“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” (1979) Review

 

“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” (1979) Review

As I have stated in many previous movie reviews, I am a sucker for period drama. However, I am an even bigger sucker when said drama turns out to be something different from the usual narrative for this kind of genre. In the case of the 1979 movie, “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY”, it turned out to be one of those rare kind of films. 

Like Michael Crichton’s 1975 novel, “The Great Robbery”“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a fictional account of a famous robbery known as the “Great Gold Robbery of 1855”. Before one thinks that the movie is a faithful account of this historical event or a faithful adaptation of Crichton’s novel . . . you are bound to be disappointed. Not only did Crichton play a little fast and loose with history in his novel, he also wrote the movie’s screenplay and made even more changes to the tale.

“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” began with a failed attempt by some nameless criminal to rob the gold used to pay the British troops fight in the Crimean War being shipped monthly on the London-to-Folkestone train. This failed robbery, which ended with the criminal’s death, had been masterminded by a successful criminal named Edward Pierce. Finally realizing that the gold is guarded in two safes with two locks each, Pierce and his mistress, Miriam, recruit a pickpocket and screwsman named Robert Agar to make copies of the safes’ four keys. They also set about attaining copies of the keys by exploiting the weaknesses of two key holders – bank president Edgar Trent and bank manager Henry Fowler.

When they discover that the other two keys are locked in a cabinet, inside the office of the South Eastern Railway at the London Bridge train station, Pierce and Agar recruit a cat burglar named “Clean Willie” to help them break into rail office and make impressions of the keys. At first, Pierce is able to execute his plan with very few problems. But obtaining the keys inside the South Eastern Railway office and recruiting “Clean Willie” end up producing major obstacles that he and his accomplices are forced to overcome.

I would not claim that “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a favorite movie of mine. But I must admit that every time I watch it, I usually end up enjoying it very much. And I cannot deny that it proved to be different than the usual period drama. Although “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a literary adaptation that also features a historical event, it is not the usual period piece. I mean . . . how many period dramas are about a real-life crime? Especially a crime that had occurred before the 20th century? If there is another movie with a similar narrative, I have yet to come across it.

Even more interesting is that Crichton utilized great details to show audiences how the crime was planned and carried out. Yes, I realize that Crichton had made changes to his portrayal of the 1855 gold robbery, but I still cannot help but admire that he portrayed this crime in such a detailed manner. And this allowed me to enjoy the film even more, for it provided audiences a detailed look into the criminal and business worlds of the Victorian Age during the 1850s. This was especially the case in the movie’s second half in which the protagonists schemed to get their hands on copies of the third and fourth set of keys inside a London railway station. And if I must be honest, I enjoyed the movie’s first half even more – especially those scenes that featured the robbers’ attempts to acquire copies of the first two keys. Since those two keys were in the hands of bank executive Trent and bank manager Fowlers, the movie allowed peeks into the lives of an early Victorian family and a Victorian bachelor, all from the upper-middle-classes. These scenes included one featuring Pierce’s wooing of Trent’s only daughter, while riding along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, a popular riding spot for upper and middle-class Londoners; and another featuring Miriam’s seduction of the always lustful Fowler inside an exclusive London bordello.

Another aspect of “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” that I enjoyed was its production values. Crichton and producer John Foreman had gathered a first-rate crew for this movie. There were four aspects of the movie’s production values that I enjoyed . . . somewhat. I certainly had no problem with Maurice Carter’s production designs for the movie. I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating Victorian London – especially in crowd scenes like the Rotten Row sequence, the bordello and the railway station. I also enjoyed Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Although I did not find it particularly memorable, I thought it blended well with various scenes throughout the movie and was original enough in a jaunty way. I have slightly mixed feelings about Anthony Mendleson’s costume designs. On one hand, I thought many of them – especially those for the male characters – wonderfully recaptured the fashion styles of the mid-1850s. My feelings regarding his designs for the female characters were another matter. There were some designs that I admired very much – especially those for the Pamela Trent and Emily Trent characters. Yet, I found those designs for Lesley-Anne Down’s character rather theatrical. I also have mixed about Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography. On one hand, I found many of the film’s wide shots – especially in many of the exterior shots – rather colorful and beautiful. Unfortunately . . . I also noticed that Unsworth’s photography seemed to project this hazy film, indicating that the movie was a period drama. Personally, I found this . . . haze rather annoying and a bit detrimental to the movie’s sharp colors.

