It is one thing to salute smartly and charge up a hill. It is another to salute smartly and charge into the valley of death. "The Charge of the Light Brigade," a 1936 Errol Flynn rouser, is no cinematic masterpiece, but it is a thrilling adventure spectacle, and the surprise is, computer coloring actually improves it.
A "world color premiere" of the film, tonight at 8:05 on WTBS, the Atlanta SuperStation available on many area cable systems, precedes its eventual release on home video and in TV syndication. For once, colorizing seems an enhancement and not an abomination, in part because the process has noticeably improved since the murky days of "Topper" and other unsightly early experiments.
The "Light Brigade's" colors are mostly muted, subtle and, as befits the desert settings of the film, powdery. The colorizers have done a particularly deft job enriching sky -- scapes, both day and night varieties.
Coloring films by computer remains a theoretically objectionable, cold-bloodedly commercial endeavor. But the greater the film, the more unconscionable it is, and "Charge," while greatly entertaining, does not make critics' "50 best films" list. It's dauntingly assured action entertainment, a product of the Hollywood escape machine at full tilt, and coloring it spruces it up still further.
Flynn, at his most dashingly attractive, stars as a captain of the Bengal Lancers who's so noble, he rides off to certain death after bequeathing his fiance'e (Olivia de Havilland) to the sissy brother for whom she jilted him.
"Charge" was directed by Michael Curtiz, but the climactic charge itself, the 15-minute segment that ends the film, was supervised by Hollywood legend B. Reeves ("Breezy") Eason, second unit director. It was revealed years later that many horses died because of trip wires used to make them fall during the charge sequence. This painful news makes the charge, if anything, even more gripping to watch, however belatedly deplorable.
The story, set in 1853 and 1854, is pure fabrication, as conceded by Warner Bros. in the film's convoluted prologue. It is a romance derived from a romance, Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, and its lack of historical credentials prove irrelevant. Among the production details that contribute to the impact is a brilliant score by Max Steiner, one that includes a chillingly fatalistic march.
Color Systems Technology, which did the coloring, worked from a complete print of the film, one which includes an elaborate opening credit dedication to the Light Brigade ("Who Shall Excel Them?"). This flourish is missing from the black-and-white version currently available on Key Home Video, which should not be advertised as complete. When they start right off abridging even the credits, you know you're in trouble.
"Charge" will be repeated on WTBS on July 21, 23 and 25. Its love story is dismissible, its stiff upper lip almost self-caricature ("We can't hold out much longer, sir") but such scenes as the Chukoti massacre, which precipitates the wild ride, are shocking still, 50 years later. The charge itself ranks with the chariot race from "Ben-Hur" as a logistical miracle.
One gets the feeling that recreating it was almost as magnificent a folly as doing it the first time. Were there really 600 extras as the "noble 600" on horseback? Knowing Hollywood, probably more.