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The Charge of the Light Brigade

A Warner Brothers film of 1936

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Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict


There have been two major motion pictures entitled The Charge of the Light Brigade, the first made in 1936 by the Warner Brothers Studio, the second a British movie of 1968. This topic discusses the former; the latter is examined here.

Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict


Surat Khan, a native ruler on the north-west frontier of India, disaffected with the British, throws in his lot with the Russians. He massacres the inhabitants of a garrison fort while the regiment, the 27th Lancers, is on manœuvres, and flees to Russia. The Lancers, vowing vengeance, are posted to the Crimea, where their commanding officer, Major Vickers, knowing that Khan is with the Russian artillery, forges an order to the Light Brigade, causing them to attack the Russian battery. Khan shoots Vickers, who transfixes him with a lance. They both die.

Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict

Warner Brothers

In 1936 Warner Brothers was one of the big three studios in Hollywood, along with MGM and Paramount. They had produced the first commercial talking picture, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. In 1933 they had revived the film musical, which had been in recession since 1930, by releasing three “New Deal” musicals (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade), and they had a virtual monopoly on gangster and crime pictures, with George Raft, Edward G Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart all under contract to them. MGM was richer and more conservative, and Paramount was more light-hearted, adept at saucy “European” trifles, but Warners was confident and innovative.

The brothers were Harry (president), Albert (treasurer), both based in New York, and Jack (vice-president in charge of production), based at the former First National studios in Burbank. (A fourth brother, Sam, who had contributed much to the early development of the company, died in 1927.) Darryl F Zanuck was Jack's executive producer and right-hand man until he left in 1933 to form his own company (later to merge with Fox to become Twentieth Century Fox). He was replaced by Hal B Wallis, under whom each movie was assigned one or more supervisors or associate producers. While the supervisors were theoretically responsible for all production arrangements (casting and other staffing, costumes, locations, sets, props, etc, and above all bringing the film in on time and within budget), in practice in those days the studio heads kept a very close eye on all aspects of production, and would usually view the day's rushes (unedited film) every night, swiftly making their views known to the supervising producer or even directly to the director if they did not like what they saw.

In 1935 Warners filmed the Rafael Sabatini novel, Captain Blood, with Michael Curtiz directing. Olivia de Havilland was cast as the heroine, because they could not persuade William Randolph Hearst to release Marion Davies for the part. The hero was a little more difficult to cast. They wanted Robert Donat, but he backed out for personal reasons. They considered Leslie Howard, Fredric March, Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, and Brian Aherne. Wallis ordered screen tests for George Brent and an actor named Errol Flynn whom they had recently imported from England and who so far had been cast in only two minor roles. The tests were not conclusive, and Wallis tested Ian Hunter. Flynn was finally cast in the role after being re-tested. The film was a great success, nominated for a “best picture” Oscar, and Flynn became synonymous with action swash-buckler movies. The following year, Curtiz, Flynn, and de Havilland were all used again for The Charge.

In all, Curtiz and Flynn made 12 films together in 6 years, de Havilland appearing in 8 of them. In 1941 Flynn and de Havilland co-starred in They Died With Their Boots On, the story of General Custer, the 7th Cavalry, and the battle of Little Big Horn. Curtiz was to have directed this movie, but by now there had developed an antagonism between him and Flynn which led Warners to assign Raoul Walsh instead. Second unit director B Reeves Eason, who had directed the charge scene in The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed the climactic battle in the Custer movie also. There are obvious similarities between the two movies, in that both deal with an historical military disaster which popular mythology insists on interpreting as some sort of heroic triumph. Just as the earlier movie had invented a totally fictitious motive for the charge, so the later movie had Custer hunting down a renegade officer who was running guns to the Indians. On balance, The Charge paid more reverence to British history than Boots did to American.

Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict

The story

Hardly a historical epic of the 1930s but started off with a written prologue which might have taxed the comprehension of some of today's filmgoers.
(George MacDonald Fraser, The Hollywood History of the World)

This movie is no exception. Indeed, it starts with a dedication, a prologue, and an introduction, and throughout its length (nearly two hours) is apt to resort to enlightening text.It opens with:-

To the officers and men of the Light Brigade
who died victorious in a gallant charge at Balaklava
for Queen and Co untry
AD 1856

(Background music is Rule Britannia)

The world is indebted to Alfred Lord Tennyson,
Poet Laureate to Her Majesty Queen Victoria of Great Britain,
for perpetuating in an epic poem
one of the most distinguished events
in history conspicuous for sheer valor . . .


