Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)



Director:    Michael Curtiz.

Starring:    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. James Randall), C. Henry Gordon (Surat Khan), G.P. Huntley (Maj. Jowett.), Robert Barrat (Count Igor Volonoff), Spring Byington (Lady Octavia Warrenton), E.E. Clive (Sir Humphrey Harcourt), J. Carrol Naish (Subahdar-Major Puran Singh), Walter Holbrook (Cornet Charles Barclay), Princess Baba (Prema's mother).       

Movie based on Tennyson's poem about the charge of the British light cavalry during the Crimean War.  Love triangle in India solved by British involvement in the Crimean War.


Spoiler warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"To the officers and men of the Light Brigade who died victorious in a gallant charge at Balaklava for Queen and Country, AD 1856."

India.  A convoy of British Lancers of the 27th Lancers are escorting Sir Humphrey Harcourt on an important diplomatic mission into Suristan.  In charge is Captain Geoffrey Vickers.  He stops Sir Humphrey from shooting what turns out to be a royal falcon of his Highness Surat Khan, the powerful Amir of all the Suristan tribesmen.  At the palace, a delegation from the convoy enters the huge main room.  The delegation includes Sir Humphrey, Geoffrey, Cornet James Randall, Cornet James Randall, Cornet Charles Barclay and Cornet Laurence Pearson.  The Khan knows Geoffrey as an excellent marksman.  Sir Humphrey informs Surat Khan that the money that the British were giving to his father has ceased upon his father's recent death. 

The group goes on a leopard hunt the next morning.  The beaters push the wild cats forward to the hunters on top of elephants.  Humphrey fires first, but misses.  Surat Khan kills the leopard, but the elephant becomes frightened and starts running away.  Surat Khan is bumped off the fleeing elephant's back and is dragged, but Geoffrey saves him.  Khan is very grateful to him. 

Calcutta, India 1854.  General Headquarters of the Army of India.  Elsa Campbell, daughter of Colonel Campbell, is engaged to Captain Vickers, but she has fallen in love with his brother Perry, also in the military.  Geoffrey is coming to Calcutta and Elsa is worried about how to tell Geoffrey.  Perry says that he will tell his brother.  They will see each other at the ball tonight honoring Surat Khan. 

There are two very critical forts that need to be manned in the Northwest:  Chukoti and Lohara.  The fort at Chukoti guards the Pass into Suristan, but the safety of the area especially hinges on the fort at Lohara.  Colonel Campbell is put in charge of the fort at Chukoti, while Sir Benjamin Warrenton is placed in command at Lohara.  The man over both Col. Campbell and Sir Benjamin Warrenton is Sir Charles Macefield.  Captain Vickers reports to Col. Campbell who greets the Captain warmly.  But Captain Vickers has to head to the Tartar countries to buy cavalry horses.  Geoffrey asks if they are preparing for war.  The question is avoided and Geoffrey is just told to deliver the horses at Batum on the Black Sea.  From there the horses will be shipped to the Crimea. 

Perry runs into his brother and tries to tell him about himself and Elsa, but Geoffrey is in too much of a hurry to talk.  Surat Khan is making trouble on the frontier, like Russia in the Balkans.  Cossacks are plundering outlying Turkish villages.  But there is to be no war on the Indian frontier at this time!  

Surat Khan comes to the ball in his honor with the Russian Count Igor Volonoff, which makes the British suspicious.  Colonel Campbell finds his daughter and Perry kissing and becomes really angry.  He forbids Perry to see his daughter and says:  "You deserve a good thrashing."  He warns Perry that if he disobeys, he will be recalled for gross insubordination.  Elsa pleads with dad:  "Father, I love him!"  Father replies that she loved Geoffrey when she got engaged to him.  The Colonel demands that his daughter act as if nothing has changed when Geoffrey arrives at the ball. 

Geoffrey arrives.  Mrs. Warrenton tells Geoffrey about the gleam in the eye of Perry around his fiancÚ.   Geoffrey sees Elsa and tells her that he loves her.  Perry eventually gets around to telling his brother about himself and Elsa.  Geoffrey is in a state of denial and just says that his brother is lying.  He tells Perry that he better get out out of his sight and stay out.  Perry says:  "You and the army can go to blazes." 

Geoffrey visits Elsa and she acts as if nothing has changed.  He tells her that Perry told him a story, lost his temper and now feels like kicking himself for the way he reacted.  Elsa says that Perry will soon forget. 

Geoffrey goes off on his mission.  He has to travel through Afghanistan to Persia (Iran) and then north.  They drive the horses toward Batuma.  The news of the day is that Turkey has declared war on Russia.  Tribesmen fire on Geoffrey's group from some small mountains and the British fight back.  Geoffrey distinguishes himself by knocking out the tribe's leader and dressing in the man's uniform.  He then tells the tribesmen to retreat.  For his gallantry, Sir Macefield promotes Geoffrey to Major.  Cornet Randall is also promoted, to Captain.  Geoffrey and his men are sent to Chukoti.  Perry, on the other hand, is stationed at Lohara as an official observer  -- a political man to handle diplomatic situations.

