British Imperial jingoism from Hollywood directed by Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian. If you can ignore the Orientalism, Imperialism, and the rather offensive notion that Britons ruling the world is the natural order of things, it’s a rousing, visually exciting film, with fantastic action sequences.
Constantine Verevis writes that, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade is best known for its final sequence, the charge often cited as one of the most spectacular action sequences of the Hollywood studio period’ (p. 270). The compositions are dynamic and demonstrate how well Curtiz can handle crowds in action; the cutting moves from the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem offering exposition, to the charge, to Flynn’s friends falling one by one, to Flynn rousing everyone to keep charging ahead. Flynn even picks up a British flag at one point and waves it proudly, and he finds the evil and traitorous Surat Kahn (C. Henry Gordon, in blackface) and manages to kill him at the end, getting personal revenge as well as facilitating British forces being redirected to fight and win The Battle of Sebastopol.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is notable for Olivia de Havilland turning down the Errol Flynn character, but perhaps only because, as the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem which the film is based on and actively cites in the extraordinary battle scene that brings us to the end of the film, he is fated to die at the end.
In fact the film revolves around a triangle where Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) is engaged to Elsa Campbell (de Havilland) who has, since the engagement with one brother, fallen in love with the other, Perry Vickers (Patrick Knowles). This romantic triangle is alternated with scenes of the rigidity and nobility of the British army, which here go hand in hand and are in many ways personified by Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) who asks her to remember her promise to Geoffrey and complicates rather than resolves the affairs of her daughter and those of the army. In the end, Geoffrey’s sacrifice is the permission Elsa and Perry need to marry.
David Niven has a lovely bit in an early role that helped push him on his way to stardom (see below). Curtiz stages it beautifully with rhyming scenes of the moon and the sun coming up, of Errol Flynn looking outside windows for the enemy, of dramatic lighting that helps arrange space within the composition and helps set a mood. The conversation between Flynn and Niven is a good example of the easy male camaraderie that is so characteristic of Flynn’s films; touching, emotional but jokey with it, yet the humour enhancing rather than undermining the feeling behind it all. According to Alex K. Rode , ‘David Niven appropriated a Curtiz utterance from the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade — ‘Bring on the empty horses’ — as the title of his best selling memoirs (pp.xv-xvi).
The film finally made me understand why Curtiz can’t be counted amongst the greatest. It’s not hard to make an audience cry. Show a child; show the child in danger; cut to a mother perhaps looking on; and then show something awful happening to the child: The audience is inevitably drawn to tears. Here, Curtiz not only does that in the Battle of Chukoti scenes (he would so again in Dodge City) but he does it over and over again within the film. He’s completely shameless when it comes to rousing emotion: mothers are killed in front of their children, children are massacred left and right. Even the bible and the flag is brought into play. As you can see in the flashback where all the horror of Chukoti is used as a rationale for Flynn to change the order of his superiors so that he may avenge it (whilst also permitting British forces to be better deployed). Curtiz is not above hitting you over the head to bring on some tears. It’s successful but crude.
Alex K. Rode writes that the ‘picture was designed as a follow-on vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and to emulate the success of Captain Blood and Paramount’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)’ p. 187. According Verevis, ‘Despite some controversy over its treatment of animals, The Charge of the Light Brigade became the studio’s most successful film of 1936, earning in excess of $1.5 million, confirming Flynn and de Havilland as stars, and further consolidating Curtiz’s position at Warner Bros’ (p.271).
Some of the compositions in the film are minimalist, modernist, striking to the eye, and particularly evocative in motion. I show some stills, which do not quite do them justice, below:
Alex K. Rode, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, University of Kentucky Press, 2017.
Constantine Verevis, ‘Devil May Care: Curtiz and Flynn in Hollywood’ in R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance eds. The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz, University of Texas Press, 2018, pp.265-277.