The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

Guts. Glory. Revenge. Honour. Two brothers in love with the same girl. A tale based on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s classic poem of the Battle of Balaklava, The Charge of the Light Brigade. Errol Flynn. What more could one ask for?
Well, much better scripting, for one. More believable settings for another, and less melodrama. Flynn, master swashbuckler, delivers as always in this film, but other than that, there wasn’t enough to make it a memorable one for me. Into the trashcan ride these six hundred.

The charge of the 27th Lancers

It’s 1854, in the barren hills of a fictitious principality called Suristan, north-west of British India. Suristan is ruled by the England-educated Surat Khan (C Henry Gordon). A British envoy called Sir Humphrey Harcourt is on his way to Suristan, escorted by a contingent of the 27th Lancers led by Captain Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) and Lieutenant Randall (David Niven).

Vickers helps escort Harcourt to Suristan

The British had signed a treaty with Surat Khan’s father and have been giving Suristan a hefty annual indemnity. Since Surat Khan has now ascended the throne, the British have decided to suspend the indemnity until they’re certain of his friendship. Harcourt’s job is to negotiate with Surat Khan and secure his allegiance to the British.

Surat Khan has a chat with Harcourt
(From the way Surat Khan’s servants speak Hindustani—no matter how accented—I guess Suristan is supposed to be more or less India, but Surat Khan’s palace decor doesn’t look very convincing):

Inside Surat Khan's palace

After a thinly-veiled threat to Harcourt, Surat Khan invites him and the officers to a leopard hunt. The next day, amidst much beating of drums, the hunters set out on elephant back—and a stray branch tugs Surat Khan off his elephant. He’s dragged along by an ankle stuck in the elephant’s harness, easy prey to a leopard that spots him (pun intended) and decides to nab a free meal. The leopard pounces, but Vickers gets in a shot and saves Surat Khan’s life. Surat Khan is suitably grateful. Going by popular cinema lore, we can safely assume that Surat Khan now feels he’s in debt to Vickers. These north-western tribesmen, you know.

Vickers saves Surat Khan's life

Having established that Surat Khan owes his life to Vickers, the action shifts to Calcutta. Here, we meet Vickers’s lovely fiancée Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland) and her father Colonel Campbell (Donald Crisp). Colonel Campbell is completely oblivious to the fact that while Geoffrey Vickers has been away shooting leopards, Elsa has fallen in love with his younger brother Perry (Patrick Knowles). Perry, though an army officer, is currently seconded on diplomatic duty at Calcutta. Now, with Geoffrey expected back in Calcutta, Perry and Elsa are getting cold feet about how to break it to big brother. Perry promises Elsa he’ll tell Geoffrey about the two of them, but doesn’t get around to it.

Perry and Elsa

In the meantime, the government’s been getting nervous about Suristan. Surat Khan has been flirting with the Russians, and if he becomes their ally, it could be dangerous for British interests in India as well as in Europe. Colonel Campbell and Co. decide to send additional forces to two forts near the border with Suristan: Chukoti and Lohara. Campbell is to go to Chukoti, which commands the pass to Suristan. Geoffrey, meanwhile, is ordered to go on a mission to buy some horses in the Middle East and deliver them. I can’t figure out the motive for this absurd mission, unless it is to get Geoffrey out of the way for a while.

Geoffrey gets his marching orders

That evening, the Governor General hosts a ball, with much dancing and suffocating full dress uniform (not a fault of the film, because a lot of the British even till pretty late into the 1900’s believed in dressing in India exactly as they did back home—and Calcutta swelters throughout the year. You can’t fault that stiff upper lip, sweaty though it must’ve been!)
Anyway, we have two gatecrashers: Surat Khan and his latest friend, the Russian Count Igor Volonoff (Robert Baratt). Campbell’s fears are confirmed.

Surat Khan arrives with Volonoff

More drama occurs that same night, but of a different sort. First, Colonel Campbell discovers Elsa’s affair with Perry and warns her to mend her ways. Then, Perry tells Geoffrey all about it, but Geoffrey refuses to believe him. His Elsa can’t be untrue.

Perry spills the beans

In fact, Geoffrey’s got his blinkers on so right and tight, he doesn’t even ask Elsa the truth when he goes to say goodbye before he leaves on his horse-buying mission. And Elsa, spineless booby, simpers sadly and lets him kiss her, without saying “No!!!” when he talks of their getting married once he’s back. She even goes as far as to pretend that Perry’s love is a one-sided affair that will die down once she’s gone off with her father to Chukoti.
These two are an irritating pair.

