Sunday, August 3, 2014

Another Look: THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936 movie, starring Errol Flynn)

My retention of the kind of "classic" poetry they tried to pump into me back in high school is, alas, pretty pathetic. Trying to memorize - let alone make any sense out of  - something like Ode to a Grecian Urn, gave me a serious case of I-don't-give-a-shit-itis. Especially when I had paperback versions of true classics like Mickey Spillane's The Snake or Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan at the Earth's Core tucked away in my locker, waiting to be read and savored … Not to mention a case of near-terminal raging teenage hormones that made it almost impossible to concentrate on anything but finding a way to coax Nancy Mae into the back seat of my car again so we could resume what we … But, never mind that.

Getting back to poetry: One of the very few "classics" that appealed to me enough for even a few of the lines to stick in my memory was Alfred Lord Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade. I mean, come on
Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well;
Into the jaws of death
Into the mouth of hell …
What red-blooded young lad could fail to be stirred by something like that?

Actually, prior to any "scholarly" exposure, I had a passing familiarity with Tennyson's poem by virtue of the 1936 film adaptation of it, which I saw for the first time when I was about ten or twelve on the old WGN station (before it was called a Superstation) out of Chicago. I was a big Errol Flynn fan, especially back then, due to other movies of his I'd seen on the tube (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, CAPTAIN BLOOD, etc. - probably via WGN in those cases, too). So any listing I spotted in the TV Guide with Flynn's name attached, I tried to watch.
I can't say I recalled much of the storyline from those early viewings, but I remembered that the battle scenes were certainly rousing and I remembered some of the poem's lines (the "cannon" stanzas) being superimposed over those scenes as they were playing. It was really pretty effective.

A recent re-viewing of THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (this time on TCM) showed the film to hold up quite well, at least from my perspective. For PC purists, of course, it glorifies and over simplifies the British occupation of India and is therefore rather racist. Nor does it come anywhere close to be historically accurate. But as strictly a rousing adventure movie, it still delivers.
Directed with customary flair by Michael Curtiz and featuring a terrific musical score by Max Steiner, it stars the aforementioned Mr. Flynn along with his favorite leading lady Olivia de Havilland (this was the second of nine times they would co-star together). It also has David Niven, Donald Crisp, Patric Knowles, and Spring Byington in supporting roles. A sub plot involving de Havvilland, as Flynn's fiancé, having fallen in love with Errol's younger brother (Knowles) while Flynn was out fighting battles and skirmishes, drags on for-freaking-ever and gives Olivia little else to do but to fret and look anguished over the guilt of her betrayal.
But, as already noted, the action is the real star here and it gets delivered by the shovelful. The most powerful sequence in the film is not the climactic charge at the end, but rather the fictionalized account of the Siege of Cawnpore (which actually took place three years after the actual Charge, so the filmmakers changed the name of the besieged city to Chukoti). In either case, after the outnumbered British defenders of the city surrender and turn themselves over --- along with more than a hundred women and children --- to the Suristani forces under Surat Khan (a fictionalized country and leader) they are brutally massacred. Only Flynn and de Havilland make it out alive, due to a debt owed by Khan to Flynn for once saving his life from an attacking leopard.
Months later, after Khan has allied his army with the Russians fighting the British in the Crimean War, Flynn sees his chance to get vengeance for the Chukoti massacre. According to this telling, History's infamous "blunder" (never precisely pinned down as far as how or who) that sent the Light Brigade into the "Valley of Death" came as the result of Flynn's character falsifying actual orders so that he and his lancers were allowed their chance for revenge by being commanded to charge against the heavily fortified battery at Balaclava
When can their glory fade?
Oh the wild charge they made!
Honor that charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade.
Noble 600.
As survivors of the charge reach the main artillery posts (which is historically true, although that wasn't enough to turn the battle), Flynn zeroes in on the evil Khan and manages to kill him even at the cost of his own life.

Riddled with historic inaccuracies, filled with clichĂ©s and over-the-top heroics, muddled here and there by an unnecessary (and unnecessarily complicated) romance … This is still a dandy adventure flick on a grand scale. If you're in the mood for something in the line of LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER or GUNGA DIN – movies the way they used to make 'em – I'd recommend checking this out if you get the chance.

Final note: THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE has long held a certain notoriety for its brutal treatment of horses during its filming. The use of trip wires and other cruel tricks to stage "falls" during the shooting and explosions of the big charge sequence, killed or maimed (which still resulted in death, in most cases) dozens of horses. Largely as a result of this film, those kind of tactics were banned by the ASPCA and Congress was forced to pass laws ensuring the safety of animals during the filming of motion pictures.

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