The opening credits then roll, which include:

We gratefully acknowledge the technical advice of
Captain E Rochfort-John
formerly of the Royal Engineers

following which we have . . .

This production has its basis in history. The historical basis, however, has been fictionized for the purposes of this picture, and the names of many characters, many characters themselves, the story, incidents, and institutions, are fictitious. With the exception of known historical characters, whose actual names are herein used, no identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

The action opens with a convoy of the 27th Lancers escorting Sir Humphrey Harcourt on a diplomatic mission to . . .

The mountain palace of His Highness Surat Khan,
the powerful Amir of all the Suristani tribesmen.

At the court of the Amir, Sir Humphrey is accompanied by four of the officers of the 27th, Captain Geoffrey Vickers and Cornets James Randall, Charles Barclay, and Lawrence Pearson, who have changed out of their very smart tropical riding uniforms into even more impressive dress uniforms. Sir Humphrey breaks the unpleasant news to the Amir that the British are withdrawing their subsidy of £150,000 per annum, which had been paid under a treaty personal to his foster father. The Amir appears to take this well, although we can tell that this is merely his eastern guile. “Let us dispense with the formalities,” he murmurs, and at a clap of his hands, dancing girls appear. But, alas, not to us, who have to make do with their shadows upon the wall. (In 1936 Will H Hays was President of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, and his alter-ego, Joseph I Breen, was Director of its Production Code Administration. They probably felt pretty darn liberal to let us see those shadows.)

The following day, Khan takes his guests on a leopard hunt mounted upon elephants. They flush a pair of leopards. Surat Khan shoots one of them, and then, falling from his elephant in an accident, lies at the mercy of the other, which Vickers drops with a single shot. Khan expresses himself to be in Vickers' debt.

Calcutta, 1854. General Headquarters of the Army of India.

We are introduced to Vickers' fiancee, Elsa, and his brother, Perry, who declare their love for each other and vow to do the decent thing and tell Geoffrey as soon as he returns. We meet also Sir Henry Macefield, the commanding officer, and two other senior officers, Colonel Campbell (Elsa's father) and Sir Benjamin Warrenton. Macefield gives them their postings: Campbell is to be sent to Chukoti and Warrenton to Lohara. We see a map which shows that Lohara is the apex of a triangle with Chukoti and Delhi as the west and east base corners respectively. Macefield explains to them that the situation on the frontier requires two strong men in those places. Lohara is the base for the three advanced garrisons, of which Chukoti is the most important. “I've had to transfer Woodward because I'm afraid he's too well on in years for an active command. You see, with Surat Khan just across the border . . . ” They discuss the international situation. “Surat Khan is doing exactly what the Tsar is doing in the Balkans. You have read the despatches about Cossacks plundering outlying Turkish villages. . .” Macefield tells Campbell to act only on Warrenton's instructions.

When Geoffrey Vickers arrives, he is despatched on a mission to buy Tartar cavalry horses and herd them to Batum on the Black Sea, whence the British fleet will ship them to the Crimea. “Are we preparing for war?” he asks, indicating that the Crimean War has not yet started.

Before they all depart, the Governor-General (Dalhousie) holds a ball to entertain Surat Khan, who turns up accompanied by a Count Igor Volonoff, and drops heavy hints that if the British do not restore his allowance, he will throw in his lot with the Russians. He tells Macefield that a powerful nation is like a beautiful woman; she may spurn a suitor one moment, but when she sees him with another woman she may change her mind and take him back. Macefield rejects this suggestion — “The only great government I am acquainted with is singularly masculine. It makes up its mind and once having reached a decision adheres to it.” (What Victoria, Queen of the Motherland, Britannia, and destined to be Empress of India, would have made of this male chauvinism we can but guess.) Campbell sees his daughter kissing Perry, and orders them to see each other no more, reminding Perry that, though he is with “the political service,” he is still an army officer and therefore subject to orders.

[running time (TV) so far approx. 34mins]

The action shifts to Persia, by way of shots of the horses' legs superimposed on a map. The camera tracks from Calcutta, across the sub-continent and Afghanistan, to the northern shore of the Persian Gulf, where the 27th are riding herd on a great number of horses. There is some dialogue between the officers.
“Why are these northern tribes so hostile?”
“Since Turkey has declared war on Russia all these fellows know that England and France are bound to come in on the side of Turkey.”
“These tribesmen are going to sympathise with Russia.”
“Since we want horses we've got to pay their price.”
Their horses' legs trek further across the map, through Mesopotamia to the shores of the Caspian Sea. They are ambushed by tribesmen, and a sharp exchange of fire takes place, in which both sides appear to be using breech-loading rifles. The tribesmen are duped into withdrawing by Vickers dressing up as one of them and telling them that British reinforcements are coming, although in truth it is only a few of his own men dragging bushes behind their horses to raise the dust. (Nobody says, “It's an old trick, but it might just work,” but we can see them thinking it.) They march across the map southwards to Batum.