Geoffrey comes to say goodbye to Elsa

Geoffrey has a couple of inconsequential adventures in the Middle East, fighting local tribesmen who try to ambush the party. Back in Calcutta, he’s informed that he’s been posted to Chukoti (what luck! Elsa’s there too!). Perry has been sent off to Lohara, which is an observation post.
Geoffrey arrives at Chukoti, all fired up at the thought of meeting Elsa again—only to discover she’s gone off with that morning’s patrol to Lohara. What can this mean? Could Perry have been right?

Geoffrey smells a rat...

But Geoffrey gets no time to dwell on his teetering love life. Rumours filter through the local grapevine that Surat Khan’s planning an attack on Chukoti. Colonel Campbell, however, dismisses them and instead chooses to obey an order he’s received for the garrison at Chukoti to move to Lohara for manoeuvres. Stupidity runs in this family.
Geoffrey tries to warn him that sending the garrison off to Lohara will leave Chukoti vulnerable, but Campbell doesn’t listen.

Campbell ignores Geoffrey's advice

So Campbell, Geoffrey, Randall and a small contingent of soldiers stay back at Chukoti with Elsa, a few other Englishwomen and their children, and the families of the sepoys. All the other soldiers ride off to Lohara.
And of course, our hero is vindicated: Surat Khan’s men attack and kill off most of the defenders. With the garrison already depleted, Campbell realises he’s been wrong, and needs reinforcements from Lohara. Pronto.

Randall prepares to fetch help

Randall is given the task of sneaking out at night to Lohara, but ends up being killed by one of Surat Khan’s snipers. The next morning, Surat Khan hauls out a white flag, and invites Geoffrey—not Campbell—for parley. When Geoffrey goes to meet him, Surat Khan offers him safe passage out of the area. Geoffrey had once saved his life, so now he wants to repay the debt. When Geoffrey (honourable Englishman that he is) refuses, Surat Khan gives in and agrees to safe passage for everybody at Chukoti.

Surat Khan offers safe passage

Could this be a trap? Is Surat Khan truly honourable? When will Geoffrey realise that Elsa and Perry really love each other? When will the film (already more than ¾ over) get around to Balaklava and the Crimean War, where the charge of the light brigade actually happened?

What I liked about this film:
Errol Flynn. He doesn’t get to do much more than brandish a lance, aim a gun, shout some orders and look annoyed/put upon/heroic/doomed, but he even manages that with panache. And, of course, looks wonderful through it all.

Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade

The charge of the 27th Lancers at the Battle of Balaklava. Very impressive and well shot.

What I didn’t like:
India!! Or rather, this so-called India where a Subedar-Major, leaving his family, kisses his wife in the middle of a milling crowd:

The Subedar-Major kisses his wife

I can’t imagine anybody in 19th century India (and actually, even in 20th century India) getting away with that. The scandal would never have died down.

Or an India where the forts, instead of being on a hill, equipped with loopholes, bastions and a barbican, probably bound by a moat, look more like something out of the American West (which I suspect it was):

A very odd `Indian' fort

And while I can understand Geoffrey’s accented “Jaldi karo!” (“Hurry up!”), to have a supposedly Indian servant/soldier/etc speak a brief dialogue in oh-so-badly pronounced Hindi is painful. There are actors in this film who are almost certainly Indian (an actress with a delightful name—Princess Baigum—acts the wife of the Subedar-Major). These few Indians are the ones whose Hindi I could understand; for the rest, I tried to guess my way through what they babbled.

Considering that at the time the film was made, India was still part of the British Empire, how difficult would it have been to find Indian actors and actresses to play the Indian parts? Hindi cinema, after all, was already established and making some landmark films.

I suppose my irritation at this poorly done depiction of India led to more grouses. The way Indians are depicted is typical of the time: the good ones are the faithful sepoys, who’ll stick with the British till the bloody end. The bad ones are backstabbers like Surat Khan, viler than vile. In any case, everybody’s pretty one-dimensional: Elsa’s pretty and sweet and spineless; Perry is an irritating twerp; Colonel Campbell is a mulish and self-opinionated idiot. Geoffrey has a little more substance than the others, but not much.
Then there’s the melodrama of it all, and the irritating behaviour of the leads when it comes to their relationships, and the highly predictable end.

And, lastly:

Spoiler coming up:

I hate my heroes dying. Especially when they’re Errol Flynn.

Spoiler ends.

If The Charge of the Light Brigade had been set anywhere but India, any country I didn’t know so well, I’d probably have liked it a whole lot better. If you aren’t Indian or don’t know the country too well, this can still be an entertaining, if melodramatic, film.

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10 thoughts on “The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

  1. For some reason I’ve always thought of The Charge Of The Light Brigade (not the film or the poem, just the incident) as a comical chapter in history – probably because of the way its referred to in Shaw’s Arms And The Man. Have you read it? For some reason, the character of Sergius Saranoff – impossibly handsome, heroic-looking, tilting at windmills, but still becoming a hero, inspite of himself – has always seemed to me to be especially written with Errol Flynn in mind! So, though I love his swashbucklers, its hard to take his onscreen tragedies completely seriously. That said, I’ve never seen him die onscreen, and will look out for this one just for the novelty value!