Geoffrey apologizes to Perry for his remarks.  Perry tells him that Elsa loves him and that is his only claim to her.  When Geoffrey arrives at Chukoti he is informed that Elsa left in the morning for Lohara where Perry is stationed.  She is warmly welcomed by Sir Benjamin and his wife.  When Elsa sees Perry she tells him:  "I can't forget you."  She says she will go back to Chukoti and tell her father and Geoffrey. 

Barclay and his convoy return to Chukoti.  He tells Col. Campbell that his convoy was fired upon by tribesmen at Kohat Pass.  The Colonel asks him if they fired back and Barclay says no.  Barclay tells the Colonel that the Suristanis are preparing for an attack on Chukoti, but the Colonel dismisses the very idea.  Geoffrey, however, believes Barclay and urges the Colonel to strike the first blow to crush Surat Khan.  This convinces the Colonel and he tells Geoffrey to get the men ready to move out.  Just as the men are all assembled the Colonel cancels the plans.  He has received orders from Brigade Headquarters.  Most of the garrison is to head to Lohara from there to take part in maneuvers.  Geoffrey protests saying that Chukoti will be left virtually defenseless, but the Colonel says that orders are order. 

Elsa sees Geoffrey and starts to tell him about her true feelings for Perry.  But as she starts to talk, the Suristanis attack the fort.  The troops put up a fight from the outer walls, but soon have to retreat to the main building inside the fort.  A favorite little boy of the troops, Prema, starts to climb upon the barriers blocking the window, his mother comes to retrieve him and she is wounded by a bullet.  Captain Randall is sent out on a mission to escape and go to Lohara and tell them about the dire situation at Chukoti.  But Randall is shot and killed by the Suristanis. 

A Suristani delegation approaches with a white flag.  Geoffrey goes with them to talk to Surat Khan about a truce.  Surat Khan says that they will give the survivors an escort to Lohara, but the British cannot carry their weapons with them.  This makes Geoffrey very suspicious.  Then Surat Khan says they can keep their weapons.  This just makes Geoffrey even more suspicious.  But he goes back to Colonel Campbell with Khan's offer.  The Colonel accepts the offer, despite Geoffrey's warning:  "We can't trust him."  The soldiers and the women and children start to leave the fort to get onto boats to go to the other fort.  As they start to get on the boats, the Suristanis open fire on them.  Geoffrey is wounded, but he still manages to kill the Suristani threatening Elsa.  He swims away with Elsa to the safety of the other side of the river.  The survivors of the attack are taken back into the garrison.  Geoffrey believes they will hold the survivors as hostages. 

Geoffrey and Elsa are able to climb onto a raft floating by and get to Lohara.  Major Jowett and the majority of the Chukoti troops are already at Lohara.  A force is gathered together and heads for Chukoti.  Geoffrey goes with them.  At Chukoti they find the fort abandoned.  Inside they find all the survivors dead.  Major Jowett's wife is among the dead.  Prema and his mother are also dead, which devastates Prema's soldier father.  The massacre was so bloody and so complete that the soldiers vow vengeance on Surat Khan. 

But war comes and the 27th Lancers are to be sent to the Crimea.  Preparations for the war are made in Calcutta.  The men will be going to Balaklava and then on to Sebastopol.  Geoffrey feels bad because the 27th Lancers will be denied their chance to strike back at Surat Khan, but Sir Macefield informs Geoffrey that Surat Khan is now in hiding with the Russians and the 27th Lancers will have their chance for revenge. 

Elsa comes in to speak with Geoffrey.  She says that Perry has already gone to the Crimea and she is very worried.  Geoffrey asks:  "You love him, don't you?"  She replies:  "From the first day I met him."  Geoffrey lets her off the hook saying that it is alright, it can't be helped.  He then promises Elsa that he will look after Perry and make sure he is all right.  Elsa gives Geoffrey a message for Perry:  tell him that his brother is the finest man I've ever known. 

The big British leaders meet together.  Present are Lord Raglan, General Canrobert and Lord Cardigan.  The Turkish fleet has been destroyed by the Russians at Sinop.  But storms have destroyed the Russian fleet, as well as the largest French man-of-war vessel.  They have Sebastopol under siege. 