They return to Army HQ (having presumably successfully shipped the horses), where Vickers and Randall are promoted to Major and Captain respectively. The 27th are posted to Chukoti and Perry to Lohara. Macefield makes it plain to Perry that he is deliberately posting him where he will not be able to see Elsa. “The Vickers are an old army family. I knew your father at Sandhurst, Perry.” Perry confesses his love for Elsa to Geoffrey, who refuses to believe that it is reciprocated, and the brothers part on bad terms.

Chukoti —
a military outpost on the frontier
guarding the pass into Suristan.

The 27th arrive at a large fort which looks like “Fort Zindernuf meets Fort Apache.” The Union Flag is flying bravely upside down. Vickers is greeted by a cute little Indian lad, Prema, son of Subahdar-Major Singh. Vickers reports to Campbell, “Reporting our return from Calcutta . . . one man wounded . . . fired on several times . . . did not return fire . . . ” “Good — Sir Benjamin's orders are to maintain peace. . . When you've been soldiering as long as I have, you'll understand it's best to follow instructions regardless.” Elsa is not there to meet Geoffrey — she has gone to see Perry at Lohara, where Lady Warrenton is embroidering a sampler which says “Lohara, India, 1853.”

Cornet Barclay arrives at Chukoti from Lohara and reports that his convoy has been fired on by Suristanis in the Kohat Pass. One of his men was killed, Lancer Wentworth. (He does not explain what he was doing in the pass, 200 miles to the west of the obvious route between Lohara and Chukoti.) Barclay also reports that according to a Hindu merchant they met, the Suristanis are preparing to attack Chukoti. Campbell is incredulous. “An attack? Come, come, now Barclay, the Khan wouldn't dare. You must be mistaken.” While the 27th are preparing to sally out to teach the Suristanis a lesson for the attack on the convoy, orders arrive from HQ that Major Jowett is to take the 27th to Lohara on manœuvres. Vickers protests in vain that this will leave Chukoti undefended. There is a stirring parade ground scene as the 27th prepare to depart. On the order “Threes right!” the regiment wheels from line to column and rides out.

[running time (TV) so far approx. 59mins]

Vickers' apprehensions are well-founded. Surat Khan's men attack the fort in great numbers. Despite being armed with breech-loading rifles, the defenders are soon driven off the walls and into the barracks, where the women and children are already sheltering.. The heat is fierce and water supplies are low. To make matters worse, the men's firearms are now muzzle-loaders. “Someone's got to get through to Lohara!”

Randall slips out at night and attempts to escape by boat on the river — Campbell has told him, “The current will carry you down to Lohara” — but he is seen and shot dead. The next day, under a flag of truce, Surat Khan offers a deal to Vickers — a safe escort to Lohara for all the garrison. But as the women and children are being shepherded onto the boats, Khan's men open fire on them. Vickers is shot in the arm, but Surat Khan allows him to escape by river with Elsa, repaying his debt. The other survivors are herded back into the barracks as Khan's prisoners.

[running time (TV) so far approx. 1 hr. 18mins]

Vickers and Elsa safely reach Lohara, where the Union Flag is flying upside down, and a relief column is despatched to Chukoti. In a fine scene we see the lances vanishing one by one from the rack as the regiment snatch them on their way to muster. On arrival at Chukoti, the fort seems deserted. Skirmishers are sent forward and meet no resistance. When the column enters the fort, they find the women and children dead in the ammunition house, and Campbell and his men dead under the walls.

[running time (TV) so far approx. 1 hr. 23mins]

The massacre at Chukoti was seared into the minds of the 27th Lancers . . . a livid scar never to heal. International events, however, were soon to overshadow it in the world at large; for the hounds of War had been unleashed and England was pouring troops into the Crimea to oppose the Russian hordes. The wave of War preparations swept into Calcutta.

