Monday, March 10, 2008

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (Warner Bros. 1936) Warner Home Video

A massive undertaking. A staggering achievement – words that accurately describe Michael Curtiz’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936); Errol Flynn’s most lavishly mounted and sumptuously produced screen spectacle. Ever the meticulous planner, Curtiz oversaw the production down to its last detail, using authentic postage stamps and actual uniforms worn by the 27th Dragoons to re-stage his epic finale.

Based on the perennial classic poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade was shot in Sonora, the High Sierras and Chatsworth at a then staggering cost of $1,200,000.00. Although the film is justly celebrated for its final ‘charge’ launched by Maj. Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) against the Russian forces in the Crimea, ironically this is the one sequence in the film that Curtiz did not direct; deferring to his second unit director – B. Reeves Eason.

Plot wise: Maj. Geoffrey Vickers is an officer and a gentleman, but with an ax to grind. He is a favorite in the India court of the Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) whose affection for the British has begun to cool since the death of his father. However, during a routine cougar hunt, Vickers saves the Khan’s life and is thereafter promised the same loyalty and protection from the Khan.

A loyal solider who has never known a stable home, Vickers is ordered by his superior, Sir Charles Macefield (Henry Stephenson) to Chakoti; a British outpost overseen by Col. Campbell (Donald Crisp). The Col.’s daughter, Elsa (Olivia DeHavilland) is Geoffrey’s fiancée, though in his considerable absence she has managed to transfer her affections to his brother, Capt. Perry (Patric Knowles) instead.

In an ill fated move, Macefield orders general maneuvers for the 27th regiment to another outpost Lohara, leaving Chakoti vulnerable to attack. The Khan makes his move, slaughtering the populace at Chakoti, including Col. Campbell – though Geoffrey and Elsa manage a harrowing escape by sea to Lohara in the nick of time. Macefield elevates Geoffrey to the status of Major and informs him that the Khan has joined forces with the Russians against the British in the Crimea.

Geoffrey is ordered to deliver a dispatch to the regiment that will have them stand down from the battle. Instead, Geoffrey changes the order to declare a full out attack. The gallant remnants of the 27th, most of whom lost their families at Chakoti, bravely ride off into a valley of certain death. Vickers leads the revolt and manages to impale the Khan with his lance before perishing.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a rollicking adventure in the best tradition. Curtiz utilizes the formidable resources of the studio to pull off a seminal work, not only in his own illustrious canon of screen achievements, but in the swashbuckling genre. Sol Polito's cinematography is gorgeous, while Max Steiner's inimitable score elevates a visually resplendent movie into a genuine work of cinema art. 

If the film has a shortcoming, it probably is the rather sloppy way Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh's screenplay awkwardly attempts to rekindle the Flynn/de Havilland romantic chemistry by trying to reunite them, before tearing them apart once again. Though why Elsa should prefer the tepid Capt. Perry to the virulent flame of desire she obviously felt for Geoffrey Vickers has baffled casual viewer and resilient fan alike for many years. But why quibble over this minor hiccup in an otherwise flawless gem of a movie. The Charge of the Light Brigade delivers.

Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits an overall impressive B&W transfer. The benefactor of considerable digital restoration (previous incarnations have looked average to down-right poor) the gray scale exhibits a smooth and satisfying tonality. A few very brief sequences continue to exhibit a soft quality and age related artifacts. Film grain is well represented. Overall, this is a very smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras include Warner Night at the Movies (minus Leonard Maltin’s intros) and a litany of vintage short subjects. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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