Sunday, June 6, 2010

Charge of the Lancers (Columbia, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Charge of the Lancers, a 1954 production set in the Crimean War and using such familiar place names as Sebastopol and Balaclava but utterly unrelated to Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which is the only literary work about the Crimean War just about anybody today is likely to have heard of. It begins in a British army camp where there’s a lot of earnest debate about how to neutralize the Russian fortifications so they can take Sebastopol and end the war — and British officer Major Bruce Lindsay (Richard Stapley, later known as Richard Wyler) comes to the camp with a new breech-loaded cannon that fires explosive shells and can penetrate the previously invulnerable walls of the Russian fort. He doesn’t arrive with a full-sized cannon — just with a model of one — which is tested in the field against a model of the Russian wall and successfully blows a hole in it. (Why didn’t they just do the test in Britain and go ahead and make the cannon instead of — as Robert E. “Baseball” Kent’s script has it — go to the trouble of shipping the model to the Crimea and then have to wait until they received word back as to whether the thing worked well enough they should go ahead and make full-sized versions?).

Stationed at the base is Captain Eric Evoir (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a French officer detailed to the British army (I’d thought France was neutral in the Crimean War) and Lindsay's rival for the affections of nurse Maria Sand (Karin Booth), who’s working at the camp as an assistant to Florence Nightingale (who appears in the film briefly but doesn’t list the actress who plays her) and implementing her recommendation that the men stationed at the camp stage boxing matches to relieve the stresses of combat. Only the Russians stage a surprise raid during the boxing match and capture Lindsay, and Evoir has the embarrassment of having to chase after his friend and romantic rival in his underwear (he’d stripped down because he was one of the boxers) and try to recapture him before the Russians use what would now be called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — i.e., torture — to force him to give up the secret information about the British army’s new weapon and its overall plans. Evoir runs into a gypsy caravan and is taken in by them and given gypsy clothes so he doesn’t have to keep parading around in his underwear — and he also falls in love with one of the gypsy girls, Tanya (Paulette Goddard — who’s top-billed in this film but, as in Vice Squad, doesn’t appear until half an hour in and has a surprisingly small part).

Eventually he makes it to the Russian camp in gypsy guise and runs into Maria, who — surprise! — turns out to be a Russian spy (she was feeding them information on when to raid the camp when it would be at its most vulnerable), and having tricked Evoir and Lindsay into giving her the secret information (a plan the British have worked out to attack the fort during the seven minutes in the morning its guard is being changed), she’s about to run over and tell it to Russian General Inderman (Ben Astar, who seems to have prepped for his role by watching Akim Tamiroff movies) when the driver of a horse-drawn carriage loses control of it and the horse runs wild and stomps her out: equus ex machina. There follows an abbreviated battle sequence and the predictable final clinch in which Evoir and Tanya get together at last.

The best thing about Charge of the Lancers is the overripe three-strip Technicolor in which it was filmed; the famous “redcoats” of the British army glow with a neon-like brightness, even though one wonders how the British can fight all these battles, take all these falls, and have their coats not at all damaged, soiled or even faded. The director was William Castle, though this film offers him neither any of his famous gimmicks nor opportunities for the Gothic atmosphere and suspense that were his strong suits as a filmmaker; instead it’s a straightforwardly shot action movie with surprisingly little action, though it’s fun and a pleasant enough time-filler, the sort of film you can nod off to occasionally and not feel like you’re missing much.