In a busy scene at headquarters, we see that the war preparations include rolling up maps of India, and shipping them off in boxes marked “Army Headquarters of the Crimea.” Perry has already left for the Crimea with his regiment. Geoffrey learns that Surat Khan is with the Russians at Sebastopol, and is delighted to be ordered to take the 27th to the Crimea. As he takes farewell of Elsa, he realises that she truly loves his brother. “Don't worry about Perry. He'll be all right. I'll see that he is.” “Will you give him a message from me?” she asks. “Tell him that I think his brother is the finest man I've ever known.”

[running time (TV) so far approx. 1 hr. 27mins]

BALAKLAVA. Allied Headquarters, Army of the Crimea,
and the new post of the 27th Lancers.

Warrenton is explaining the position to his officers: “Now, gentlemen, these batteries have defied us for two and a half months. We've lost hundreds of men, apart from those who've died of the cold and sickness.” We are privy to a remarkable War Council. Present are Lord Raglan, General Canrobert, Lord Cardigan, Omar Pasha, Sir Charles Macefield, and four other unidentified officers.

Canrobert: “We must attack Sebastopol.”

Raglan: “General Canrobert's anxiety is perhaps prompted by the fact that our supplies are running low.”

Canrobert: “Lord Raglan understands perfectly. Can't you see, Lord Cardigan, that the Baltic fleet is useless and the Turkish fleet, I regret to say” (glances apologetically towards the Turk) “has been destroyed by the Russians at Sinope. The recent storm has wrecked not only the Russian fleet, but the largest of the French men of war.”

Cardigan: “You underestimate our resources, General. See for yourself: we have Sebastopol under siege, and our forces have the Russians at bay, so to speak. Besides, so far no real opportunity to attack Sebastopol has presented itself.”

At this point we see Geoffrey Vickers apparently performing adjutant duties in the outer office. When we return to the conference, Raglan is saying, “My plan to withdraw the Light Brigade is perfectly clear to all of you gentlemen? Be good enough to issue the orders, Sir Charles. I think that is all we have to discuss.”

Macefield goes to Geoffrey and dictates a despatch to him:

“General Headquarters, Army of the Crimea,
From His Excellency Field Marshal the Earl of Raglan KCB, commanding,
to Major-General Sir Benjamin Warrenton KGB.
No. 1174.
On receipt of this order you will withdraw the Light Brigade to a point 3km south-west of its present position. By Order.”

Vickers protests. “But Volonoff commands the Russian artillery position on the heights above the valley of Balaklava!” Macefield is adamant. “I want you to deliver this order personally to the commander of the Light Brigade.”

When Macefield has gone, after some soul searching Vickers rewrites the order to read:

Upon receipt of this order you will advance the Light Brigade and take enemy position on Balaklava Heights. By Order. Sir Charles Macefield.

Vickers delivers the order to Warrenton at the Light Brigade camp. Warrenton reads it aloud:

“Upon receipt of this order the Light Brigade will advance and take enemy position on Balaklava Heights.”

Vickers summons Perry and hands him an urgent despatch to take to Macefield at the Balaklava GHQ. Perry protests that this is a ruse to keep him out of the action, but Geoffrey exercises his rank to compel him to go.

As the 27th form up, Geoffrey stands before an upside down Union Flag and addresses them. “Our objective is Surat Khan. Forward!” Other regiments are also moving into position. “13th Dragoons, threes left!” “Dragoon Guards, Forward! Walk! March!”

[running time (TV) so far approx. 1 hr. 38mins]

Perry delivers Geoffrey's despatch to GHQ. Macefield is appalled by what he reads. “They will all be destroyed! I shall issue orders at once for the Chasseurs d'Afrique and the Heavy Brigade to support them!”

We see the Light Brigade forming up, the words of Tennyson's poem superimposed on the scene. Colours are unfurled (including a Union Flag the right way up), and orders are barked: “27th Lancers, Forward!” “13th Dragoons, Forward!” and so on for three other regiments, the names of which unfortunately are hard to hear, but which include two “Guards” and one “Dragoons.” The brigade starts to move.

The brigade advances steadily up the valley, in a broad line, gradually increasing pace. We see the activity at the Russian batteries as guns are hastily loaded and trained. Surat Khan and Count Volonoff watch in amazement from the head of the valley (the former through a small telescope), and we see the advancing lines from their point of view as well as from the Russian positions on the cavalry's left . The camera cuts continuously from British to Russian, from close-up to long shot. The background music keeps pace with the increasing speed and excitement. At last the final order: “Charge!” Lances are lowered, and the brigade, with Warrenton and Vickers in the lead, break into a full charge as the cannon open fire.

