The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
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No one says a director and his leading man have to get along in order to make a terrific movie, but it's a lot easier if at least one of them is capable of behaving like a mature person during the shoot. Though Errol Flynn was on the cusp of major stardom when he and Michael Curtiz teamed up for Warner Bros.' horse and sand epic, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Flynn would later contend that the picture was the most miserable experience of his career...never mind that his on-set hijinks also drove his co-star, Olivia de Havilland, to distraction. Even with Flynn acting like a love-struck nine year-old, however, it's Curtiz who forever stereotyped himself as a tyrant of a director.
History students should put away their notepads while watching this one. Michel Jacoby's narrative has virtually nothing to do with the very real Crimean War story it's theoretically based upon, outside of the presence of a lot of galloping horses and falling soldiers. In fact, the British Lords who were responsible for one of the deadliest blunders in all of military history never get so much as a finger pointed at them during the movie. That would ruin the phony heroism.
Flynn and Patric Knowles play Geoffrey and Perry Vickers, sibling British soldiers who have to contend with a murderous (and purely fictional) Indian Chieftain named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon.) When Geoffrey is sent to Arabia to secure thousands of horses for the British, he meets up with his long-time fiancée, Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland.) Unfortunately, Elsa has hooked up with Perry in the interim, but still feels she should marry Geoffrey.
Later, Khan attacks and destroys Geoffrey's garrison, but Geoffrey and Elsa manage to get away unscathed. Later, in what would be viewed as a willfully idiotic move if this weren't an Errol Flynn picture, Geoffrey more or less tricks his division into a revenge attack on Khan and thousands of his followers. Still, the reckless confrontation is jolting enough to make you throw your popcorn in the air.
Curtiz would go on to direct such classic pictures as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938; also starring Flynn), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945). But he was less than loved by the people who worked for him, and Flynn openly hated his guts. Their initial falling out stemmed from Curtiz's insistence on taking the protective tips off of some swords during a big fight scene in Captain Blood (1935). He thought the performers' reactions including Flynn's - would be more realistic that way.
Flynn complains extensively about Curtiz, and The Charge of the Light Brigade in particular, in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways: "Shortly after the company arrived (at the Bishop, California location), the hotel we stayed at burned down. Afterwards we were quartered poorly, and for the whole five months period of the screen work we froze."
He goes on to say that the cast, wearing flimsy costumes, often huddled with each other to combat the bitter desert cold, and they regularly had to withstand stinging dust storms...this while Curtiz badgered the actors into action from beneath a protective layer of winter clothing. Flynn claimed a typical morning salutation from Curtiz was along the lines of, "Get your ass over here. We're behind schedule." On several occasions, the two men almost came to blows.
But Flynn himself was no saint. For whatever reasons, he thought the best way to convey his sexual attraction to de Havilland would be to pull schoolboy pranks on her. At various times during filming, de Havilland found her dressing room door nailed shut, was slapped with a rusty flyswatter, and discovered a rubber snake hidden in her pants. Flynn would also stand behind the camera and make faces at her while she played dramatic scenes, and, at one point, deemed it necessary to load her chair with a whoopee cushion.
De Havilland was able to resist Flynn's "charms." "If only he had been considerate," she once said. "If only he had known to woo and win me! He didn't need to do childish, unfair things to insure his own romantic effectiveness. He disappointed me on more than one level. I had idealistic notions of behavior and his was hardly the heroic manner he offered the world on screen."
Warner Bros. spared no expense on The Charge of the Light Brigade. Its $1,200,000 budget was enormous at the time, and Curtiz (and his second unit director, B. Reeves "Breezy" Eason) certainly made the most of it. The final, suicidal charge is truly one of the great action sequences in all of movie history, a dazzling display of camera placement, precise editing, and stunt-man fortitude. But Curtiz so abused the use of trip-wires in pulling supposedly wounded horses to the ground during the sequence, animals were regularly breaking their necks and legs. Many of them had to be shot.
Flynn, to his endless credit, was so appalled by what he was seeing he secretly contacted the ASPCA and implored them to come to the location. Curtiz's cruel methods (which, it should be noted, he didn't invent) would forever change the handling of animals on movie sets.
Perhaps the only charming thing that can be said about the Hungarian-born Curtiz is that he often humorously mangled the English language. His Charge of the Light Brigade cry of "Bring on the empty horses!" (meaning, "Bring out the horses with no riders on them") later served as the title to one of Niven's immensely entertaining memoirs.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Executive Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Associate Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Screenplay: Michel Jacoby and Rowland Leigh (based on an original story by Michel Jacoby)
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editor: George Amy
Music: Max Steiner
Art Director: John Hughes
Sound: C.A. Riggs
Special Effects: Fred Jackman and Hans F. Koenekamp
Director of Horse Action: B. Reeves Eason
Principal Cast: Errol Flynn (Maj. Geoffrey Vickers), Olivia de Havilland (Elsa Campbell), Patric Knowles (Capt. Perry Vickers), Henry Stephenson (Sir Charles Macefield), Nigel Bruce (Sir Benjamin Warrenton), Donald Crisp (Col. Campbell), David Niven (Capt. Randall), C. Henry Gordon (Surat Khan ), G.P. Huntley, Jr. (Maj. Jowett).
BW-116m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara