and ready to let loose. The result was a rout of the British, a change in public opinion back home, a famous poem by Tennyson and the birth of the “lions led by donkeys” myth. It’s the “lions” aspect that is played up in this swashbuckler by Michael Curtiz, who spends time hooking us in emotionally with the story of two brothers (Errol Flynn, Patric Knowles) fighting over the same girl (Olivia De Havilland) before hitting us with one of the most spectacularly staged battle scenes of the period. “A testament to the virtuosity of the second unit” is how critic Pauline Kael described it. There’s no point looking for historical accuracy. Indeed memos from Jack Warner suggest he was more concerned with the shade of Flynn’s moustache. And it’s not even as if the film has simplified the facts to make things easier for the audience. Much of the action takes place in India, where a roguish Rajah who is secretly working for the Russians can be factored into the confusing plot. Though of course the Charge itself took place in the Crimea, which is 2,500km or so away. Sticklers for history might counter that actually Britain was worried about Russian ambitions in her empire yadda yadda. Let them have the debate. Meanwhile, India is where Flynn, De Havilland and Knowles do their warm-ups before the big number, which is the whole point of the thing. This was the second of seven films on which Curtiz, Flynn and De Havilland would collaborate – between Captain Blood the year before and The Adventures of Robin Hood the year later. It’s the film that made Flynn a superstar.



Why Watch?


  • Because Michael Curtiz’s films always are worth watching
  • One of the great Flynn-Curtiz-De Havilland movies
  • An early screen credit for Hollywood composing legend Max Steiner
  • That second unit work


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Charge of the Light Brigade – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

  1. Errol Flynn, riding high with the spectacular success of CAPTAIN BLOOD, re-teamed with co-star Olivia de Havilland and director Michael Curtiz in this epic tale, owing far more to Rudyard Kipling's prose than Tennyson's poem, or any attempt at historical accuracy. As one of several 1930s Hollywood forays into India during British rule (GUNGA DIN, LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER, and WEE WILLIE WINKIE are other memorable examples), the films are often criticized today for 'whitewashing' British rule, and ignoring the plight of Indians, who were treated as 'second-class' citizens of the Empire. While this argument is valid, these films were produced as 'entertainments' at a time when America, still suffering from the Depression, craved escapism, not social commentary.

    Flynn, with his trademark moustache restored, is Major Geoffrey Vickers, dashing British Lancer, who, as the film opens, saves the life of Indian ruler Surat Khan (played by veteran screen villain C. Henry Gordon) during a tiger hunt. While Khan despises the British, he has a blood debt to Vickers, which must be honored.

    Between assignments, Vickers tries to be the devoted fiancé of beautiful Elsa Campbell (de Havilland), but in a twist from the usual Flynn/de Havilland teamings, she actually loves his brother, Perry (Patric Knowles, who would later play 'Will Scarlet' in ROBIN HOOD). The love triangle subplot is the least effective part of the story; fortunately, these interludes don't last long!

    Courting favor with the Russians (represented by Stalin look-alike Robert Barrat), Khan gambles, correctly, that the British would never consider him capable of murdering women and children, so his attack on an undermanned Chukoti, and the subsequent massacre of all the inhabitants (save Vickers and Campbell, thus fulfilling his blood debt), creates a furor that rocks India, and a evokes a vow of revenge from Vickers and the Lancers, who'd lost all of their loved ones. Khan flees the country, joining his Russian allies in the Crimea.

    Just in time to fulfill the title, the Lancers are reassigned to the Crimea, and discover that Khan is located with the cannon emplacements on the Balaclava Heights. Arranging to get his brother safely away from the action, Vickers forges orders to have the Light Brigade attack the Heights, and 'The Charge' begins…

    While the Charge (created by second unit director "Breezy" Eason) is one of the most incredible scenes ever recorded on film, with hundreds of horsemen galloping in formation 'to the guns', there was a deadly price for the spectacle; the buried explosives and trip wires used to create realistic cannon blasts injured many horses, resulting in a large number of animals having to be 'put down'. Humane societies nationwide (and Flynn, himself, who was appalled by the needless slaughter) raised such an outcry that standards were established barring cruelty to animals, which are still in effect today.