Horses and men fall. Smoke drifts across the guns. Warrenton falls. In long shot we see that the cavalry are no longer in lines, but are scattered in an ever thinning disarray. In a view from Khan's position, we see the smoke from the flanking cannons that are also taking their toll. A British standard-bearer falls, and raises his upside-down Union Flag for a passing trooper to take from his hand and proudly raise aloft, now miraculously the right way up.

Vickers rallies his men with a cry of “Onwards!” Surat Khan exclaims, “Why, they have broken through the first line of batteries! It is unbelievable!” Vickers' mount stumbles, and he is unseated. Swiftly he catches and mounts a loose horse, snatching up a lance at the same time. Volonoff is worried, and sends orders for the Russian 14th cavalry to attack. We see the Russian cavalry leaving their camp, and attempting to engage the enemy to snatches of the 1812 overture, but by now the leading Lancers are through the guns and engaged in hand to hand combat with the gunners. Some of the Russians fall victim to their own barrage, including Volonoff. Surat Khan attempts to flee, but stumbles. Vickers catches up with him. Khan shoots Vickers with a pistol at point blank range. Before he falls, Vickers launches his lance at Khan. It transfixes him, and the remaining men of the 27th spear him with their lances also. Vickers, smiling, watches Khan die, before expiring himself.

[running time (TV) so far approx. 1 hr. 48mins]

Back at GHQ, the senior staff are discussing the action. “It was a magnificent blunder. That one insane clash turned the tide in our favour!” They all assure Macefield that they will testify that he never gave the order to charge, but Macefield insists that the order was his. Alone, he re-reads the despatch that Perry had brought from Geoffrey, and we can read it over his shoulder:

On my own initiative I have issued an order to the 4th Division to attack Balaklava Heights. This will afford you the opportunity to fall on Sebastopol. I realize I am guilty of a criminal breach of discipline but Surat Khan is before us and I am riding with the Twenty Seventh.
Geoffrey Vickers.

Macefield throws the letter onto the fire. As we watch it burn, we hear him utter, “For conspicuous gallantry.”

The final credits roll against a background drawing of a Russian gunner defending his gun against a British cavalryman.

[total running time (TV) approx. 1 hr. 50mins]

Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict

What the critics said

C A Lejeune:
When the noble six hundred, lances level and stirrups touching, pace, canter, and, finally, charge down the mile-long valley, with the enemy guns tearing great holes in their ranks, you are a dead stock if your pulses don't thunder and your heart quicken perceptibly. This scene may be villainous history, but it is magnificent cinema, timed, shot, and cut with brilliance. It only cramps the patriotic effect a trifle that the Union Jack, nine times out of ten in the picture, is shown resolutely flying upside down.

Leslie Halliwell:
Though allegedly “based on the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson,” this is no more than a travesty of history, most of it taking place in India. As pure entertainment however it is a most superior slice of Hollywood hokum and the film which set the seal on Errol Flynn's superstardom.

Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict

Inside Warner Brothers

On 8 January 1936, in preparation for the upcoming production of The Charge of the Light Brigade, Hal Wallis invited Sam Bischoff to a private screening of Paramount's 1935 film, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

On 13 February Wallis wrote to Bischoff of his concern over historical inaccuracies, particularly the total disregard for historical facts on the battle of Balaclava, and the motivation for the Light Brigade charge. Warners' London office had been warning the studio of the risk of a bad reaction in England. Wallis wanted the picture to be made as historically accurate as possible, or at least for the Crimean action to be surrounded by historically correct incidents and details.

On 10 March Jack Warner wrote to Wallis complaining that Michael Curtiz was asking to change the location for the construction of the fort, and told him to stand firm. He approved of the test of Errol Flynn “with his mustache darkened” and with “the helmet with the sash on.” He concluded “I am sure the mustache is the thing for this picture.”

On 28 March Rowland Leigh, one of the screenwriters, wrote a tactful letter to Wallis about the casting. He was particularly concerned that Anita Louise should not be cast as Elsa because she was too American, recommending Olivia de Havilland instead, that David Niven should get the role of Randall, which had been written with him in mind, and that Curtiz should not cast unaided because of the danger that he would select actors with cockney accents to play British army officers.

On 27 March Jack Warner had already cabled Wallis that Olivia de Havilland should be cast as Elsa, because the publicity was going to exploit her previous pairing with Flynn in Captain Blood.

On 17 April Wallis wrote an angry memo to Curtiz about the way he was shooting the film, reminding him that he had pleaded to be given the assignment and had promised to give no trouble.

