Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Charge of the Light Brigade

1936, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

Although Michael Curtiz directed so many films - over a hundred in the Hollywood portion of his career alone - that it's perhaps hard to speak of a 'typical' Curtiz picture, The Charge of the Light Brigade lacks several of the qualities that grace his stronger films, most obviously a careful sense of pace and a consistent element of visual inventiveness.

In this case, those gaps may reflect how quickly the film was rushed into production following the success of Curtiz's previous smash hit with Errol Flynn, Captain Blood: Curtiz and Flynn were back on set, on a very ambitious scale, within three months of that film's opening night. Still, given his career output Curtiz was surely no stranger to working fast, so perhaps he simply wasn't that invested in the material, or perhaps there wasn't much he could do with the rather leaden script he inherited.

There are hints, early on, of his more familiar interests, notably in a strikingly spare Indian palace, where the giant silhouettes echo those of the courtoom scenes in Captain Blood. Such flourishes aren't sustained as the film moves along, however. More problematic is the film's pacing, with the film moving fitfully along, appearing to gather steam only to crash to a halt for yet another scene that brings together Flynn's character with either his brother or his fiancée, often to no narrative purpose (even worse are the repetitive interludes involving Nigel Bruce and his shrewish wife). Everything is, of course, building to the eponymous charge - a spectacular, visceral sequence, albeit one that's uncomfortable to watch if you've even a passing interest in equine welfare - but it's quite a slog to get there.

Even by Hollywood standards, the history here is a travesty, with the charge at Balaclava re-written as both the climax to a story of brotherly rivalry and as a form of misguided vengeance for events modelled on the Indian Mutiny (never mind that the Mutiny took place three years after Balaclava). It's unclear as to why the writers couldn't have concocted a romantic backstory that actually related to the events of the Crimean War, although the entire film is another fine example of the way that Hollywood waved the flag of British Empire throughout the 1930s; with such stalwart support in Los Angeles, it must have been quite the shock when Washington proved much less supportive of Britain's Empire as the Second World War drew to a close.

Despite the complete disregard for factual accuracy, the script manages to capture some echoes of the actual empire, particularly the imperial idea that certain Indian groups - most notably the Bengals - were dissolute and feminine, as opposed to the vigorous, manly British (the British applied similar logic in dealing with indigenous groups from Africa to New Zealand). Even more inadvertently, no doubt, several of the character actors' accents give a sense of the way in which the officer corps offered opportunities to those from the fringes of the home islands, with Irish and Scottish officers particularly prominent on the ground.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States