    Besides Flynn's heroic performance (yes, that really IS him, leaping a cannon on horseback), Donald Crisp, Henry Stephenson, and J. Carrol Naish (as an Indian) provide memorable support. And watch for a young David Niven, as Vickers' doomed fellow officer. Flynn and Niven were great friends, sharing a cottage in Malibu (nicknamed 'Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea', because of their wild parties), and their final scene together is far more poignant than any Flynn/de Havilland moments in the film!

    While flawed, historically, and unquestionably bloody, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE retains its position as a 'classic', and proved to the WB that Errol Flynn was not just a 'one hit wonder'. Great things were ahead for the young star!

  2. My vade mecum on battles, the Dupuy's "Encyclopedia of Military History," describes the engagement this way. "The Light Cavalry Brigade, though circumstances never satisfactorily explained, now charged the Russian field batteries to their front, riding up a narrow mile-long valley, exposed at the same time to fire from the captured Turkish guns on their right flank and other Russian guns on their left. They reached the guns, rode through them, clashed with the Russian cavalry beyond, and then the survivors rode back through the crossfire of the "Valley of Death"….doomed to death by the arrant stupidity of Brigadier General . . . Lord Cardigan . . . and Lord Lucan." The Dupuys are rarely so editorial.

    Those "unexplained circumstances" probably don't involve Errol Flynn rewriting his orders to get even with his old enemy, Surat Kahn.

    Sevastopol must have been an interesting place at the time. Not only were Raglan and Cardigan there (two sweaters, aren't they?) but Florence Nightingale too, her initial experience at the battlefield. Also observing was George MacLellan, later Lincoln's commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. He learned a lot about siege warfare and even invented a saddle based on his experiences. Maybe he learned to respect siege warfare too much. It was almost an impossible task to get him to move at more than a snail's pace as Lincoln's commander. Old Abe said of MacLellan that "he has a case of the slows."

    This is a love triangle wrapped around a couple of battle scenes. Olivia DeHavilland in 1936 seemed tiny, vulnerable, loving, sweet, and entirely innocent, so much so that it would be an affront to even think about her ankles. She's engaged to Flynn but falls in love with Flynn's rather dull brother, for reasons known only to the screenwriters. Flynn rarely loses the girl during this period in his career. The story begins in India with a chronologically out of order battle against some insurgents, the treacherous swine. They lie, shoot innocent women and children, summarily execute prisoners, and break windows. The scene in which the survivors of Chukoti wade out to the boat trying to escape was shot at Lake Castaic. Try getting into Lake Castaic today without paying a million dollars for a shabby condo.

    The uniforms are very snappy though — tan, criss-crossed with black belts and other equipment, and closely enough tailored to make a viewer wonder exactly how this got past the censors. It's hard to imagine that some of the actors weren't embarrassed, although this certainly wouldn't have bothered Flynn.

    The battle scenes are excitingly done, although next to completely improbable. (During one ambush by the Kahn's troops, Flynn jumps off a cliff, dehorses and kills one of the sleazebags, dons his black robe and black feathery headdress, and in this unlikely getup rides among the Kahn's troops shouting in their language that more English troops are about to arrive. The enemy believe him and take off in a panic.)

    During the final charge the Light Brigade die enthusiastically as they charge the Russian guns in order to even the score for the Kahn's treachery at Chukoti. The horses die, too, a lot of them. At the time, a device called "the running W" was in use, thin wires attached to the horses' legs, and when the wires ran out to their full extent the horses' legs were yanked out from under them. It isn't recorded whether the horses died enthusiastically, there being no equine version of Tennyson. (Or maybe there is and we don't know about it? Horses may have an entire oral folklore describing how they've been exploited and mistreated by humans, not to mention being eaten by hyenas and whatnot. We may be to horses what Grendel was to the Danes.)

    Anyway I kind of enjoyed it. Everyone has such a stiff upper lip, the women included. It's completely unpretentious, and Curtiz shot it with no aim other than entertainment. He achieved his goal.

