' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

Friday, June 06, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

There is a moment in Michael Curtiz’s telling of the infamous “Charge of the Light Brigade” that is positively “Last of the Mohicans”-esque. England's 27th Lancers have fallen under surprise attack after a negotiated retreat, and that attack eventually gives way to massacre. As the massacre unfurls, Major Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) notices his love, his wife, Elsa (Olivia de Havilland), struggling across the way. He heroically dashes to her, taking a bullet, and makes a gallant rescue. It’s akin to Hawkeye rescuing Cora in the midst of that film's own middle-of-retreat massacre. I make this comparison not merely because “Last of the Mohicans” is my favorite film and because I like to think of the Flynn/De Havilland dynamic as akin to Hawkeye/Cora but because “Charge of the Light Brigade” is, like “Last of the Mohicans”, based on fact……rather, shall we say, loosely.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem is the romanticized version of the Charge and perhaps the version with which the majority is most familiar. It is also placed in front of the film’s opening credits, citing it as foremost inspiration, crucially preceding the requisite nonsense about being based on historical fact and how some of the facts have been changed and blah blah blah. This would seem to cast this “Charge of the Light Brigade” as something more akin to action-adventure yarn than historical epic, and that’s true, yet……something deeper and more serious shines through in spite of its loose playing with the facts.

In their many films together, Errol and Olivia were routinely at odds to start, all the better when they could cut through their ornery byplay to True Love. Here, however, they open the film as husband and wife, and while he is very much in love with her, she is not so much in love with him. In fact, she’s in love with his brother, Captain Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles), and they plan to tell Geoffrey the truth. That, however, won’t prove so simple.

The actual Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place during the Battle of Balaclava of 1854 in the midst of the Crimean War, was a calamity brought about by miscommunication and bluster. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" maintains the bluster but alters the miscommunication into misappropriation. It also cribs from the Siege of Cawnpore, an Indian rebellion of 1857 in which besieged British forces were forced to surrender their garrison in turn for safe passage out. Instead the withdrawal turned into a massacre at the hands of Indian forces. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" turns that massacre into a deliberate order from its chief villain, and that in turn spurs the aforementioned bluster toward revenge.

The chief villain is a local rajah, Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon), promised funding by England, and when he is told those funds have dried up, he turns devious. Geoffrey senses this deviousness from the get-go and continually advises his superior officers to re-consider their strategy, obligatorily all to no avail. When a considerable chunk of the garrison's forces is deployed elsewhere, leaving it woefully under-manned, Surat Khan and his army strike, the fort surrenders and agrees to depart the fort unarmed. As they evacuate, Khan orders a massacre, though Geoffrey and Elsa escape.

Initially it appears that Geoffrey is Right About Everything and his commanders are Always Wrong, but that's just the set-up. It's not unlike how we expect Elsa to fall back in love with Geoffrey because she is De Havilland and he is Flynn and that's how they do. But they don't. She spills the beans of her love for his brother and he is made to watch her go. And when, after some passage of time, Geoffrey realizes he can garner revenge against Khan by forging his commander's orders, he does.

Flynn was never better a actor than in the scene precipitating the forgery. Realizing Khan is near, he literally quakes before our eyes with bloodlust, and is why this Charge of the Light Brigade suffers from no miscommunication, merely macho pretense. Vickers leads so many of his men and himself straight into death's vicious vice, a stunning evocation of what lies in - to quote 2Pac - the heartz of men. And that's why despite being historically inaccurate, Curtiz's film is emotionally authentic.

The charge is technically unsuccessful, though thrillingly filmed, yet Geoffrey is also allowed to kill Khan at the very end because Geoffrey is the hero and the hero must kill the chief villain because this is Hollywood. Except it does not feel as valorous as Warner Bros. likely intended. Of the real-life charge, French Marshal Pierre Bosquet famously remarked, "It is magnificent but it is not war. It is madness." But what is madness if not war?

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