I can only recall at least three or four sequences that might be considered action-oriented. Three of them involved the “Clean Willie” character and I found them well shot by Crichton. The fourth action sequence – the actual train robbery – was also well shot by Crichton. The problem is that I am not a big fan of the actual robbery sequence. What can I say? It bored me. I could explain that I am becoming less tolerant of action sequences in my old age. But if I must be honest, I never really liked this sequence when I first saw it when I was a lot younger. There is nothing like an actual action sequence on top a train to bore the living daylights out of me. It was not Crichton’s fault. This is simply a case of my personal preferences.

I certainly had no problems with the cast. Sean Connery was the perfect embodiment of middle-age debonair as the charismatic, clever and occasionally ruthless criminal mastermind, Edward Pierce. I would not exactly regard this role as a challenge for him. But he seemed to be enjoying himself. The role of Pierce’s mistress, Miriam, seemed to be quite rare for Lesley-Anne Down. I can only recall her portraying a similar character in another heist film that released the same year. Personally, I thought she did a great job portraying Miriam not only as a sexy paramour for Pierce, but also as an equally intelligent and talented partner-in-crime.

The movie also featured some interesting performances from Malcolm Terris as the lustful bank manager Henry Fowler with a penchant for prostitutes. Michael Elphick was effective as the cool and collected bank guard Burgess, who accepts Pierce’s bribe to be a part of the heist. Gabrielle Lloyd gave an interesting performance as Edgar Trent’s rather stuffy and plain daughter Elizabeth whom Pierce pretends to court. And Pamela Salem gave a sly performance as Elizabeth’s stepmother Emily Trent, who hides her lust for Pierce with a cool attitude and pointed comments. Other fine supporting performances came from Alan Webb, Wayne Sleep, Robert Lang and André Morell.

“What about Donald Sutherland?” many might be thinking. Why was he left out of the praise? Trust me, he was not. If I must be honest, Sutherland gave my favorite performance in the film. I really enjoyed his colorful take on the witty and sly pickpocket/screwsman Robert Agar. However, I do have one complaint to make . . . and it not about Sutherland’s peformance. As I had just stated, I found it very enjoyable. But I had read somewhere that the real Agar was more or less the brains behind the bank robbery. Also, Crichton had somewhat “dumbed down” the character in his 1975 novel and in the movie. I noticed, while watching the film that Sutherland’s Agar seemed to flip-flop between an intelligent criminal and a buffoon. Personally, I found this inconsistent and unnecessary . . . especially for a successful criminal like Agar.

Yes, I have a few quibbles regarding “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY”. And if I must be honest, it is not a great favorite of mine. But I certainly do not regarding it as a mediocre piece of filmmaking. In fact, I thought it was not only an excellent movie, but also rather original for a period piece. Michael Crichton may not have been that faithful to what actually happened during the “Great Gold Robbery of 1855”, but I found his fictionalized account rather exciting. And the movie was topped by fine performances from a cast led by Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

 

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

 

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

 

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

 

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

 

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

 

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

 

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

 

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

 

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

 

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Favorite BRITISH EMPIRE Novels

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Below is a list of my current favorite novels set during the British Empire: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE BRITISH EMPIRE NOVELS

1 - Flashman in the Great Game

1. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald Fraser – Set between 1856 and 1858, this fifth novel in the Flashman Papers Series is about cowardly British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion.

2 - Shadow of the Moon

2. “Shadow of the Moon” (1957/1979) by M.M. Kaye – This is a love story between an Anglo-Spanish heiress and a British Army officer before and during the Sepoy Rebellion.

3 - The Bastard

3. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – Set during the final five years before the American Revolution, this tale is about Phillipe Charbaneau aka Philip Kent, the Anglo-French bastard of a nobleman forced to seek a new life in the American Colonies.

4 - Flashman and the Dragon

4. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – The eighth novel of the Flashman Papers reveals Harry Flashman’s experiences in China during the Taiping Rebellion and the British march to Peking during the Second Opium War.

5 - Noble House

5. “Noble House” (1981) by James Clavell – Set during two weeks in August 1963, this novel is about a British businessman in Hong Kong, who struggles to save his family’s company from financial ruin through a deal with an American corporate raider.

6 - Zemindar

6. “Zemindar” (1982) by Valerie Fitzgerald – This novel is about a young Englishwoman named Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her cousin and cousin-in-law to India to meet the latter’s wealthy half-brother. All three get caught up in the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion.

