Major Vickers is an officer at the 27th Lancers in India 1856. When the regiment is on maneuver, the barracks are attacked by Surat Khan and his soldiers who massacre British women and children. This leaves an inextinguishable memory and Vickers promises to revenge the dead.
Errol Flynn ... Maj. Geoffrey Vickers
Olivia de Havilland ... Elsa Campbell (as Olivia De Havilland)
Patric Knowles ... Capt. Perry Vickers
Henry Stephenson ... Sir Charles Macefield
Nigel Bruce ... Sir Benjamin Warrenton
Donald Crisp ... Col. Campbell
David Niven ... Capt. James Randall
C. Henry Gordon ... Surat Khan
G.P. Huntley ... Maj. Jowett (as G.P. Huntley Jr.)
Robert Barrat ... Count Igor Volonoff
Spring Byington ... Lady Octavia Warrenton
E.E. Clive ... Sir Humphrey Harcourt
J. Carrol Naish ... Subahdar-Major Puran Singh (as J. Carroll Naish)
Walter Holbrook ... Cornet Charles Barclay
Princess Baba ... Prema's mother (as Princess Baigum)
My main source 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.
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!
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.
* Over 200 horses were killed during filming, resulting in the US Congress passing new laws to protect animals used in motion pictures.
* During filming, director Michael Curtiz exclaimed "Bring on the empty horses!", meaning "riderless horses". David Niven would later use this phrase as the title of his autobiography. See also Casablanca (1942).
* The original script used the real-life siege of a British fort at Cawnpore (and subsequent massacre of its survivors) during the Sepoy Rebellion--a nationwide mutiny of Indian soldiers in the British army--as the reason for the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava during the Crimean War. However, shortly before the film was started, someone pointed out that the Sepoy Rebellion took place three years AFTER the Crimean War. The fort's name was hurriedly changed to Chukoti, and instead of mutinous Indian soldiers, the besiegers were changed to tribesmen of a fictitious warlord called Surat Khan.
* During the filming of the charge sequence, a stuntman was killed when he fell off his horse and landed on a broken sword that was lying on the field where the charge was being shot, and was unfortunately wedged in such a position that its blade was sticking straight up.
* In the famous charge scene, the man leaping up from the ground and remounting his racing horse is not Errol Flynn, but stuntman Buster Wiles.
* Anita Louise, Bela Lugosi, and Mischa Auer were tested for the roles eventually played by Olivia de Havilland, C. Henry Gordon, and J. Carrol Naish, respectively.