The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Depending on when a movie was made and released has a huge impact on the tone that story will take, especially when dealing with historical fact. Compare The Green Berets to Oliver Stone's Platoon and it's hard to believe they're about the same movie. But even looking at those two movies, it's Vietnam and there is only so much you can change about the history involved. What about changing a battle completely and the subsequent result as is depicted in 1936's The Charge of the Light Brigade?

Made even more famous by a poem by Alfred Tennyson (check out that poem HERE), the actual charge of the Light Brigade is one of the most disastrous military events in British history. During the Crimean War, a miscommunication in orders leads to 600 light cavalry charging the wrong enemy position, one heavily guarded by Russian artillery, and being cut to pieces in the process. A movie version released in 1968 told that story, a cynical view of the incident that showed the "battle" for what it was...a disaster. But the 1936 version takes an interesting stance, the Light Brigade knew it was riding into certain death and still did it, and then changes the end result of the battle. Patriotic? Sure. Altering history? You bet. Does it all work? Not really.

It's 1854 and British soldier and member of the 27th Lancers Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) is returning from a mission and is going to see his fiance, Elsa (Olivia de Havilland) for the first time in many months. In his absense, Vickers isn't aware that Elsa has fallen in love with his brother, Perry (Patric Knowles). As he comes to term with this revelation, Geoffrey must also join the fight against a Suristani leader at the head of a nationwide uprising, Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) that could destroy every British outpost in India. After Khan leads an attack and massacres one of these outposts, Vickers and the entire 27th Lancers are aching for revenge and they get that chance when war breaks out and Khan sides with the Russians, hiding out with their artillery on the Balaklava Heights.

The first 60-75 minutes of the movie feels more like a French Foreign Legion movie than the background of the 27th Lancers. It works well enough but seems incredibly forced in giving the Light Brigade a motive, a reason for exacting revenge on their biggest enemy. Changing things for the sake of patriotism is a decision director Michael Curtiz made, and that doesn't work for a long list of reasons. Gordon's Khan comes across as a stereotypically evil Asian villain with no real motivation other than to kill as many British soldiers as possible. The first hour is entertaining as Vickers and his unit fights Khan, but it feels oddly out of place.

SPOILERS for the rest of the review. My biggest issue with the movie is changing the charge from a disaster where the Light Brigade is torn apart to a battle that ultimately leads to a British victory -- which it didn't -- as the brigade knowingly undertakes a suicide charge straight into cannons pointed down their throats. Making it worse, Flynn's Vickers receives orders the brigade should withdraw several miles, disregards those orders, and rewrites them so the brigade will instead attack through a mile-long valley rimmed by artillery. It pissed me off that one man would willingly send so many to their deaths, even if the Light Brigade is itching for a fight. It's changing history for the sake of changing something and it feels false right up until the very end.

All my issues aside, the attack charge is a remarkable feat in filmmaking. Hundreds of riders on horseback filled out the ranks for this epic charge, giving it an authentic depiction that no computer of CGI could do. There's something to be said for hundreds of stuntmen actually undertaking the filming of the not-so disastrous battle. Watch it HERE courtesy of a Youtube user. The scene is tainted because of the use of trip wires strung across the valley with horses running at a full gallop into those wires. Several hundred horses were killed in the process and forced the government to guarantee the safety of animals in motion pictures. It's an incredible sequence, but it is hard not to wince during the scenes.

Playing Geoffrey Vickers, Errol Flynn plays Errol Flynn as he always did. That's not a criticism because Flynn was quite a presence, a huge movie star and impeccably cool on-screen. But at the same time, it's hard to judge if he ever acted a day in his life. Queen of the 1930s de Havilland is a woman torn by two men she both loves in a part that's not as strong as most of her performances. Henry Stephenson and Nigel Bruce play stiff upper lip British officers, and David Niven, one of my favorites, has a small but good part as Randall, one of Vickers' closest friends and fellow soldier.

A film that's remembered as one of the classics of Hollywood's Golden Age, the changes to history proved to be too much for me. Making an idiotic mistake into a heroic, intentional decision did not work for me at all. Errol Flynn is very cool, as always, and the charge in the finale is something to behold, but the flaws definitely outweigh the positives.

The Charge of the Light Brigade <----trailer (1936): **/****

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