A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Crimean War escalates, 1854
On this day in 1854, Britain and France declared war against Russia. Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been at war since October the previous year, when conflict had broken out ostensibly about the rights of Christians in the Holy Land – being restricted by Muslim Ottomans and being protected by Orthodox Russian if you accept the Russians’ diplomatic rhetoric. In fact the war was about territory, the Turks being on the decline after centuries of dominance in the region, the Russians keen to continue their expansion west into Europe and particularly south to the Black Sea, which offered them “warm water” ports which wouldn’t freeze in the winter. As one of the major planks of the foreign policy of both Britain and France had been the containment of Russia at least since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, both countries felt compelled to join after the Russians destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Black Sea port of Sinope. With Russia now masters of the Black Sea, which led into the Mediterranean (which both Britain and France saw as “theirs”), the campaign to stop Russia focused on the Russian fortress Sevastopol, home of the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, though battles were also fought in the Caucasus, the Baltic, the Pacific, the White Sea and Greece. The war continued until early 1856 with the loss of around 350,000 lives on all sides. It was the first European war to be photographed and the first to use the telegraph, which allowed rapid communications both on the battlefield and between the theatre of war and the public back home, via the newspapers.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936, dir: Michael Curtiz)
The actual charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (a light brigade being lightly armoured troops mounted on horses – ie no cannons) was a disaster, with under-armed men being sent off in the wrong direction thanks to a communications cock-up. So instead of taking on a retreating Russian artillery regiment they found themselves heading into the line of fire of a completely different artillery battery, this one dug in and ready to let loose. The result was a rout of the British, a change in public opinion back home, a famous poem by Tennyson and the birth of the “lions led by donkeys” myth.
It’s the “lions” aspect that is played up in this swashbuckler by Michael Curtiz, who spends time hooking us in emotionally with the story of two brothers (Errol Flynn, Patric Knowles) fighting over the same girl (Olivia De Havilland) before hitting us with one of the most spectacularly staged battle scenes of the period.
“A testament to the virtuosity of the second unit” is how critic Pauline Kael described it. There’s no point looking for historical accuracy. Indeed memos from Jack Warner suggest he was more concerned with the shade of Flynn’s moustache. And it’s not even as if the film has simplified the facts to make things easier for the audience. Much of the action takes place in India, where a roguish Rajah who is secretly working for the Russians can be factored into the confusing plot. Though of course the Charge itself took place in the Crimea, which is 2,500km or so away.
Sticklers for history might counter that actually Britain was worried about Russian ambitions in her empire yadda yadda. Let them have the debate. Meanwhile, India is where Flynn, De Havilland and Knowles do their warm-ups before the big number, which is the whole point of the thing. This was the second of seven films on which Curtiz, Flynn and De Havilland would collaborate – between Captain Blood the year before and The Adventures of Robin Hood the year later. It’s the film that made Flynn a superstar.
- Because Michael Curtiz’s films always are worth watching
- One of the great Flynn-Curtiz-De Havilland movies
- An early screen credit for Hollywood composing legend Max Steiner
- That second unit work
The Charge of the Light Brigade – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014