7 - Tai-pan

7. “Tai-Pan” (1966) by James Clavell – Set during the immediate aftermath of the First Opium War, this novel is about a British trader and his dealings with his family and enemies during the formation of Britain’s Hong Kong colony.

8 - Liberty Tavern

8. “Liberty Tavern” (1976) by Thomas Fleming – This novel is about a former British Army officer, who operates a New Jersey tavern and serves as guardian to his stepchildren during the American Revolution.

9 - The Far Pavilions

9. “The Far Pavilion” (1978) by M.M. Kaye – This bestseller is about a 19th century British Army officer, who had spent his childhood believing he was Indian. He experiences love with an Indian princess and war during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

10 - Forget the Glory

10. “Forget the Glory” (1985) by Emma Drummond – This novel chronicled the experiences of an unhappily married British Army officer, who falls in love with wife’s maid during a long journey from India to the Ukraine during the Crimean War.

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

Serving as the fourth entry in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, this 1973 novel continued the story of Harry Flashman, a character previously from the 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” and now a British Army officer in Fraser’s novels. This particular novel, “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, recalled Flashman’s experiences during the Crimean War (1854-1856) and Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia. 

One could say that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” could almost serve as a prequel to Fraser’s 1975 novel about the Sepoy Rebellion, “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Almost. But it seemed quite obvious to me that the latter is a sequel to the 1973 novel. At least two supporting characters from this novel reappeared in “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And the theme of Imperial Russia’s attempts to wrestle control of India from Great Britain in the 1975 novel, began in this novel.

The 1973 novel began with Harry Flashman enjoying the London social scene with his beautiful wife, Elspeth. With Great Britain on the brink of war against Russia on Turkey’s behalf, the cowardly Flashman believed that the only way to avoid combat was to have his Uncle Bindley secure him a post with the Board of Ordinance – the British Army’s armory. However, Flashman’s luck failed to hold (not surprisingly) and his meeting with the young German prince, William of Celle (a relation of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) led him to become a staff galloper for Lord Raglan, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief. The new position drew Harry against his will into the chaos of the Crimean War and in becoming a participant of one of history’s most infamous cavalry engagements – the Charge of the Light Brigade. This famous military action also led him to becoming a prisoner-of-war at the estate of a Cossack nobleman named Count Pencherjevsky

At Count Pencherjevsky’s estate, Starkosk, Flashman has a reunion with a former Rugby schoolmate, Harry “Scud” East. After the two English prisoners learned of Russia’s plans to invade India and kick the British out, they decided to make their escape following a serf uprising at Starkosk. Unfortunately for Flashman, a sleigh accident led to his recapture by the Russians and a political officer named Count Nicholas Ignitieff. Flashy’s incarceration at Fort Raim led him to an acquaintance with two famous Muslim freedom fighters from the state of Kokodad, Yakub Beg and Issat Kutebar. Luck finally caught up with Flashman, when he and his two new acquaintances are rescued by Yakub Beg’s mistress, Ko Dali’s daughter, and a band of Kokodans. Following the rescue, Harry participated in one last action against the Russians against his will . . . so to speak.

I must admit that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” turned out to be a well-structured and well-written novel. Unless I am mistaken, the novel was written into three parts – the London prelude, Flashman’s Crimean War experiences that included his time as a prisoner-of-war at the Starkosk estate, and finally his incarceration at Fort Raim and experiences with the Kokadans. Fraser began the novel on a strong note and finished it in a similar manner. My only sole complaint centered on Flashman’s journey to Starkosk and his time at the estate. In short, it seemed to me that the sequence threatened to bog down the pace. I suspect that Fraser’s in-depth look into Imperial Russian serfdom during this sequence is responsible. As much as I found it interesting, I also wondered if Fraser got caught up in his subject, which would seem ironic considering his failure to explore American slavery in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. As much as I had enjoyed Flashman’s time spent with Count Pencherjevsky and his family on the Starkosk estate, no one felt more relieved than me when he and “Scud” East finally escaped, thanks to a serf uprising. I had become rather weary of Flashman’s period as a prisoner-of-war.