    The strange-Hindi/Urdu/accented-Indians isnt a novel phenomenon and is on the whole, somewhat forgivable in the 1930s, when people of other cultures were never hired to play their own cultures. After all, India had white painted, yellow-wigged “Englishmen” onscreen till well into the 80s! But this phenomenon (strange Hindi accents) was really odd in The Far Pavilions where there was Parikshit Sahni, Vinod Nagpal, etc., playing Indians who spoke Hindi and English in strange accents!

  2. The British also believed that flannell underwear was the only way to stay healthy in a hot climate. There were a number of handbooks for ladies’ on what to pack when to go to India, and some of their advice regarding clothing is rather peculiar to modern eyes.

    It is always odd to hear one’s own language mangled onscreen. I have this problem with German in WW2 movies (not that I watch that many), but there the rule seems to be the close to the actual event the movie was made (and the higher the budget) the more likely that the German is comprehensible.

  3. bollyviewer: I had to study Arms and the Man in school, and you’re so right – Bluntschli’s tongue-in-cheek description of Sergius’s heroic attack is especially true of how I imagine Tennyson’s heroic six hundred to have gone! By the way, another film in which I seem to remember Errol Flynn dying onscreen is a little-known World War I film called The Dawn Patrol, also with David Niven. It’s not a swashbuckler, and in fact quite different from Flynn’s usual roles. Worth a watch; in fact, I’m trying to find it so I can watch it again.

    And yes, agree re: the way foreigners are represented in just about all cinema, actually. I’ve got Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani lined up to rewatch, and mainly what I recall from a long-ago viewing is that the Chinese wife of Dr Kotnis made us kids laugh our heads off, she was so patently non-Chinese!

    Gebruss: Flannel underwear in India? The thought makes me feel limp with distress. Oh lord, that must have been utterly uncomfortable, except perhaps in places like Ladakh – and there too not in the summer.

    harvey: Try watching The Dawn Patrol. That’s a very different Errol Flynn flick!

  4. I think I have good memories of the Dawn Patrol.

    As for the way foreigners are depicted in movies: recently watched For Whom The Bells Toll, and the Spanish!!! Except for Ingrid Bergman= Spanish??? in the title role, all the supposed Spanish had been liberally plastered with black shoe-polish: never seen a woman like that here-and its 20 years now – not even a gypsy!

  5. To be fair, this was an American film, not a British one, so how could it have helped India was part of the British empire? U.S. doesn’t = Britain, and Warner Bros. was hardly going to recruit Indian actors (and extras) from India to do a film in the American southwest when according to precedent, American audiences couldn’t have cared less who played non-white characters. Your idealism is admirable, but painfully naive.

    • Strangely enough (as I have mentioned in my post), they did recruit Indian actors and extras to do some of the roles. What irks me is not the fact that Indians didn’t play all the Indian characters, but that the depiction of India was so obviously badly researched.

      Let’s turn this around: if you saw a Bollywood film in which the American southwest was depicted, with cowboys wandering around wearing jodhpurs instead of (perhaps) jeans and chaps, and where the forts were all the medieval Indian variety – loopholes, bastions, turrets and all – and where a kiss was shown by two flowers nodding together – would you have taken it in your stride? But for most Indian audiences, that would have been pretty normal.

      It’s all very well to accuse someone else of being ‘painfully naive’ but it might be useful sometimes to really think about what they mean before you leap at their throats.

  6. Having read “The Films of Errol Flynn” and David Nivens’ “Bring On The Empty Horses” and having recently watched for the Nth time The Charge of the Light Brigade, I agree to dustedoff’s critique of the film. But the part I least like was the use of the “running W” during the filming of the charge. Many horses were killed outright or had to be destroyed due to the trip wire.

    But, I loved all the costumes! And am still amused by all the different military uniforms the Brits had in the 19th century. Those tall helmets … how awkward!

    • Yes, the costumes were impressive, weren’t they? Very showy, though not (as you point out!) possibly very practical. I somehow always get the impression that those helmets were on the brink of falling off!

      I remember reading about those horses dying too. It might seem like a minor detail, but if you know something that unsavoury about a film, it tends to put one off. I was watching a Hindi film the other day which had a small kid bawling his head off because he was being pulled one way by one adult and the other way by another adult – and all of it was obviously stressing the poor baby out completely, even if he wasn’t actually hurt. Seeing small children or animals – neither of whom have any say in the matter – being subjected to cruelty (whatever form it may take) in cinema puts me off.

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