  3. Anyone who is expecting a factual retelling of the famous charge at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War had better look to Tony Richardson's film from 1968. This particular Charge of the Light Brigade is a nice action adventure tale from the British Raj in the Kipling mold.

    Of course this is all fictional. There's no such person as the evil Moslem ruler played by C. Henry Gordon who massacred a British garrison at a place called Chukoti in 1854. The reason for the famous cavalry charge did not happen so that the regiment could get to nail this dude for his crimes. Yet one thing I found contained more than an element of truth about British rule in India and some of our problems today.

    At the very beginning Errol Flynn is accompanying E.E. Clive on a goodwill mission to Gordon. It seems as though there was a treaty with a promised subsidy from Her Majesty that expired with the death of his father. Even though they're not paying him any more to be the British friend, Clive still hopes for Gordon's friendship.

    This in fact was how the British acquired 'friends' all over India, they ruled very little of it outright. They won a bidding war that was as acrimonious as the military conflict with other European powers which concluded with the French out of there altogether after the Seven Years War and the Portugese left with a couple of enclaves on the coast.

    Clive in fact is one very large fathead, Flynn knows it only too well. In fact though this is how we're still acquiring 'friends' in that region which is now Pakistan.

    Thrown into the politics is the rivalry between Errol Flynn and his brother Patric Knowles for Olivia DeHavilland. Originally Anita Louise was supposed to be slated for the part. But after the rave notices started coming in from Captain Blood before some of the romantic stuff was to be shot, Louise was substituted for Olivia DeHavilland and poor Olivia was typecast as the crinolined heroine until she left Warner Brothers.

    Jack Warner spent a lot of money on this film. The whole garrison at Chukoti where the massacre took place was built from the ground, up; no miniatures were used. Thousands of horses were bought and about 200 were destroyed in the making of the final charge. So many animals were hurt the ASPCA stepped in and Charge of the Light Brigade got a lot of bad publicity among animal lovers. It did receive an Oscar for Best Assistant Director for the second unit work in depicting the charge when that was a category at the Academy Awards.

    Errol Flynn said it was the roughest film he ever made in terms of pure physicality. It was pretty rough on Olivia DeHavilland as well who Flynn accidentally cold-cocked during a scene. These crinolined heroines do have it rough.

    One of my favorite character actors, Henry Stephenson, plays the fictional Charles Masefield in this film. Stephenson in every film he did always embodied the stiff upper lip, attention to your duty ethic that the United Kingdom prides itself in. He's always a man of class and refinement. And he firmly believes in the John Ford mantra, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    Which is what Alfred Lord Tennyson gave us when he wrote that poem extolling the young men of that generation who died at Balaclava. We're watching the legend here.

  4. As usual, Warner Bros. bent historical facts to provide ERROL FLYNN with some noble heroics in epics like this one and THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON. And as in BOOTS, it takes quite a bit of fictional footage to get to the climactic charge, but it’s well worth waiting for.

    Flynn has a role tailor-made to his specifications, the noble hero who looks even more splendid than ever wearing a trim mustache and military uniform. The script, in a twist, has his brother (PATRIC KNOWLES), who looks enough like Flynn to be his real brother, winning over the heart of the heroine (OLIVIA de HAVILLAND) at a military outpost in India. Flynn, as Major Vickers, decides to avenge the massacre of British women and children at the fort, thus forging the orders that lead to the famous charge.

    All of it is strictly meant to entertain, offering political background of a confusing sort to give an idea of the events surrounding the charge. While all of it has been falsified for the sake of providing a screenplay that makes Flynn the noblest of heroes, there is no denying the epic sweep of the derring do and romance.

    Flynn and screen partner de Havilland make a handsome couple and they are supported by a fine bunch of actors from Hollywood’s British film colony, notably Patric Knowles, David Niven and Donald Crisp. Max Steiner has provided one of his best military background scores that gives added dimension to the exciting battle scenes.

    For Flynn fans, this is a must see. For anyone expecting to see an historical account of the Charge, better tune in to the History Channel for that sort of stuff. But as entertainment, CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE delivers the goods and should make Flynn and de Havilland fans happy.

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