Despite some of my problems with the novel, I cannot deny that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” is a well-written novel. Fraser did an excellent job in recapturing London during the early and mid 1850s and Great Britain’s pro-war mood on the cusp of the Crimean War. He also expertly drew readers into the world of the British Army during the first months of the war. His description of the Army caps and hospitals at Alma just before the Battle of Balaclava literally had me cringing in my seat a bit:

“So the siege was laid, the French and ourselves sitting down on the muddy, rain-sodden gullied plateau before Sevastopol, the dismalest place on earth, with no proper quarters but a few poor huts and tents, and everything to be carted up from Balaclava on the coast eight miles away. Soon the camp, and the road to it, was a stinking quagmire; everyone looked and felt filthy, the rations were poor, the work of preparing the siege was cruel hard (for the men, anyway), and all the bounce there had been in the army after Alma evaporated in the dank, feverish rain by day and the biting cold by night. Soon half of us were lousy, as some wags said, who’d holiday at Brighton if he could come to sunny Sevastopol instead?”

Another memorable passage featured Flashman’s participation in the Light Brigade Charge. Fraser did a superb job in describing not only the Battle of Balaclava, but particularly the Light Brigade Charge. I found his description of the famous military charge filled with heady action, chaos and terror – especially from Flashman’s point-of-view:

“I had only a moment to look back – my mare was galloping like a thing demented, as I steadied, there was Cardigan, waving his sabre and standing in his stirrups; the guns were only a hundred yards away, almost hiddenin a great billowing bank of smoke, a bank which kept glaring red as though some Lucifer were opening furnace doors deep inside it. There was no turning, no holding back, and even in that deafening thunder I could hear the sudden chorus of yells behind me as the torn remnant of the Light Brigade gathered itself for the final mad charge into the battery. I dug my heels, yelling nonsense and brandishing my sabre, shot into the smoke with one final rip from my bowels and a prayer that my gallant little mare wouldn’t career headlong into a gun-muzzle, staggered at the fearful concussion of a gun exploding within a yard of me – and then we were through, into the open space behind the guns, leaping the limbers and ammunition boxes with the Russians scattering to let us through, and Cardigan a bare two yards away, reining his beast back almost on its haunches.”

However, one of my favorite chapters in the novel featured Flashman and the Kokordans’ attempts to destroy the Russian gunboats filled with weapons to be used against the Kokordans and the invasion of India. Before this battle took place, Ko Dali’s daughter drugged the cowardly officer with hashish (bhang) in order to force him to overcome his fear for the operation. The scene of the cowardly Flashy acting like George Armstrong Custer on crack struck me as one of the funniest passages in the entire series:

“God, what a chaos it was! I was galloping like a dervish at Kutebar’s heels, roaring ‘Hark forrard! Ha-ha, you bloody foreigners, Flashy’s here!’, careering through the narrow spaces between the sheds, with the muskets banging off to our left, startled sleepers crying out, and everyone yelling like be-damned. As we burst headlong onto the last stretch of open beach, and swerved past the landward end of the pier, some stout Russian was bawling and letting fly with a pistol; I left off singing ‘Rule, Britannia’ to take a shot at him, but missed, and there ahead someone was waving a torch and calling, and suddenly there were dark figures all around us, clutching at our bridles, almost pulling us from the saddles towards a big go-down on the north side of the pier.”

George MacDonald Fraser did take historical liberties with one particular character – the novel’s main villain, Count Nicholas Ignatieff. The author described the Russian character in the following manner:

“And as our eyes met through the cigarette smoke I thought, hollo, this is another of those momentous encounters. You didn’t have to look at this chap twice to remember him forever. It was the eyes, as it so often is – I thought in that moment of Bismarck, and Charity Spring, and Akbar Khan; it had been the eyes with them, too. But this fellow’s were different from anything yet: one was blue, but the other had a divided iris, half-blue, half-brown, and the oddly fascinating effect of this was that you didn’t know where to look, but kept shifting from one to the other.

For the rest, he had a gingerish, curling hair and square, masterful face that was no way impaired by a badly-broken nose. He looked tough, and immensely self-assured; it was in his glance, in the abrupt way he moved, in the slant of the long cigarette between his fingers, in the rakish tilt of his peaked cap, in the immaculate white tunic of the Imperial Guards. He was the kind who knew exactly what was what, where everything was, and precisely who was who – especially himself. He was probably a devil with women, admired by his superiors, hated by his rivals, and abjectly feared by his subordinates. One word summed him up: bastard.”

The above passage described Flashman’s opinion of Ignatieff during their first meeting on the road to Starkosk. They met for the second time, when Flashman and “Scud” East overheard Ignatieff, Czar Nicholas I and other Russian officials discuss plans to invade India during a secret meeting at Starkosk. And their third and final encounter happened after Flashman was recaptured, following his escape from Starkosk and attempt to reach the British lines on the Crimean peninsula. It was Ignatieff who tossed Flashman into the prison at Fort Raim. From what I have read, the real Ignatieff had never been quite the villain as portrayed in “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. Fraser even admitted that he taken liberties with the character in order to provide the novel with a main villain. Mind you, I believe he could have done that a lot easier with a fictional character. Why he had decided to take a historical figure and change his character in order to make him an effective villain is beyond me.

