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Monday, August 07, 2023

Love is a Many Splattered Thing


Flynn Finds Out That Everybody Plays The Fool

Someone please enlighten me as to what sort of expectation people brought into theatres back in the day. Who can say now that witnesses from 1936 are stilled? Even three-year-olds then would be ninety in 2023. All any of us can do is guess, so here goes mine with regards The Charge of the Light Brigade. I propose, if not educatedly (surprisingly, that really is a word), that many of patrons were put off by a love story gone afield of what happy resolution to previous year’s Captain Blood foresaw for overnight team Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland, here together again, yet separated by perverse narrative that will see her loving Patric Knowles rather than heroic, likeable, altogether qualifying Flynn. I was surprised at first-time seeing Charge in 1972 and wondered if first-run audiences were put off. Ads pledged the pair in love again. Canvas of fan magazines from the era may have addressed such riddle, readers wont to express displeasure with publicity that misled them. By all account, studios listened when patronage spoke. I address The Charge of the Light Brigade largely to ponder fifty years rock in my shoe and ask if others saw tragedy of Charge not in loss of 600 who perished nobly at Balaclava, but Errol’s loss of Olivia to unworthy Knowles, who is no sort of reasonable alternative, least of all to our man Flynn. I’m hanged if I’ll endorse such a pair coupling-up ever after as heartbroke EF rides to certain death. Does this make me a slave to narrative formulae ordinarily applied by Classic Era Hollywood? And yet here may be what fascinates most about The Charge of the Light Brigade. It is history, if distorted, spectacle upon grand scale (the whale of a charge), but what we really get is chronicle of love frustrated and how oblivion at the hand of one’s enemy may be preferred to life without the partner you so desperately want. The Charge of the Light Brigade may be Hollywood’s most eloquent statement on a theme not often explored.

This is stuff of life barely easier to take onscreen than off. Everyone gets gulp of loss at romance and who likes ruminating over it? We want role models to succeed where we fail, or so I assume that’s the case, now as in 1936, but was it, is it? Again, I may be underestimating my forebears as well as ones who’d watch today. Maybe they/we saw satisfaction in such stalwart as Flynn utterly defeated by an affair of the heart. If even Errol can lose at love, shouldn’t that be balm to the rest of us? The Charge of the Light Brigade may be read as masterful meditation upon what is so often the hopelessness of love, and no, I’m not being flip or sarcastic. What makes a classic seldom lies upon its surface. Charge opens with Major Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) leading troops plus a visiting diplomat to the palace of Surat Khan, an enemy to Her Majesty till now disguised as a friend. Vickers handles delicate maneuvers with elan, him a man of no visible weakness. His brother meanwhile at Chukoti meets furtively with Elsa Campbell (DeHavilland), daughter of the fort commandant, the two declaring love for one another. Captain Perry Vickers (Knowles) is weak and hasn’t combat experience like his brother, being “a mere diplomat of sorts” as described by Elsa’s father. That she would prefer him to Geoffrey is like Scarlett choosing Ashley over Rhett, a thing that bothered me plenty where watching GWTW for ninth, tenth, times in 60/70’s theatres. Olivia DeHavilland plays her end with such conviction as to make us know Elsa means it and will not be persuaded otherwise, whatever Geoffrey says or does once apprised. Here is his sadness writ large, for we know she is what he desires over glory, promotion, whatever achievement in the field, emotion Flynn conveys beautifully in what was only his second starring part in American films. I’m regularly astonished by what an assured player he became upon limited screen experience. Argument toward Errol Flynn as among the Classic Era’s finest actors advances farthest here.

Perry seeks to confess his love theft but is put off by his brother’s eagerness to embrace Elsa who he presumes will wed him.  Geoff declaring ardency to her shut door is Hollywood romance in reverse gear, us and Elsa in the know, Geoffrey the fool any men or woman dreads to be where a partner won’t play your hand or her/his by telling the hurtful truth. Geoffrey has larger issues in any case, having saved Sarat Khan from a leaping leopard, latter assuring him that “my debt will be eternal.” Perry finally spills facts of love and the brothers quarrel, Geoff having lost his temper and calling Perry a liar. Being the last to know undermines confidence and authority as embodied in Geoff. Even Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) is wise thanks to her porch embrace with Perry the older man interrupts at a dance reception for the Khan. “You deserve a good thrashing,” he tells Perry, and we are inclined to agree. Dad advises Elsa that she “cannot wantonly hurt” Geoffrey, thereby assuring she’ll extend the subterfuge and endure unwanted affection when Geoffrey visits the next day. It is one thing when Olivia DeHavilland is soured on a Flynn character and fiercely resists his advance, as in much of Captain Blood and later Dodge City. This is expected combat on mutual ways to romantic union, but The Charge of the Light Brigade holds out no hope that this couple will unite, and it bothers us (at least me) to see her so ill at ease and him so clueless. These are “love” scenes uncomfortably like what too many enact in real life, and I wonder if then/now viewers recognize themselves in similar plight. It was one thing for Bogart to forfeit Bergman for the greater good in Casablanca. She after all had a husband, the war was on, and Bogie/Bogey will probably get more excitement diving into the scrap with Claude Rains. Besides, he’s had the goodies, recently as the night before, so no wondering for rest of his days what that would have been like. For Flynn/Geoffrey, there are none such consolations. He’s left behind simply because Olivia/Elsa does not love him, prefers his weakling brother, and that's that. Harsh medicine for Errol and us.

