By Christopher Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
“The Charge of the Light Brigade,” directed by Michael Curtiz in 1936, is another romantic, Oriental adventure film, with all the normal prejudices, stereotypes, and exaggerations of the time about the Middle East that we have come to expect. What the story we remember today is about the charge. But it is not the narrative but the treatment of the horses that ultimately transformed attitudes about the use of animals in films.
The film was made to cash in on the success of “The Lives of the Bengal Lancer” and was the film that secured one its stars “super star” status. That would be Errol Flynn. Right from the end of the opening credits it declared that the filmmakers had not adhered to the facts of history. Of course, this was not unusual in Hollywood.
“This film has its basis in history. The historical basis, however, has been fictionalized for the purposes of this picture and the names of many of the characters, many characters themselves, the story, incidents and institutions, are fictitious.” Among other dramatic motivations, this also let the movie spend much time in India with the fictional Surat Khan in India, to play off the “Lives of the Bengal Lancers” films exotic locales. The charge itself actually took place during the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854, in the Crimean War.
The plot involves two brothers Major Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) and his brother, Captain Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles) in the fictional town of Chukoti in India. Perry has stolen the love of Geoffrey’s finance Elsa (Olivia de Haviland) and the competition and resulting jealousy makes a powerful subtext in the film. Surat Khan spares the two lovers, but he sides with the Russians when the British Empire cuts his allowance.
In the real charge confusion send the light cavalry into battle, which leads to a slaughter. In the film Geoffrey is motivated by his hatred of Surat Khan who has staged a massacre of British men, women, and children. Often Oriental male royals are shown as deceitful in these films. G. Vickers sacrifices his own life to kill Surat Khan at the end of the charge thus playing the gentleman to free his brother and ex-fiancé to love.
It is the charge itself that remains as the most memorable part of the film. It is the death and maiming of so many horses that created such an outcry again Director Curtiz and the film, including even star Flynn that requires examination even today. The Inyo Independent of April 4, 1936 stated the following: “Seven sequences will be filmed near Lone Pine, showing scenes in India and Arabia. One of the special sequences to be made here is a wild horse drive, representing the members of the Bengal Lancer (sic) company going into Arabia to get horses to use in the Crimean War. Many Arabs and Hindus are among members of the cast, and with their fierce make-up and large robes they form a picturesque sight ion Main Street and in the lobby of the Dow hotel, where the music room has been turned into a make-up room.”
Petrine Day Mitchum writing in her book “Hollywood Hoofbeats: Trails Blazed Across the Silver Screen” states, “Not all early filmmakers had the knowledge or desire to protect horses from the hazards of the original Running W, however. In fact, director Michael Curtiz was oblivious to the dangers in staging the action in an earlier Errol Flynn movie, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The second unit director B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason was largely responsible for the infamous charge sequence, for which adequate safety precautions simply were not taken.”
While there was one trained “falling” horse, 125 horses were rigged with old-style Running Ws, a mechanism designed by famed Stunt man Yakima Canutt. It was a device that had wires attached to the horses front legs, and a cinch and guide wires. When the horse got to the end of the wire, the legs were pulled out from under him and he somersaulted in a spectacular fall. Canutt made and improved design, which he successfully demonstrated for the American Humane Society. He claimed to have made 300 horse falls without an injury.
Experienced stunt rider Jack Montgomery was sickened by the resulting carnage from the stage move charge, He estimate that twenty-five horses were either killed in action or destroyed after filming because of broken legs. “Scores more horses and riders received serious injuries. Errol Flynn was furious and went public with his outrage. It took a star of Flynn’s magnitude to focus producers’ attention on the treatment of performing animals, but it would still be several years before the public joined his cry and Running Ws were banned,” concludes Mitchum. Viewing the charge from the film, it is easy to see the mayhem and danger even though it makes for persuasive rout.
As Film Commissioner two experiences come to mind involving the Humane Society here. Both involved commercials, one two trained bears, and one involving four camels. Things were done to protect the animals, but they wanted to make sure I didn’t photograph anything that might be misconstrued. They were ever attentive when the animals were on set. Certainly constant, responsible vigil is necessary even in today‘s more professional industry.
While the film was popular and the critical reaction within the context of historical inaccuracies was successful, the film was not rereleased as was common with Warner Brothers films. This was because of the outcry about the treatment of horses. Curtis used to call for the horses on set by saying, “Bring on the empty horses.” By this he meant the riderless horses. So famous was this remark that actor David Niven used it as the title of his Hollywood autobiography.
Next time we will look at a John Wayne rarity, “I Cover the War.” Chances are you haven’t seen this cowboy film in “different” clothes.