In an article in Fortune magazine in December 1937, Sam Bischoff was described as a typical Warners producer, hard-working and with good budget control. The article claimed that he had made The Charge of the Light Brigade with no original story cost at all, making the whole thing up (with the help of some writers) to fit a ready-made climax that he remembered as “Theirs was not to ask, theirs but to do and die.”

(All items above based on Inside Warner Brothers by Rudy Behlmer, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.)

The movie cost $1.2m to make, or about twice the average cost of a Warners first feature at that time. During the Depression, Warners had cut back on the running time and budgets of their feature films to B movie levels. The Charge of the Light Brigade marked a change in policy under which selected feature films would be treated as prestige productions. It also exemplified a motif not uncommon in Warners movies at that time. In a number of them

“conflicts between high-spirited individualism and service to one's country were ironed out in military settings.”
(Nick Roddick, A New Deal in Entertainment, as quoted by Joel W Findler in The Hollywood Story, Octopus Books, 1988)

Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict


The film is intended to be historical fiction, not dramatised documentary. As documentary, fictitious elements would count against it. As fiction, factual elements add authenticity.

The persons, institutions, places, and events depicted in the movie are pitched at three different levels:

  1. The utterly factual, in which historical names are used, and which therefore are presented as true, or nearly so. These form but a small part of the picture.
  2. The plausibly authentic, in which fictitious names are used, but suggesting that things could have happened this way, even if they did not. (Actual, not factual, as Mort Sahl was wont to say.) These form by far the largest part of the film.
  3. The totally fictitious, mainly concerning the three-cornered love story of Elsa and the Vickers brothers, and occupying very little screen time.

Category 1: “History”

The only historical persons depicted under their real names are Raglan, Canrobert, and Cardigan. (Omar Pasha is named in the script but not referred to by name in the film.) We see them only in the War Council scene, in which, for the benefit of the audience, they tell each other things they already know. This scene was evidently included because Wallis wanted to surround the fictitious aspects of the charge with some authentic detail to appease the British. Ironically, it is one of the least convincing scenes of the whole film. There is mention of the naval battle of Sinope, of the uselessness of the Baltic fleet (why that should concern the Crimean army eludes me), and of the great storm, which did not occur in fact until November 1854.

This last anachronism is part of the one big deliberate distortion of history which is central to the movie's message, namely that the Light Brigade charge brought about an Allied victory. To this end Cardigan tells Canrobert that so far there has been no opportunity to attack Sebastopol. After the charge, we are told that it created the necessary diversion for an assault, and are left to infer from this that there followed a swift victory. Clearly, the true chronology would give the lie to this interpretation. Hence the date of 1856 on the dedication at the start of the film and the postponement of the charge until after the great storm and the supply difficulties of the winter.

At the War Council, Lord Raglan not only has a plan, but he explains it to those present, and then makes sure that everyone understands it before they leave. His plan involves withdrawing the Light Brigade “to a point 3km south-west of its present position.” Apart from the uncharacteristic use of metric distance (which is not even an Americanism), the Raglan of history is notorious for preferring to have no plan, and such orders as he did issue were more likely to call for movement “to the left” or “forward,” adding that little frisson of uncertainty as to which direction the recipient might be facing when the order arrived . . .

There is no suggestion in the movie of Cardigan being the commander of the Light Brigade — that role is transferred to the fictitious Warrenton. This allows Warrenton to fall in the charge, leaving our hero as the leader. The writers faced an awful dilemma here — they could neither leave Cardigan out nor let him lead the charge. The result is a curiously muted Cardigan serving as an officer on Raglan's Staff. (In the script he is referred to as 'Sir William Cardigan,' but thankfully this did not transfer onto the screen.)

Calcutta is correctly identified as the British seat of government in India at that time, and the Governor-General of India is correctly named as Dalhousie. At the Calcutta ball, we hear the arrivals being announced and see them (in long shot) being received by a couple who are presumably the Governor General and his lady, although such characters are not listed in the credits. Dalhousie was the first Baron Panmure, whose cousin, the second Baron Panmure, succeeded the Duke of Newcastle as Secretary of War.

The Kohat Pass, where Barclay's column was attacked, was and is a notorious trouble spot. In 1850 the local Afridi tribe reneged on a deal to protect travellers in return for a subsidy, and Sir Colin Campbell led an expedition to clear them from the pass. (McMurdo of the Crimean Transport Corps won his spurs on that campaign.) In 1853 another expedition was mounted against the Jowaki Afridis who had taken over the 'contract.' In 1855 yet another expedition was necessary against the Aka Khel Afridis who wanted a piece of the action. The region was never fully stabilised.