Senior officers who support Geoffrey triangulate to separate the lovers, Perry dispatched one place, Elsa another. Meanwhile the frontier is seething, and Chukoti succumbs to cruel onslaught by Sarat Khan, his massacre complete but for Geoffrey to whom Khan squares his debt of gratitude. Geoffrey saves Elsa’s life in the melee, but she’ll still not come round to realizing he is the better man. Perry meanwhile remains sullen at safety’s remove and will not accept his brother’s apology for sounding off, “We’re not friends so why pretend we are?” pouts he. Geoffrey resigns finally to being odd man out, and he and Elsa share a touching farewell, a scene splendidly enacted by Flynn and DeHavilland. She tells him he is “the finest man I ever knew,” variant on “you’re such a nice guy, but …” or “It’s not you, it’s me.” There is nothing left for Geoff but supreme sacrifice and ignoring written orders so he can avenge the outrage at Chukoti, final act of a man who otherwise has nothing left to live for. We are meant to embrace his falsifying a commanding officer’s signature and leading 600 men to their shared fate. None of this is history of course but for fact a charge did take place, and 600 or thereabout souls died in the doing. The Charge of the Light Brigade stands for the screen’s oldest proposition that all conflict must be personalized ... wars, nations, and populace of secondary concern. Imagine if Elsa had come to her senses and chosen Geoffrey. 600 lives might have been saved. As it is, only Geoffrey’s despair and anxiety to get even need be considered, loss of his true love eased by mass killing of the opposition and total loss of his own regiment. Their fall might mitigate his own, at least in the minds of viewership unaccustomed to Flynn or personas of his stature being handed rejection slips by their leading lady.


Blogger Ken said...

Wow! Great article, beautifully articulated. I think you've probably zeroed in on the key to my failure to ever quite embrace this particular Flynn feature.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have this but have never watched it. That happens when we buy box sets for their historical importance, Now you have me eager to watch it.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

The plot never bothered me; kissy-face stuff never was a real concern to kids like me. By the way, this is the film that inspired the timeless line "Bring on the empty horses."



4:03 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Impressive that they present Elsa as sincere and noble despite her judgment. It would have been very easy to make her clearly unworthy, perhaps with a "bad girl" star, to make the hero tragic instead of merely unchosen. Or to make the brother an actual coward or cad, allowing Elsa to abruptly shift affection upon his exposure. Either way, somebody you can blame for making Errol suffer.

You also have films where heroes are just too heroic for mere romance. In a drama the hero lectures his girl on why he must make this sacrifice. In a comedy he dashes off to the next battle or brawl, forgetting the girl altogether.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

You're correct regarding Flynn's acting skills; he's always been underrated, perhaps because he makes it seem so easy (and likely never spent a day in acting class). As for the movie itself, maybe Warners was just trying to shake up the Flynn/DeHavilland personae, as well as building up Knowles in case Flynn washed out. He certainly had a much longer career.

5:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer goes deep on THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE:

I think that you’ve touched upon why an audience watching “The Charge of the Light Brigade” would have accepted the Olivia De Havilland character preferring a seemingly bland and unremarkable Patric Knowles to the dashing and virile Errol Flynn. It is that nearly everyone has experienced unaccounted for rejection and heartache.

There is an ancient Egyptian proverb transcribed by Muata Ashby:

“The worst things: To be in bed and sleep not, To want for one who comes not, To try to please and please not."

The heart is a tender thing beneath the carapace we fashion for it. Even to open it a little to another is to risk the pain that comes when that person turns away. The movie does not resolve the mystery of why this happens, in that Patric Knowles seems so much the lesser man to us, but not to Olivia’s character. It does, however, provide the solace that, if such a thing could happen to as noble and honorable a man as the one portrayed by Flynn, it need not reflect upon our own qualities.

At the time the movie was released, there was also a strong belief that commitment and obligation were of such importance that love could not be realized in their absence. It was as though love found in them not only its expression, but its champions. So, marriage was regarded as such an obligation that, once entered, it could not be broken except under the most extreme circumstances. Given human nature, it is not surprising that marriages were tried by infidelity and abandonment, or that movies then found a popular subject in the tension between love's desire and the bonds of marriage. It was rare, however, that marriage was found to be rescindable, absent those circumstances. Few movies were so bold as “Chained,” which you discussed a few weeks ago, in suggesting that love should prevail over marital obligations.

There is in this an echo of the songs sung by Medieval troubadours to entertain courts of members of the nobility, whose own marriages found justifications other than love but were regarded as obligations, nonetheless, that must be observed even to death. Hence the theme of the love of a knight for a lady not his own, given expression in a glance, a word of uncertain meaning, or the furtive touch of a hand. Whatever human longing might wish for, it was given that such a love was all the purer for its chasteness, and that its consummation would be found not in this world but the next.

The Flynn character in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” might have much in common with his knightly forebears, stepping aside from the expression of his own love for Olivia to better honor that of her and his brother. There remains a conundrum, though, in that she seems sincere in her love for the Patric Knowles character, such that Flynn should enjoy no greater joy in Heaven than upon this earth. But we cannot know this, only that in Heaven all things are made right.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I also noted the growing assurance in Flynn's acting in Charge over the previous year's Captain Blood. As noted by so many others Errol always made it seem so easy thus the inclination for critics to casually dismiss him as an actor.

In defensive response to his many critics Flynn was always quick to dismiss his own performances. But he did write in his autobiography that he thought he had delivered a half dozen good performances in his career. Eddie Albert had an anecdote in which he once told Flynn that he had always considered him to be a good actor. Flynn laughed off the comment, at first assuming Eddie was joking with him. But when Albert made the sincerity of his comment apparent to Flynn he said he saw tears in Errol's eyes.

I wish that Flynn could have lived long enough to have heard Bette Davis' positive reappraisal of his performance as Essex to her Queen Elizabeth. I think her praise of his co-starring performance would have meant the world to an insecure actor, always conscious of the lack of critical recognition of his acting ability.

2:12 PM  

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