After reading “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, it is easy to see why it remains very popular with many fans of Fraser’s novels. It is a well written comic-adventure tale filled with interesting characters – fictional and historical. The novel also featured two very unique passages, namely the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and the usually cowardly Flashman behaving in a brave and aggressive man during a major battle. “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” also happened to be one of those rare Flashman novels that began and ended on a strong note. Not only does it remain popular with many Flashman fans, I personally consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works.

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

How is it that a movie about one of the most famous blunders in British military history could remain so entertaining after nearly 72 years? Can someone explain this? Warner Brothers’ take on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the Light Brigade of the British cavalry charged straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights during the Crimean War, is not what one would call historically accurate. Most of the movie took place in British occupied Northern India in the 1850s. Aside from the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie really has nothing to do with the Crimean War. And yet . . . who cares? ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” is so damn entertaining that I found myself not even thinking about historical accuracy.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, and written by screenwriters Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh; the movie is an entertaining mixture about vengeance against the leader of a treacherous local tributary rajah in Northern India named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon); and a love triangle between Geoffrey and Perry Vickers – two brothers who are British Army officers (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles) who happened to be in love with the same woman – the daughter of a British general (Olivia DeHavilland) named Elsa Campbell. I might as well start with the love story.

On the surface, the love triangle in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”seemed pretty simple – one woman torn between two men. Instead of having two best friends in love with the same woman, we have two brothers. But even that is nothing unusual. What turned out to be so unusual about this particular love story – especially in an Errol Flynn movie – is that the leading lady is NOT in love with the leading man. Within fifteen minutes into the story, the movie revealed that the leading man – namely Flynn – lost the affections of the leading woman (and fiancée) – De Havilland – to the secondary male lead – namely Knowles.

At first, it boggled in the mind. What woman in her right mind would prefer Patric Knowles over Errol Flynn? The latter had a more flamboyant character and was obviously the movie’s main hero. However . . . Knowles was not exactly chopped liver. Knowles was just as handsome as Flynn in his own way and a competent actor to boot. And his character – although less flamboyant than Flynn’s – had a quiet charm of its own. I also got the feeling that Flynn’s character seemed more in love with his job as an Army officer during the British Raj than he was with dear Elsa. Geoffrey Vickers seemed to have it all . . . until his brother Perry and Elsa’s little romance pulled the rug from under his self-assured life. And yet, he seemed damn reluctant to admit that Elsa loved Perry more than him. Reluctant may have been a mild word. Geoffrey seemed downright delusional in his belief that Elsa loved him only . . . and that Perry was merely harboring an infatuation for his fiancée. What made matters worse was that everyone – including Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) and diplomat Sir Charles Macefield (Henry Stephenson) – supported Geoffrey’s illusions. Only Lady Octavia Warrenton (Spring Byington), wife of British General Sir Benjamin Warrenton (Nigel Bruce) seemed aware of Elsa and Perry’s feelings for one another.

Before I discuss the movie in general, I want to focus upon the cast. Flynn, DeHavilland and Knowles were ably supported by a talented cast drawn from the British colony in 1930s Hollywood (with the exception of two). American-born Spring Byington and British actor Nigel Bruce were charmingly funny as the verbose busybody Lady Octavia Warrenton and her husband, the long-suffering Sir Benjamin. They made a surprisingly effective screen pair. Donald Crisp was his usual more than competent self as Elsa’s loving, but humorless father, Colonel Campbell – a by-the-book officer unwilling to accept that his daughter had switched her affections to the younger Vickers brother. Henry Stephenson gave an intelligent performance as the competent diplomat, Sir Charles Macefield, who is charged with not only keeping the peace, but maintaining British control in a certain province of Northern India. It was easy to see why Flynn’s character seemed to hold him in high regard. David Niven was charming, but not very memorable as Geoffrey Vicker’s best friend, James Randall. Only in one scene – in which Randall volunteers to leave the besieged Chukoti Fort in order to warn Sir Benjamin at Lohara of Surat Khan’s attack – did Niven give a hint of the talent that would eventually be revealed over the years. And of course, one cannot forget American actor C. Henry Gordon’s portrayal of the smooth-talking villain, Surat Khan. Gordon could have easily portrayed Khan as another ”Oriental villain”that had become typical by the 1930s. On one level, Gordon’s Khan was exactly that. On another . . . Gordon allowed moviegoers to see Khan’s frustration and anger at the British handling of his kingdom.

