The Charge of the Light Brigade

Errol Flynn in lancer's helmet in The Charge of the Light Brigade


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



28 March


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.



Why Watch?


  • 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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Charge of the Light Brigade – at Amazon





Yankee Doodle Dandy

James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



6 January



FD Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, 1941

On this day in 1941, the president of the USA, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered what has become known as the Four Freedoms Speech. Addressing the US Congress in the annual State of the Union speech, Roosevelt outlined what he believed those four freedoms to be – Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The speech was significant for several reasons. First, it sought to extend the freedoms already guaranteed by the Constitution (speech and worship) with freedoms which more problematically lined up with a more progressive, interventionist, Democrat view of the role of government. Second, it sought to suggest that these four aspirations should be universal. Which, in the short term, gave the US the moral and philosophical justification for entering the Second World War – at some level this was the idea of the speech in the first place. Ironically, strongly disputed and resisted by conservatives at the time, who saw the Four Freedoms as an unnecessary widening of the power for the state, it was later on conservatives who would most readily reach for something similar to this doctrine as they sought to “spread freedom and democracy throughout the globe” (as Condoleeza Rice put it in 2005) in one military adventure or another. The Four Freedoms speech signals a shift in US foreign policy, from isolationist to interventionist. They were also eventually incorporated into the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.




Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, dir: Michael Curtiz)

When James Cagney made Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, most of the world knew him as the butt of a thousand “you dirty rat” impersonations, thanks to gangster roles in movies such as The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces. Imagine their surprise when this biopic of the legendary Broadway showman George M Cohan debuted, with Cagney in the lead role, apparently singing and tap-dancing like a man born to the part. Cagney had in fact been a dancer in his stage days, but had only danced once on film, in 1933’s Footlight Parade, a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. And, truth be told, he’s not really dancing here either. In fact he’s doing something that could be described as a close approximation, in the same way he’s closely approximating singing, in his portrayal of Cohan, the greasepaint legend called out of retirement in this biopic by FDR, to whom Cohan then tells his life story. The film unfolds as a gigantic sequence of flashbacks, which allows it to jump from one wisecracking, upbeat, cock-of-the-walk sequence to the next. And this is where Cagney excels, as the stage guy whose body telegraphs movements right out to the back row, as the board-treader who never whispers when he can roar. Cagney’s is a jack-in-the-box performance, and he’s the ideal lubricant between the schmaltzy flag-waving sentiment (this was wartime, remember) and the big feathers-and-flounce musical numbers which punctuate ever biographical turn. If the name Cohan is leaving you none the wiser, he’s the guy who wrote Give My Regards to Broadway, Over There and Yankee Doodle Boy. And if that still leaves you nonplussed, just watch the film and enjoy the sight of a dirty rat singing and dancing his way to an Oscar.



Why Watch?


  • See Cagney in a role turned down by Fred Astaire
  • Cagney’s only Oscar
  • Cinematography by James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success)
  • Casablanca director Michael Curtiz at the helm, its writers, the Epstein brothers, also contributing


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Yankee Doodle Dandy – at Amazon








Exhortations to go and see this timeless film are usually based on its treasure chest of quotable lines. “Round up the usual suspects”, “We’ll always have Paris”, “Play it, Sam”, “Here’s looking at you, kid” and so on. But there’s more to it than that. It’s the one where the guy doesn’t get the gal, discovers his soul and wanders off into the gloom with a Nazi-sympathising police chief who may have just had a similar epiphany. Modern Hollywood films often generate a similar tension – can Spider-Man nobly save a cable-car of terrified schoolkids about to hurtle to their death or will he selfishly save his girlfriend instead? And modern Hollywood films generally engineer it so the hero manages both. That’s cheating – and in 1942 director Michael Curtiz and writers Julius and Philip Epstein knew it was. In Casablanca drunken, cynical Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man broken on the wheel of love, rejects his only chance of happiness (Ingrid Bergman) to help defeat the Nazis. He chooses, he loses. But on a higher, much higher level, he wins. Perhaps Hollywood should take note – 65 years after it was made Casablanca is still, according to numerous polls, more popular than Star Wars, Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas.

© Steve Morrissey 2007


Casablanca – at Amazon



The Adventures of Robin Hood



“Only the rainbow can duplicate its brilliance” ran the tagline to the swashbuckler from 1938 which took a young Tasmanian and gave him a movie role that would define him for ever. Errol Flynn may have become a fat roué in later life but here, as Robin Hood, he is every inch the handsome, athletic, cocky, light-hearted and brave hero. The film too is full of that brio, telling a story of good v bad, true love v convenience, rich v poor, idealism v cynicism. That “brilliance”, by the way, comes from the costly and technically demanding Technicolor three-strip process, which produces colours more saturated than any subsequent process has managed. Everything – from the dresses of Maid Marian (Olivia De Havilland) and the lush tapestries of Nottingham Castle to the Lincoln Green of Sherwood Forest (California, actually), even Friar Tuck’s brown habit – glistens like nothing on earth, especially in the almost magically restored print that’s now available (that’s a screengrab from the Blu-ray, above). And complementing that brilliance are baddies of pantomime blackness, Claude Rains as the pitiable Prince John, and Basil Rathbone as the despicable Sir Guy of Guisborne. Flynn would later come to regret the string of adventures he’d make with Hood director Michael Curtiz, wishing he’d instead made films that had left an artistic legacy. Sorry, Errol, you’re just going to have to settle for immortality instead.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


The Adventures of Robin Hood – at Amazon