It seems unlikely that Colonel Campbell in the movie is intended to be Sir Colin Campbell, although there is some physical resemblance, and the latter did have distinguished service in India immediately before and after his Crimean service. Colonel Campbell's first name is never used in the movie. We know only that he is a widower, and a devout man who dies reading to his men from a prayer-book.

The only historical places used in the film are Calcutta and Balaclava, although there are references also to Delhi, Batum, and the Kohat pass.

Category 2: Historical allusions.

Fictional elementsReminding one of
27th Lancers17th Lancers
Geoffrey VickersNolan
James Randall?
Sir Humphrey Harcourt?
ChukotiMultan? / Cawnpore / Lucknow
Surat KhanNana Sahib?
Withdrawal of Khan's subsidy?
Count Igor Volonoff?
Massacre of ChukotiSiege of Cawnpore
Ambush in PersiaPersian war (1856-57)

(My knowledge of Indian history is slight; if you can shed light on any of the many questions left open here, please let me know.)

The Twenty Seventh Lancers.
In the Crimea, this regiment is clearly playing the part of the real 17th Lancers, in the centre of the front line of the charge. But the 17th was not in India before the Crimean War. In fact, only two cavalry regiments moved from India to the Crimea — the 10th Hussars and the 12th Lancers, which were moved to reinforce the cavalry in the Crimea after the charge. Was there any other regiment whose postings, experiences, or uniforms are suggested by the 27th's?
Geoffrey Vickers.
This character is almost certainly intended to be entirely fictitious, although there is a slight hint of Captain Nolan in the Indian service, the purchasing of horses, the misrepresentation of the crucial order, and the fact that he seems at that point to be acting as adc to Macefield, whose function at Balaclava suggests General Airey. Nolan was not an officer of the 17th Lancers, though he did ride with them at the charge, and he died at the very beginning of the advance, with a scream, not at the end, with a smile, as Vickers did. Vickers' demeanour, too, is very different to Nolan's — Vickers would not dream of being insubordinate to a superior officer.
Perry Vickers
Perry is a regimental officer (we are not told which regiment) attached to the political service in India. When the war starts, he rejoins his regiment and departs for the Crimea. The 27th does not leave until later, but in the Crimea Perry wears a uniform identical to Geoffrey's. In India his uniform had been very different.
In the script, Macefield is listed as 'Quartermaster-General, Bengal Army,' and on his first appearance is described as being 'in the uniform of Quarter-Master General,' strengthening the allusion to General Airey.
The 27th Lancers seem to use two uniforms in the film: a light coloured one on operations in India, and a dark one for dress occasions and in the Crimea. (The movie is, of course, in monochrome, so we are unable to be sure what the colours are.) Three types of headgear are used by the officers. In the Crimea, the lancers' helmet is worn, and in India either a solah topee with a sash around it, or a “Foreign Legion” style kepi with a neckerchief at the back. With regard to the uniforms used in the movie, I am unable to supply any illustrations at present. According to Clive Hirschhorn, The Warner Brothers Story, “The uniforms were the authentic ones worn by the 27th Dragoons.” I can find no reference to the 27th Dragoons, 27th Light Dragoons, 27th Lancers, or 27th Hussars. Did any such regiment ever exist? (Hirschhorn also claims that authentic postage stamps of the period were used, regardless of whether they could be seen or not! I cannot recall any scene in the movie in which a postage stamp figured, visibly or invisibly.)
The map we see puts Lohara where the real Lahore is. The similarity of name suggests that we are expected to make that identification.
Chukoti is approximately where Mooltan is. In the movie, it is the scene of a siege and a massacre. During the Mutiny, there were massacres at Meerut, Jhansi, Delhi, and Cawnpore, and sieges at Cawnpore and Lucknow. As George MacDonald Fraser has pointed out, in his admirable book, The Hollywood History of the World, the fictional siege and massacre at Chukoti accurately depict the historical events which took place at Cawnpore three years later some 600 miles to the south-east. When the boats were fired upon at Cawnpore, four men did escape by river, as Vickers and Elsa do in the movie. However, during the Cawnpore siege there was no attempt to get a man out to bring help, like Randall's attempt in the movie. During the siege of Lucknow, however, T Henry Kavanaugh did escape disguised as a native, not to summon help, but to guide the column which was already marching to their relief (under the command of Sir Colin Campbell) through the outskirts of the town to the barracks.
When, in the movie, Randall attempts to escape by river from Chukoti, Campbell tells him that the current will carry him down to Lohara, although from the relative positions of the two places, the current must flow in the other direction, to join the Indus.
Chukoti is described in a caption as “a military outpost on the frontier guarding the pass into Suristan,” which would be therefore in Afghanistan , or possibly a little further south.
During the course of the movie, Geoffrey Vickers and the 27th make the following treks: Calcutta-Suristan-Calcutta-Persia-Calcutta-Chukoti-Calcutta. Were cavalry units moved on the hoof so frequently and over such distances? The journey to and from Persia must have been at least six thousand miles, and is referred to as having taken three months. Despite all this movement, it is one of the disappointments of the movie that there is no depiction of the Great Trunk Road. The only travelling shown is either along miserable tracks or metaphorically across maps. (A consequence of being WB and not MGM?)
Surat Khan.
In history, at the siege of Cawnpore “the besieging forces were commanded by Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the late Peshwa, Baji Rao, who had recently been deprived of his territories by the British.” (The Marquess of Anglesey, The History of the British Cavalry, 1816-1919, vol 2). In the movie, the forces besieging Chukoti were commanded by Surat Khan, who had succeeded his foster father as Amir, and had been deprived of his subsidy by the British. The withdrawal of subsidies and the refusal to recognise succession by adopted sons were indeed prominent among the grievances of Indian rulers against the British.
The Charge.
The depiction of the charge itself is accurate in many respects: it has five regiments, attacking in line, along a very wide valley, sloping gently downwards. The long shots taken from what would have been the Fedioukine Heights show a scene reasonably similar to William Simpson's contemporary sketch made on the spot with the advice of some who had taken part. However, the film shows only one line of cavalry rather than the two or three that there were. It does show some disorder developing during the attack, but there is no hint that there was any confusion over what the formation was supposed to be. Most remarkably, the film has the Russians holding their fire until the Light Brigade has advanced to the point where the order to charge was given. Had the real Russians been so obliging, the outcome might have been very different. It is a fact that in the melee towards the end of the action, Russian cavalry were in the line of fire of their own guns.
Curiosity corner.
The are certain inconsistencies in the film, no doubt arising from negligent editing, which seem peculiarly authentic. When Geoffrey Vickers forges the order, we see him write
“ . . . you will advance the Light Brigade . . .”
but when Warrenton reads it for the first time, he reads,
“. . . the Light Brigade will advance . . .”
thus echoing the various versions which history has of some of the critical orders.

