In the winter of 1936, a dispatch from the British Board of Film Censors requested two officers posted in Bengal, RT Peel (who served as Secretary to the Public and Judicial Departments) and Colonel Lumby (an expert on military intelligence), to review a Warner Bros film that was released two months previously in the USA. It was the second of eight films to star the legendary pairing of Olivia de Havilland – just turned 20 – and Errol Flynn, sporting his trademark pencil moustache for the first time on the silver screen.
The film, titled The Charge of the Light Brigade after Alfred Lord Tennyson’s canonised poem (pun unintended) and directed by Michael Curtiz, is a historical action/romance set in India in the years leading up to the First War of Independence. But why did the censor board get involved?
In Hollywood’s reimagined cartography of mid-19th century South Asia, under the sway of the East India Company, a kingdom named Suristan appears at the North-West Frontier. The tribal population of this region answer to Surat Khan, an English educated Amir, who, at the beginning of the film is stripped of an annual stipend of £1,50,000 upon the death of his father, the old king. Trouble begins as the disaffected Khan retaliates by courting Count Igor Volonoff, a representative of the Czar.
When the film was being distributed internationally, the Government of India was alarmed at the possibility of offending Muslim sentiments with the thinly veiled representation of Afghanistan, and the name “Suristan”, which they felt could only be interpreted as “land of the swine”.
Their anxiety was justified. Starting in April 1936 the Arab revolt in Palestine had gained momentum and their anti-imperialist stand against the British found echoes in the pages of the pro-Muslim League newspaper Star of India. Calling for Islamic unity at this “internationalist moment”, the Star declared that “the duty of Muslims, wherever they are,’ was ‘to put their shoulders together and devise some means to defeat the designs of imperialism”.
Peele and Lumby did not see this racial slur as cause for concern. Peele wrote to Brooke Wilkinson of the British Board of Film Censors that it would be a “wise precaution” to have geographical references to Suristan removed for the Indian version of the film, and to subtly suggest that the action is set in Central Asia and not at the North-West Frontier, seemingly missing the point of the pan-Islamic movement.
The racial positioning of the film, as one might expect, is fraught throughout. The contrast between the “masculine” rationality of the coloniser – reflected most strongly in Geoffrey Vickers (played by Flynn) – and the wanton cruelty of the tribal ruler is established in the opening sequences, which are set in Suristan: first inside the palace and then on a hunting excursion. Although Surat Khan promises friendship unhindered by the discontinued stipend, Vickers does not share his superior officer’s faith in his word. He is set up as the coloniser par excellence, who sees through devious plots but does not compromise on his integrity or ideals.
Like many films that romanticise frontier violence in the Americas – a generic inspiration for the film, according to Richard Slotkin – The Charge consciously steers clear of portraying the white man in binary opposition to the colonised. Indians appear in the film primarily as servants and bearers, but Vickers strikes up a friendship with one young boy called Prema, with whom he practices different kinds of salutes that he learns on his travels. Thus, the “rural folk” (mostly Hindu) share a benevolent feudal relationship with the English, either in their employ or under their protection, while “civilisational values” are threatened by the ruthless and cunning Amir.
Having set the stage, the drama temporarily shifts to Calcutta, where Vickers learns of his next mission to the Tartar countries to supervise the purchase of cavalry horses. The political and social alignments become evident at the Governor General’s ball, which Vickers attends with his fiance, Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland). “Here in this room, you can see everything that makes the world go round: riches, intrigue and all the seeds of mutiny, war and hatred,” Vickers remarks.
Unbeknownst to him, however, Elsa has fallen in love with his brother, Perry. The betrayal is framed as a rather trite parallel to the treachery of Surat Khan – but while Geoffrey bears his personal loss with fortitude, he is less forgiving of the Khan’s cruelty.
The delicately poised political situation – the English are reluctant at this point to engage in combat at the Frontier – escalates when Surat Khan attacks the undefended garrison town of Chukoti. Having brought the English to their knees, he offers the women and children safe passage to the nearby unit of Lohara on condition that they travel unarmed. As they try to escape, Surat Khan’s men open fire and massacre the remaining inhabitants. Vickers and Elsa succeed in reaching Lohara, from where they make their way back to Calcutta.
Interestingly, while the overt racism did not seem to concern Peele and Lumby, they identified the strong resemblance that the Chukoti massacre bore to the controversial Satichaura Ghat “massacre” on June 27, 1857, where Nana Saheb was accused of luring the British into a false sense of security before allegedly orchestrating a brutal execution. Narratives of colonial aggression often seek justification in real or fake violence supposedly initiated by the colonised – in Bengal, continued attempts to weaponise the memory of the “Black Hole” incident is a classic example – and the incident at Chukoti offers the perfect springboard for revenge.
In Calcutta, Vickers learns that England has started pouring troops into the Crimea to “oppose the Russian hordes”. His regiment, the 27th Lancers (the 17th Lancers were part of the real battle of Balaclava) are sent to Sevastopol to fight the Russians. Hesitant at first to plunge his men into another bloody battle, Vickers comes round to the suggestion when he learns that Surat Khan is hiding out in Balaclava Heights under the Czar’s protection.
Having reached the war front, however, Vickers’s eagerness to attack is frustrated due to strategic reasons, even though he believes that by distracting the Russians at Balaclava, the combined forces of the English, French and Turks could claim Sevastopol. Vickers is given the responsibility to carry the message ordering withdrawal of the Light Brigade. With trembling hands, he forges the communication and leads the Light Brigade into the proverbial valley of death.
There was major controversy surrounding the climactic scene, where Michael Curtiz’s ambition to create a grand spectacle resulted in several horses getting injured and killed during the shoot. The infamous ‘Running W’ trip wire was allegedly not used with proper care, and David Niven (who was part of the cast) recalled later that Errol Flynn had reported the incident to the Humane Society, who launched an inquiry. Curtiz’s biographer, Alan K Rode, claims that the damage was far less than projected by Niven, who had been cast in a minor role.
After its initial success – which was not marred by Flynn giving away a spoiler in an interview in September 1936 – the film has not aged well. However, the infamous final sequence, where the Light Brigade charges down Surat Khan and the Russians with cannons blazing from all directions, was to have an unexpected afterlife in Iron Maiden’s music video of The Trooper.
Even apart from the animal cruelty, neither Flynn nor de Havilland seems to have enjoyed working under Curtiz’s dictatorship. As her biographer, Victoria Amador observes, although de Havilland demonstrated a good deal of physicality and “willingness to chuck into the fray” in a scene where they wade through a river, the producers “saw her as a sweet ingénue who wore period clothing well”. Far from being the “leading lady”, de Havilland’s character merely supported an adventure narrative, which had only one protagonist.
Rode recalls in his biography of Curtiz how the producer, Hal Wallis, who was an anglophile, was anxious to maintain factual fidelity: “If we are to save ourselves from a lot of grief and criticism in England,” he had warned, “we must make our picture [as] historically accurate as possible.” Realising that they had strayed far from the truth in creating this imagined geography of Empire, the film was released with a disclaimer about its semi-fictional status.
Amusingly, in their response, Peele and Lumby confidently dismissed the censor board’s anxieties, on the grounds that “it was so far removed from history that it was impossible to view it in any other light than as a screen ‘thriller’…Viewed in that way, it is a remarkably good film.” So with their verdict, the file on the film kept among the ‘Confidential’ papers of the Political (Political) Department of the West Bengal State Archives seems to have been closed, which would imply that it may have been shown in theatres in India – presumably without the impractical edits suggested by Peele and Lumby – in all its Islamophobic cringeworthiness.