...what a grand piece of filmmaking it is, and as a pure adventure yarn, it's hard to beat.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Some one had blundered:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Balaklava on Oct. 25, 1854, was the site of "an indecisive military engagement of the Crimean War, best known as the inspiration of the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade.' In this battle, the Russians failed to capture Balaklava, the Black Sea supply port of the British, French, and Turkish forces in the southern Crimea; but the British lost control of their best supply road connecting Balaklava with the heights above Sevastopol, the major Russian naval centre that was under siege.

Early in the battle the Russians occupied the Fedyukhin and the Vorontsov heights, bounding a valley near Balaklava, but they were prevented from taking the town by General Sir James Scarlett's Heavy Brigade and by Sir Colin Campbell's 93rd Highlanders, who beat off two Russian cavalry advances. Lord Raglan and his British staff, based on the heights above Sevastopol, however, observed the Russians removing guns from the captured artillery posts on the Vorontsov heights and sent orders to the Light Brigade to disrupt them. The final order became confused, however, and the brigade, led by Lord Cardigan, swept down the valley between the heights rather than toward the isolated Russians on the heights. The battle ended with the loss of 40 percent of the Light Brigade."

In other words, it was one of the worst military blunders in history, and it was Tennyson's unfortunate assignment as England's poet laureate to play down the screwup and glorify the event. That he did so to such lasting acclaim is a testament to his ability as a wordsmith of prodigious spin. None of which has much to do with the 1936 motion picture of the same name, its having little to do with Tennyson and even less to do with history. But, oh, what a grand piece of filmmaking it is, and as a pure adventure yarn, it's hard to beat. Thank two people in particular for the movie's success: Star Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz.

Was there ever so dashing, so romantic, or so impossibly handsome a Hollywood star as Errol Flynn in his prime? And did any star ever burn out and leave his prime so quickly? (A bad heart and riotous living will do that.) He was twenty-seven years old when he made "The Charge of the Light Brigade"; he was on top of his game after "Captain Blood" the year before had made him one of the biggest names in filmdom. A mere dozen years later, he would make his last swashbuckling epic, "Adventures of Don Juan," the actor of thirty-nine looking fifty. By the time of his death in 1959 when he really was fifty, he appeared much older. So, it's best to remember him from the years 1935-1945, where he reigned supreme as the world's foremost gallant movie hero.

Michael Curtiz, on the other hand, had a lengthy but slightly less well-known tenure in Hollywood as one of the industry's most underrated directors. Maybe it was because he didn't always get along too well with his actors, or maybe it was because he always allowed his actors to get more credit than he did. But consider that from 1912 until just a year before his death in 1962, he made such film classics as "Mammy," "Mystery of the Wax Museum," "Captain Blood," "Anthony Adverse," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Angels With Dirty Faces," "Dodge City," "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," "Dodge City," "The Sea Hawk," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Casablanca," "Passage to Marseille," "Mildred Pierce," "Life With Father," "Young Man With a Horn," "Jim Thorpe: All American," "The Jazz Singer," "Trouble Along the Way," "The Egyptian," "White Christmas," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and "The Comancheros." And that's only to name a few!

Anyway, the story of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" involves Flynn as Captain (later Major) Geoffrey Vickers leading the 27th Lancers (otherwise known as the Light Brigade) on a suicide charge against the combined forces of the Russian army and Surat Khan, a treacherous Suristani Amir, in the Balaklava valley. According to the movie, the charge wasn't a mistake at all, but a calculated act of revenge on the part of the 27th for an earlier massacre perpetrated by Khan. It seems the 27th were more than willing to lay down their lives for vindication, and the film suggests they created enough of a diversion to help the British win the war. Well, no.... But, hey, it's Hollywood.

Vying for the viewer's attention with the action scenes is the film's love-triangle subplot. Geoffrey is engaged to marry Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland, Flynn's favorite leading lady), but Elsa is really in love with Geoffrey's brother, Captain Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles). How this plays out is a bit tiresome at times but makes for a romantic ending, which is all that really matters.