Olivia DeHavilland once again proved that even in a costumed swashbuckler, she could portray an interesting female character without sinking into the role of the commonplace damsel-in-distress. With the exception of the sequence featuring the Siege of Chokoti, her Elsa Campbell spent most of the movie being torn between the man she loved – Perry Vickers, the man she has remained fond of – Geoffrey Vickers, and her father’s determination that she marry Geoffrey. Elsa spent most of the movie as an emotionally conflicted woman and DeHavilland did an excellent job of portraying Elsa’s inner conflicts with a skill that only a few actresses can pull off. And DeHavilland was merely 20 years old at the time she shot this film.

I really enjoyed Patric Knowles’ performance in this movie. Truly. One, he managed to hold himself quite well against the powerhouse of both Flynn and DeHavilland. I should not have been surprised. His performance as a sleazy Southern planter in 1957’s ”BAND OF ANGELS” was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre film. And two, his Perry Vickers was a character I found easy to root for in his pursuit of Elsa’s hand. I especially enjoyed two particular scenes – his desperate, yet charming attempt to be assigned to Chokoti (and near Elsa), despite Sir Charles’ disapproval; and his anger and frustration over Geoffrey’s unwillingness to face the fact that Elsa’s affections had switched to him.

There are four movie performances by Errol Flynn that have impressed me very much. Three of those performances were Geoffrey Thorpe in ”THE SEA HAWK” (1940), James J. Corbett in ”GENTLEMAN JIM” (1942) and Soames Forsyte in ”THAT FORSYTE WOMAN” (1949). The fourth happens to be his performance as Captain/Major Geoffrey Vickers in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”. Not many film critics or fans have ever paid attention to his performance in this film, which is a pity. I suspect they were so flabbergasted by the idea of him losing Olivia DeHavilland to Patric Knowles that they had failed to pay any real attention to his performance as the complex and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers. Superficially, Flynn’s Vickers is a charming, witty and very competent military officer. He seemed so perfect at the beginning of the film that it left me wondering if there were in cracks in his characters. Sure enough, there were. Thanks to a well written character and Flynn’s skillful performance, the movie’s Geoffrey Vickers became a complex, yet arrogant man who discovers that he is not very good at letting go at things that seem important to him, whether it was Elsa’s love or a desire for revenge against the villain. In the end, Geoffrey’s flaws became the instrument of his destruction. The amazing thing about Flynn’s performance as Geoffrey Vickers was that it was his second leading role. And the fact that he managed to portray such a complex character, considering his limited screen experience at the time, still amazes me.

As I had stated before, the movie’s historical account of the Crimean War and the infamous charge hardly bore any resemblance to what actually happened. The movie seemed to be about the British’s interactions with a Northern Indian minor rajah named Surat Khan. The British, led by diplomat Sir Charles Macefield, struggle to maintain a “friendly” relationship with Khan, while his men harass British troops in the area and he develops a friendship with a visiting Russian Army officer Count Igor Volonoff (Robert Barrat). The phony friendship and minor hostilities culminated in an attack by Khan against one of the British forts in his province – Chukoti, which is under the command of Colonel Campbell. The battle for Chukoti eventually turned into a massacre that only Geoffrey and Elsa survived. But more interesting, it seemed like a reenactment of an actual siege and massacre that happened at a place called Cawnpore, during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58 . . . three to four years after the setting of this movie. For a movie that is supposed to be about the Light Brigade Charge and the Crimean War, it was turning out to be more of a fictional account of British history in India during the 1850s.

But the movie eventually touched upon the Crimean War. After the Chukoti Massacre, Surat Khan ended up in hot water with the British government in India. Due to his friendship with Volonoff, he found refugee with the Russians. And he ended up as a guest of the Russian Army during the Crimean War. Following her father’s death, Elsa finally convinced Geoffrey that she is in love with Perry. And the regiment of both brothers – the 27th Lancers – is also sent to Crimea. According to Sir Charles, their posting to the Crimea would give them an opportunity for revenge against Khan. But when the 27th Lancers finally received an opportunity to get their revenge against Khan, Sir Charles denied it. And so . . . Geoffrey took matters in his own hands and ordered the Light Brigade – which included his regiment – and the Heavy Brigade to attack the artillery on the heights above the Balaklava Valley. This is so far from what actually happened . . . but who cares? I enjoyed watching Flynn express Geoffrey’s struggles to contain his thirst for revenge and eventual failure.

