The Charge of the Light Brigade
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh inspired by the poem by Tennyson
The war film is not a favorite genre of mine, but there is no question that this is an expertly made film of some power. I don’t know if I could have watched it, however, if I had known ahead of time about the number of horses killed in filming the Charge.
This movie does not make any pretense of historical accuracy. The regiment, characters, and incidents are all fictional. The only thing that actually happened was the Charge itself, though not for the reasons or with the results claimed.
It is India, 1856. As the movie begins, officials are telling war lord Surat Kahn that the stipend the British had been paying his father will cease. Kahn nevertheless continues to entertain the party with a tiger hunt during which Major Geoffrey Vickers (Eroll Flynn) saves Kahn’s life. We learn that the Russians would be only to glad to fill the gap left by the British.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey is engaged to his Colonel’s daughter Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland). Unfortunately, Elsa has fallen in love with Geoffrey’s brother Perry (Patric Knowles) while Geoffrey was away on duty. When Perry tells Geoffrey about their love, he refuses to believe it. For one reason or another, Geoffrey is always dragged elsewhere just as Elsa tries to talk to him.
Kahn waits until most of the men at the British garrison are away at manuevers and strikes the hopelessly undermanned fortress. He offers surrender terms which the British are forced to accept and then massacres all the survivors of the initial attack except Elsa who is saved by Geoffrey. Later, Geoffrey’s regiment is sent to the Crimea because it is there that they will find Kahn and, with luck, exact vengeance. With David Niven as an officer, Donald Crisp as Elsa’s father, and just about every middle-aged British character actor in Hollywood at the time.
I liked this quite a bit. All the acting was excellent and Michael Curtiz kept the action rolling along at a good pace. The story picks up a lot when the focus shifts away from the love triangle to the fighting. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. resorted to very cruel measures to get realistic battle footage.
Dozens of horses were killed during the making of this picture due to the use of trip wires in the Charge sequence. This led to action by Congress to ensure the safety of animals in filmaking and the ASPCA to ban trip wires in its guidelines. Because of the public outcry about the scene, the film was never re-released by Warner Brothers.
After I read about this, I kept thinking about how awful it was to take an animal who had been trained to trust and obey its rider knowingly into harm’s way. So sad.