Sir Macefield writes a letter withdrawing the Light Brigade from the immediate fighting.  He gives the dispatch to Geoffrey to deliver to the 27th Lancers.  Geoffrey knows that Volonoff commands the Russian artillery on the heights of the valley of Balaklava.  Macefield says that it would take as many as five regiments for an assault on such fortified positions.  It would be sheer suicide for the Light Brigade.  But Geoffrey wants a shot at his and his unit's revenge on Surat Khan.  What he would like to see is the Light Brigade to attack, thereby diverting attention from an Allied attack on Sebastopol.  So, instead of delivering the dispatch, with the memories of the massacre at Chukoti still fresh in his mind, he writes a different letter telling the Light Brigade to attack.  He then delivers this new dispatch.  Geoffrey will go with the charge, accompanying Sir Benjamin. 

Perry reports to his brother.  Geoffrey gives a letter he wrote to Sir Macefield to Perry to be delivered to Headquarters.  There Perry will wait for a response.  Perry protests that he will miss all the action, but Geoffrey tells him to either do it or be court-martialed.  Perry says that he would face disgrace either way, so he takes the dispatch. 

Geoffrey tells the assembled forces that Surat Khan is with the Russians:  "Show no mercy!"  A number of other units are with the 27th Lancers.  Among them are the 13th and 18th platoons and the 7th, 8th and 11th Hussars.  In all there are 600 men. 

Perry arrives with the dispatch at Headquarters.  Macefield is absolutely shocked by the letter from Geoffrey.  He gives orders for the Heavy Brigade to support the Light Brigade. 

Geoffrey helps lead the charge on the Russians.  The Russian commander says:  "They're charging!  What madness!"  Sir Benjamin is soon killed.  Despite many losses of men and horses, the cavalry breaks through the first line of batteries.  Volonoff instructs Col. Pratel to prepare to counterattack.  Geoffrey's horse goes down, but he soon jumps on another horse.  The Russian 14th cavalry starts the counterattack.  The Russian commander is killed.  Surat Khan also falls.  As Geoffrey, lancer in hand, nears the Khan, the Suristani leader wounds Geoffrey with a pistol shot.  Despite this wound, Geoffrey thrusts his lance into Surat Khan.  Other lancers also thrust their lances into Surat Khan's body.  Geoffrey nevertheless also dies on the battlefield. 

Macefield speaks with some of his fellow officers about how the 600 went to their deaths in a suicidal charge.  One of the officers remarks as he leaves that Macefield is shielding someone.  After the others have left, Macefield takes Geoffrey's letter accepting full responsibility for the attack and throws it into the fire.   He says:  "For conspicuous gallantry."


A just o.k. movie.  For a story about a famous suicidal charge set in the Crimean War, this movie version spends too much time in India.  The times spend in the Crimea is therefore relatively short.  One learns some things about the Crimean War, but not that much.  At the same time, one does not learn much about the historical situation in India either.  And the love triangle in the film leaves one dissatisfied with all three participants, because all their behaviors are a little morally shady.  And since one does not sympathize with any of the three characters, the fates of the three are not of that much concern.  Hey, what happens, happens.  Combine that with the main character hero does something really questionable toward the end and one's sympathy almost completely vanishes.  (The cavalry charge was exciting.)

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



Historical Background:


The Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854 was the second battle in the Crimean War.  After failing to enter Sevastopol from the north, the Allies decided to approach from the south, via Balaklava.  But it was the Russians who struck first in the oncoming battle at the Turkish emplacements.  The British and French cantonments were about three miles away.  Earl Lucan's Heavy and Light Brigades hurriedly mounted to cover the retreat of the Turks.

The British commander Lord Raglan wanted to stop the Russians from what he thought was an attempt by them to drag away guns from their lost redoubts on Causeway Heights. He did not want the cavalry to attack the artillery directly, but rather just to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns.  Lord Raglan's message was delivered to Lord Lucan by Captain Louis Nolan of the 15th Hussars. Confused by the message, Lucan asked Nolan for clarification.  Nolan misinterpreted the message, whether deliberately or not is unknown, and pointed directly to the Russian artillery at the far end of North Valley.  The elements involved in the coming charge were the 17th Lancers and the 13th Light Dragoons in the front ranks, the 11th Hussars and the 4th Light Dragoons behind them, and the 8th Hussars in the rear.

So a little past 11 o'clock the 673 men of the Light Brigade charged one and a half miles down the North Valley into the face of the Russian artillery.  Given the power of artillery, when a single shot could shatter a wagon and roundshot could tear through several ranks of cavalry, the advance was suicidal.

As the cavalry advanced, cannon balls tore into their ranks.  But they kept coming.  Captain Nolan was among the first to be killed.  At 100 yards they broke into a gallop, their commander Lord Cardigan at the head. Cardigan and the remnants of his first wave smashed into the ranks of the artillerymen lancing or sabering them. They then retreated to Allied lines, harried by Cossack soldiers along the way.

The entire battle lasted only 20 minutes.  Of the original 673 men, only 195 were able to answer the first muster following the battle.

Source: John Macdonald.  1984.  Great Battlefields of the World. New York: Macmillan.


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)