And then the charge happened. My God! Every time I think about that sequence, I cannot believe my eyes. Part of me is horrified not only by the blunder caused by Geoffrey’s desire for revenge . . . but by the fact that 200 horses and a stuntman were killed during the shooting of that scene. Flynn had been so outraged by the deaths of the horses that he openly supported the ASPCA’s ban on using trip wire for horses for any reason. At the same time, I cannot help but marvel at the brutal spectacle of that scene. No wonder Jack Sullivan won the Academy Award for Best Assistant Director for his work on this particular scene.

On the whole, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” is a very entertaining and well-paced spectacle. Frankly, I think that it was one of the best movies to be released during the 1930s and certainly one of Errol Flynn’s finest films. For those who honestly believed that the Australian actor could not act . . . well, they are entitled to their opinions. But I would certainly disagree with them. On the surface, Flynn seemed like his usual charming and flamboyant self. However, I was very impressed at his portrayal of the self-assured and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers, who found his private life slowly falling apart. Olivia DeHavilland, Patric Knowles, Donald Crisp, C. Henry Gordon and Spring Byington gave him excellent support. Thanks to Jacoby and Leigh’s script, along with Michael Curtiz’s tight direction, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” turned out to be a first-class movie with an interesting love story with a twist, political intrigue, well-paced action and a final sequence featuring the charge that remains mind blowing, even after 75 years.

Portraying HARRY FLASHMAN

Portraying HARRY FLASHMAN
Are there any fans of The Flashman Papers, a series of novels about a 19th century British Army officer, written by the late George MacDonald Fraser? 

The origins of Fraser’s fictional series began with another British author, namely the 19th century lawyer and author, Thomas Hughes. It was Hughes who first introduced the character of Flashman in his 1857 semi-autobiographical novel, ”Tom Brown’s School Days”. The novel told the story of Hughes’ years at the famous public school for boys, Rugby. Among the characters featured in the novel turned out to be an older student named “Flashman”, who bullied both Tom Brown and another student named Harry “Scud” East. Flashman’s appearance in the novel ended when Headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold kicked him for drunken behavior.

Over a century later, a Glasgow journalist named George MacDonald Fraser took the character of Flashman, gave him a full name – Harry Paget Flashman – and wrote a novel about his early years as a British Army office in Great Britain, India and Afghanistan, following his expulsion from Rugby. The novel also featured Flashman’s experiences during the First Afghan War. The results turned out to be ”FLASHMAN”, which was published in 1969. Fraser followed up ”FLASHMAN” with three short stories published under the title, ”FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER”and ten more novels. The last novel, ”FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH” was published three years before Fraser’s death.

Fraser had written Flashman’s tales from the latter’s point-of-view. The interesting thing about the character was that despite being a war hero – he had been decorated for his actions in the First Afghan War, the Sepoy Rebellion (aka the Indian Mutiny) and the American Civil War, and possibly other military actions – his character had not changed much from his portrayal in Hughes’ novel. Flashman’s character could be described as cowardly, cynical, unfaithful (although his wife Elspeth was equally so), spiteful, greedy, racist, sexist, and lustful. In short, he was completely amoral. However, Fraser also portrayed Flashman as a hilarious and very witty man with a pragmatic view of the world and society in the nineteenth century.

For a series of novels that have been very popular for the past forty years, only one novel has been adapted for the screen. In 1975, Dennis O’Dell and David V. Picker produced and released an adaption of Fraser’s 1970 novel,”ROYAL FLASH”. Based loosely upon Anthony Hope’s1894 novel, ”THE PRISONER OF ZENDA””ROYAL FLASH” told of Flashman’s experiences during the Revolutions of 1848 in Bavaria and the fictional Duchy of Strackenz, when he is coerced by German statesman Otto von Bismarck to impersonate a Danish prince set to marry a German princess. Bismarck fears that the marriage would tilt the balance on the Schleswig-Holstein Question and interfere with his plans for a united Germany. The producers hired Richard Lester (”A HARD DAY’S NIGHT”,”THE THREE MUSKETEERS” and ”THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”) to direct the film. Fraser wrote the screenplay and Malcolm McDowell was cast as Harry Flashman. Being a talented actor, McDowell had Harry Flashman’s personality traits down pat. However, the actor looked nothing like the literary Flashman. McDowell possessed blond hair and stood under six feet tall. The literary Flashman stood at least six-feet-two and possessed dark hair and eyes. In fact, he was swarthy enough to pass for a native of the Indian sub-continent in at least two or three novels or a light-skinned African-American slave in ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. Although the movie did receive some moderate acclaim from film critics, the majority of Flashman fans hated it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge or watch the film. In their eyes, not only did McDowell bore no physical resemblance to the literary Flashman, director Lester had chosen to infuse the film with bawdy buffoonery and slapstick (as he had done with the MUSKETEERS films) and ignore both the story’s historical context and the novels’ cynically irreverent tone.

