ⓘ The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936 film)


ⓘ The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936 film)

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a 1936 American historical adventure film made by Warner Bros. It was directed by Michael Curtiz and produced by Samuel Bischoff, with Hal B. Wallis as executive producer, from a screenplay by Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh, from a story by Michael Jacoby based on the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The music score was by Max Steiner; his first for Warners and the cinematography by Sol Polito. Scenes were shot at the following California locations: Lone Pine, Sherwood Lake, Lasky Mesa, Chatsworth and Sonora. The Sierra Nevada mountains were used for the Khyber Pass scenes.

The film stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and its script is very loosely based on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade that occurred during the Crimean War 1853–56. Additionally, the storyline includes an event similar to the Siege of Cawnpore during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

This was the second of eight films in which Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland costar. A later film was made in 1968 under the same name, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and stars Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave.


1. Plot

In 1854, Major Geoffrey Vickers Errol Flynn and his brother, Captain Perry Vickers Patric Knowles, are stationed in India, with the 27th Lancers of the British Army. It is during the period of East India Company dominance over the Indian subcontinent. Perry has secretly betrayed Geoffrey by stealing the love of his fiancee Elsa Olivia de Havilland.

During an official visit to local tributary rajah, Surat Khan C. Henry Gordon, Geoffrey saves the rajahs life while hunting, for which the rajah promises eternal gratitude. Later, Maj. Vickers is stationed at the British garrison of fictional Chukoti, along with British military families, within the part the North-Western Frontier controlled by Surat Khan. A British miscalculation leads to premature withdrawal of troops to fictional Lohora, unnecessarily exposing Chukoti. Faced with an overwhelming siege, the British commander, Col. Campbell Donald Crisp, surrenders Chukoti to Surat Khan, who then massacres the inhabitants, including British families. Surat Khan allies his forces with Imperial Russia, whom the British are fighting in the Crimean War, but spares Maj. Vickers and Elsa as they flee the slaughter. This repays his debt to Geoffrey.

The love triangle and the quest for vengeance resolve at the Battle of Balaclava. Aware that Surat Khan is inspecting Russian positions opposite the 27th Lancers, Maj. Vickers secretly replaces written orders by Sir Charles Macefield Henry Stephenson to the commander of the Light Brigade, Sir Benjamin Warrenton Nigel Bruce, to withdraw from the Balaclava Heights. Vickers instead orders the famous suicidal attack so the lancers can avenge the Chukoti massacre. Before the charge, Maj. Vickers reminds troops of the Chukoti Massacre and directs their anger: "Our objective is Surit Khan!" Although the 27th Lancers lose nearly all their 600 strength, they successfully breach Russian artillery positions. There, Vickers finds and kills Surat Khan, at the cost of his own life.

Later, it emerges that Maj. Vickers wrote to Sir Charles Macefield explaining his actions, a note which he forced his brother Perry to deliver, under threat of court martial, so sparing his brother almost certain death. After receiving Maj. Vickers explanation of why the charge happened, Macefield takes responsibility and burns the note to protect Vickers good name.


2.1. Production Development

The charge had been portrayed in a British movie, The Jaws of Death, in 1930.

Warner Bros. were inspired to make the film after Lives of a Bengal Lancer 1935 had been released to great popularity, ushering in a series of British Empire adventure tales. Michel Jacoby had developed a story based on the famous charge but, although Warners bought Jacobys script, the final script was closer to Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

An original working title was The Charge of the 600.

Warners wanted an all-British cast. Errol Flynn Tasmanian, but often considered Irish had made such a strong impression in Captain Blood he was removed from supporting Fredric March in Anthony Adverse to play the lead in Charge of the Light Brigade. Ian Hunter was connected to the film early on. Anita Louise was announced as the female lead.

Patric Knowles had just joined Warner Bros. at the recommendation of Irving Asher in London, the same man who recommended Errol Flynn. He was given the crucial support part of Flynns brother. The movie gave an early important role for David Niven.

Edward G. Robinson tested for the role of the lead villain Surat Khan. Basil Rathbone was also considered before C. Henry Gordon was cast.


2.2. Production Shooting

Shooting started April 1936.

During filming on location at Lone Pine California the unit helped put out a fire which started at a restaurant across the road from where the actors were staying.

Some shooting was done in Mexico where there were fewer restrictions on hurting animals.


2.3. Production The Charge sequence

The film comes to a climax at the Battle of Balaclava, subject of Lord Tennysons poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. The lancers charge into the valley and brave the Russian cannons, and many are killed. Text from Tennysons poem is superimposed on the screen, coupled with Max Steiners musical score. Director Michael Curtiz, who did not have an excellent command of English, shouted "Bring on the empty horses", meaning "riderless horses". David Niven used this as the title of his book about the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The battlefield set was lined with tripwires to trip the cavalry horses. For the filming of the climactic charge, 125 horses were tripped; of those, 25 were killed or had to be put down afterward. Errol Flynn, an accomplished horseman, was outraged by the animal cruelty and by director Michael Curtizs seeming indifference and attacked Curtiz. They were pulled apart before any serious damage was done. The charge sequence forced the U.S. Congress to ensure the safety of animals in motion pictures; the ASPCA followed suit and banned tripwires from films. Unlike Flynns other blockbuster films, because of the number of horses killed, it was never re-released by Warner Bros. and would not be seen again until 1956, when the company sold the rights to it and other pre-1950 films to Associated Artists Productions and it subsequently premiered on television.


3. Disclaimer at the end of opening credits

"This production has its basis in history. The historical basis, however, has been fictionized for the purposes of this picture and the names of many characters, many characters themselves, the story, incidents and institutions, are fictitious. With the exception of known historical characters, whose actual names are herein used, no identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred."


4. Reception

Box Office

The film was a massive hit in Japan.

According to Warner Bros. accounts, the film was the studios most expensive and most popular film of 1936, earning $1.176.000 domestically and $1.560.000 foreign.


Filmink magazine wrote that "If you think that story sounds silly, you’d be right and it doesn’t come across any less so on screen" but thought the film was redeemed by Flynn and its action sequences.


5. Awards

Jack Sullivan won the Academy Award for Best Assistant Director for his work on the film, and the film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Sound Nathan Levinson and the Academy Award for Original Music Score.