The forged order is for the Light Brigade to attack the enemy position “on Balaklava Heights,” but the objective which Vickers intends, and which Warrenton correctly interprets the order to mean, is not on the heights at all. (“Attack? Attack what, Sir? Where is the enemy? Where are the guns?”)

Even more oddly, the forged order is addressed to and delivered to the commander of the Light Brigade, but when at last we see Geoffrey's note to Macefield confessing what he has done, it says,

“I have issued an order to the 4th Division to attack Balaklava Heights.”
This is the only mention of the 4th Division in the whole film, and is a reminder that in the real battle, Raglan's desire was to get the 4th Division to retake the heights, but in his frustration he finally issued an order to the cavalry to advance unsupported .

Introduction Synopsis Story Critics Warner Brothers Inside WB Assessment Verdict


If one steps well back from the movie, and considers only its most essential themes, two aspects predominate:

  1. it all started in India;
  2. a junior officer's version of an order precipitated the charge.
Both of these are historically true.

The title of the film does not prepare the audience for the story of the north-west frontier which occupies most of the screen time, but it is the history books that we should accuse of distortion, not the film. “The Crimean War, 1854-56” which so many books chronicle was in truth a Turko-Russian war which started in 1853, the crucial campaigns of which were fought mainly along their common frontiers in the Balkans and Armenia. Britain's participation in the Crimean expedition arose largely from a desire to protect her own ambitions of an Indian empire from the threat of Russian expansion in that direction. We should be grateful to the movie for reminding us of that.

The unvarnished historical truth is that the Light Brigade charge was an unnecessary and foolish waste of lives which had no sensible purpose or beneficial result — but what sort of an epitaph is that for brave men who followed orders unflinchingly and died gallantly? Let historians verify the words and deeds of the donkeys who led — it takes a poet to celebrate the glory of the lions who followed. That was the aim of Tennyson's poem and that was the aim of this film, which pays the gallant six hundred the compliment of pretending that their sacrifice was justifiably motivated and crowned with success.

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