When ”ROYAL FLASH” failed to generate any real heat at the box office, the movie industries on both sides of the Atlantic ignored Fraser’s novels for several decades. Also, Fraser’s experience with the 1975 movie had made him reluctant to hand over control of any screenplay adaptation of his novels. The author also complained about a lack of a suitable British actor to portray Flashman – which seemed to come off as a backhanded slap at McDowell’s performance. Fraser has always favored the Australian-born Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn, to portray Flashman. The actor had not only possessed a similar physique with the literary Flashman (both stood at 6’2”), but he also – according to Fraser – had the looks, style and rakish personality for the role. Unfortunately, Flynn had died in 1959, ten years before Fraser’s ”FLASHMAN” was published. The author also suggested that Academy Award winning Daniel Day-Lewis might be right for the role, claiming that ”He’s probably getting on a bit,” he “might make a Flashman . . . He’s big, he’s got presence and he’s got style.” In 2007, Celtic Films indicated on their website that they had a series of FLASHMAN TV films in development. Picture Palace have announced they are developing ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” for TV and that the script has been prepared by George Macdonald Fraser himself. Both companies took an extensive role in developing Bernard Cornwell’s ”SHARPE” (TV series). However, no further news has been forthcoming since this time and the project has been removed from both companies’ websites.

Hmmm . . . Daniel Day-Lewis. Granted Day-Lewis might have the height and dark looks of the literary Flashy, and he has the talent to carry the role; he seems a bit too lean for me. And he lacks the cowardly protagonist’s wide shoulders that made the latter look so impressive in a cavalryman’s uniform. But aside from Day-Lewis, who among today’s actors would be great for the role? I had once considered Australian actor Hugh Jackman, nearly a decade ago, when he first became famous thanks to ”X-MEN”. He stands at 6’2” tall and possess Flashman’s dark looks. But Jackman is now two months shy of 43. Perhaps he could still portray Flashman between the ages of 30-50, but that would make him unavailable for movie adaptations of the FLASHMAN stories set in the 1840s – when Flashman was in his 20s. And if I must be frank, Jackman seem incapable of portraying rakes. He can portray violent/aggressive types like Wolverine. But a rake? I once saw him portray a well-born rake in a movie with Ewan McGregor called ”DECEPTION”. For some reason, he did not seem like the right man for the role . . . at least to me. If there is one Australian who could possibly portray Harry Flashman, I would say it was Julian McMahon. Mind you, McMahon never had the same success in the movies that he had on television.  But . . . like Jackman, he stands at 6’2” and possesses the same dark good looks. More importantly, he has the style and air to successfully portray a well-born rake. Hell, he could do it, standing on one foot and singing at the top of his lungs. However, McMahon is now 43 and like Jackman, would be unable to portray Flashman in the adaptation of certain novels. His voice is a bit light and for some reason, I have great difficulty imagining him in a period piece.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers might be a good choice. Granted, he does not have Day-Lewis, Jackman or McMahon’s height and build. But he has their dark looks. He is also talented and he has the style to portray a rake. More importantly, Rhys-Meyers is at the right age to star in the adaptations of nearly all of the novel, being 34 years old. Another good choice would be Henry Cavill, Rhys-Meyer’s co-star in ”THE TUDORS”.  He has the dark looks and talent to portray the 19th century rogue. And he has the height – 6’1” tall. And at age 28, he could portray Flashy in his 20s and 30s, which would make him available in the adaptation of most of the novels.

But there have been no plays to adapt any of the  FLASHMAN  novels.  Not since Celtic Films had indicated an interest in adapting ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, two years ago. But if Hollywood or the British film industry ever decide to adapt another story about Harry Flashman, I hope they will do right by the novels’ fans and pick the right actor . . . and director for the films.