Among the supporting cast are the recognizable types: David Niven (Flynn's best friend in real life) in one of his usual suave, gallant portrayals as Captain James Randall; Nigel Bruce in one of his usual doddering, bumbling portrayals as Sir Benjamin Warrenton; Spring Byington in one of her usual flighty, chatterbox portrayals as Lady Octavia Warrenton; Donald Crisp in one of his usual flinty, hard-nosed portrayals as Elsa's father, Colonel Campbell; and C. Henry Gordon in one of his usual sinister portrayals as the villainous Surat Khan.

As a kid in the 1950s watching this film on TV a half a dozen times, I always got it confused with WB's later "Gunga Din" (1939). Both films are about British soldiers in India (where "Charge" begins) in the nineteenth century. Both films are based on famous poems. Both films star swashbuckling heroes ("Din" features Cary Grant, Doug Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen). Both films have stirring musical scores, in the case of "Charge" done up by the estimable Max Steiner (with apologies to Tchaikovsky's much-later "1812 Overture"). And both films were shot in essentially the same Southern California locations around Lone Pine, Death Valley, and the like. It's no wonder that "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (and "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer") inspired Warners to make the later "Gunga Din" to almost equal success.

"The Charge of the Light Brigade" also offers up a theme of sorts, or at least it poses a question: Should soldiers follow orders blindly or think for themselves when they know an order is blatantly wrong? Take away the necessity for soldiers to follow orders, and you take away the discipline necessary for an army to function properly. Take away a soldier's right to think for himself, and you take away his humanity. The film rather has it both ways, as you will see if you watch it.

Brushed uniforms, formal dances, flashing sabers, heroic action, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" has it all, plus a romantic angle that may have adventure fans cringing and waiting for the real action to start. But when the final charge arrives, it is well worth the wait, with overhead crane shots and tracking shots following the horses and soldiers from every angle. It is quite a spectacle, even by today's standards.

Aside: Ever notice how in old movies whenever somebody gets shot, he falls forward, usually with a flourish? Nobody ever gets knocked backwards by a bullet. Odd.

Warner Bros. present the movie in close to its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and the black-and-white print they obtained for transfer shows few signs of age, no doubt the result of some minor touching up. The image is clear and bright, with fairly good B&W contrasts for vivid viewing. As I say, the screen shows very few signs of deterioration, very few scratches, lines, or blemishes of any concern and no grain to speak of, except in the occasional outdoor location shot.

The only serious knock I could put on the otherwise fine Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound is that it's marred by a small degree of background hiss, obviously more noticeable in quieter passages at volume. And, unfortunately, you will find you have to add some considerable gain, as the playback level is relatively low. Oh, well. In compensation, the audio track gives us a well-articulated midrange, even if the track leaves the bass and dynamics limited.

Warner Bros. studios have been in business a long, long time, and they have accumulated a ton of cartoons and short subjects over the years. As a result, they are able to offer some of this older material in their DVD bonus packages, like their "Warner Night at the Movies." The idea is that they put together a program that moviegoers in the 1930s or 40s might have seen on any given night. The package here includes a theatrical trailer for "Anthony Adverse"; a vintage newsreel; the twenty-minute Technicolor short subject "Give Me Liberty"; the twenty-minute comedy short, "Shop Talk" starring Bob Hope; and the classic, seven-minute, black-and-white Looney Toons cartoon "Boom Boom."

In addition, there are thirty scene selections, but no chapter insert; a theatrical trailer for "Charge of the Light Brigade"; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles. It's a good collection of extras, actually.

Parting Thoughts:
Prospective buyers will find "The Charge of the Light Brigade" available separately or in a box set, "The Errol Flynn Signature Collection," Volume 2, which also includes "The Dawn Patrol" (1938), "Dive Bomber" (1941), "Gentleman Jim" (1942), and "Adventures of Don Juan" (1948). In either case, they will find "The Charge of the Light Brigade" a rousing action film of considerable merit.

"When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!"


Film Value