Monday, 25 August 2014

Movie Review: The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936)


Long on rousing action and short on historical accuracy, The Charge Of The Light Brigade uses the actual battle of 1854 as a climax but constructs an entirely fictitious narrative as a lead up story. The film is nevertheless a wildly entertaining and lavishly produced spectacle.

In the tribal areas of India in the mid-19th century, the 27th Lancers of the British Army under the leadership of Major Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) are tasked with keeping the peace in the Suristan territory, controlled by local leader Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon). The nearby British presence is centred on a fort in the remote town of Chukoti. Vickers saves Khan's life during a hunting expedition. But there is unexpected trouble for Geoffrey when he discovers that his fiancée Elsa (Olivia de Havilland) has fallen in love with his younger brother Captain Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles).

With regional tensions rising Khan decides to betray the British and align himself with the Russians, and orders his men to commit a massacre at the Chukoti fort, murdering women and children who were under the protection of the 27th Lancers. Khan repays his debt by sparing Geoffrey's life. War breaks out in the Crimea, and both Vickers brothers are reassigned to augment the British forces waging battle. With Khan's men deployed on the front lines but protected by Russian cannons, Geoffrey spots an opportunity for the Lancers to gain a measure of revenge and turn the tide of the war, but this will involve a daring raid against superior forces.

An early example of a big production action epic loosely inspired by British military history, The Charge Of The Light Brigade is filled with scenes of mounted armies mobilizing, marching and charging. The action is frequent, intense, and enjoyable, as director Michael Curtiz captures what it means to be a hot and sweaty mounted brigade ordered to battle the unforgiving terrain and the hardened local tribes at the far flung edges of empire.

Between the combat scenes, there are plenty of costumes, parties, dances, politicians, impressive sets and a large number of lively extras to provide the context for the battlefield exploits. At almost two hours in length, The Charge Of The Light Brigade maintains breathless momentum, and builds a powerful story of military alliances, betrayal and the intrigue that forces armies into motion.

Less impressive is how far the story veers away from the historical record. The charge itself is stunningly recreated in the final twenty minutes of the film, but all the events leading up to it are manufactured out of the Hollywood dream factory. The outcome is not uninteresting; just an unnecessary divergence to the land of fiction as an alternative to an already compelling reality.

Working with the script that they do have, the stars help to make it all work. This is a film made for Errol Flynn, his charismatic attitude overflowing with panache, and he is always watchable as the confident, determined and professional Major Geoffrey Vickers. Olivia de Havilland is less convincing but still adequate, the role of Elsa underwritten into a box of love and affection for two brothers, but with insufficient meaningful scenes to bring the character to full life. David Niven makes a good impression as Captain Randall, one of Vickers' trusted subordinates. Patric Knowles, C. Henry Gordon, Nigel Bruce, Donald Crisp, and Henry Stephenson provide sturdy support.

The Charge Of The Light Brigade carries an unintended legacy related to animal cruelty. The filming of the raucous battle scenes resulted in the death of dozens of horses injured in falls caused by trip wires. The subsequent outrage reached all the way to the political sphere; horse trip wires were banned and the industry moved towards more humane treatment of animals on film sets.

Galloping full speed ahead and consequences be damned, The Charge Of The Light Brigade kicks up plenty of dust and holds nothing back.






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