Over the years, there have been numerous stories published or otherwise repeated about the production of Warner Bros.’ action film, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936).
These anecdotal accounts received additional heft in 1975 with the publication of David Niven’s memoir BRING ON THE EMPTY HORSES.
Among other recollections, Niven wrote about director Michael Curtiz’s “carnage” of injured and dead horses caused by his ordering the use of a “Running W” or trip wire during action scenes that were supposedly filmed in Mexico.
Other versions included a fight between Errol Flynn and Curtiz that never occurred (There was a physical confrontation between both men that occurred six years later during DIVE BOMBER) reportedly caused by Flynn’s rage over the director’s alleged indifference to the welfare of animals with the number of horses crippled or killed during the making of the picture ranging from 20 to 100 or many more.
My research, based on studio production records, correspondence and legal files( including sworn affidavits and photographs) and other sources, revealed an accurate and less fabulist account of what occurred during production of the film.
What follows is a partial synopsis of my chapter The Reason Why from Michael Curtiz, A Life in Film©. All copyright protections will be enforced.
THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936): Separating Fact from Fiction
Director Michael Curtiz pitched in with even greater alacrity than usual after being assigned to shoot the opening sequence of Anthony Adverse. He was attempting to convince Hal Wallis to let him direct the forthcoming epic `. Based on a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and eventually titled The Charge of the Light Brigade, the picture was designed as a follow-on vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland to emulate Warner’s smashing success of Captain Blood.
The script for Light Brigade by Rowland Leigh and Michel Jacoby was historically ludicrous even by Hollywood standards. The famous charge at the climax of the Crimean War was linked to the British 27th Lancers regiment stationed in India, which was seeking revenge against Amir Surat Khan of Suristan in northwest India, who allied himself with Imperial Russia and slaughtered the British garrison at Chukoti, including the regiment’s dependents. A revenge-obsessed Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) discovers that the Amir has fled India and is at the Russian lines at Sebastopol opposite Vickers and the 27th. He forges a written order from the British commander that allows him to lead the brigade’s impossible charge against the well-fortified Russian positions. Vickers and the Amir die on the battlefield as Tennyson’s poem is emblazoned on the screen. The charge is portrayed as turning the tide of the Crimean War for Great Britain.
It was absolute applesauce. The Amir, Suristan, the 27th Lancers, and Chukoti were fictional entities. The charge occurred in 1854 against the Russians during the Battle of Balaclava. Sebastopol was under siege until the following year and had nothing whatsoever to do with the charge. The actual charge was an ignominious blunder that accomplished nothing other than the useless killing of several hundred British soldiers. The script’s contrivance of an evil Indian amir who initiated a treacherous massacre and ended up allied with Russians during the Crimean War was a fantasia that established the British Raj theme of the film, with which Wallis sought to replicate the success of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935).
The anglophile in Hal Wallis fretted about the grotesque historical inaccuracies: “If we are to save ourselves from a lot of grief and criticism in England, we must make our picture [as] historically accurate as possible.” But it was too late to worry about truthfulness and the possibility of hurt feelings across the Atlantic Ocean. The cast was assembled, the sets were being built, and the script was written. Wallis settled for opening the film with a detailed disclaimer that declared that the story and historical events were fictionalized.
Eager to direct an epic with spectacular battle sequences, Curtiz begged Wallis for the assignment. The executive producer let him sweat it out a while. Wallis used director Frank Borzage as a stalking horse to extract a promise from Curtiz to stick to the script and follow orders. Curtiz pledged total obedience, then reneged as soon as the cameras rolled.
He shot himself in the foot with Jack Warner before the production began by reinforcing the perception that he wasn’t overly concerned about what was in the script. In a memo, Warner recounted to Wallis a luncheon conversation he had with Curtiz about the forthcoming epic:
“All he talked about were the sets and that he wants to build a fort somewhere else, and all a lot of hooey. I didn’t hear him say anything about the story. In other words, he’s still the same old Curtiz — as he always will be! Bischoff was there at the time, and I told him that we don’t want to go any place for the fort or any other locations other than the ones you have already picked out, so for Lord’s sake, get ahold of Mike and set him on his prat and let him make the story and not worry about the sets. Let the Art Director worry about this; he’s getting paid for it.”
— Jack Warner
It was as if Curtiz believed he was still at Phönix-Film in Budapest or lunching with Count Kolowrat. Warner was running the most efficient movie factory in the world. He wanted Curtiz to direct Light Brigade and wasn’t interested in any of his ideas about production design and sets, particularly if they would cost additional money.
Wallis, Curtiz, and the rest of the production team mapped out the script with specific scenes scheduled for Lone Pine, Lake Sherwood in Ventura County, Lasky Mesa, and Chatsworth, out in the San Fernando Valley. Before he headed up to Lone Pine, Curtiz added to the list of preapproved sequences. He wanted to reinstate a horse stampede and a guerrilla attack that Wallis had previously removed. Studio production manager Tenny Wright cautioned that these additions would cost more money, but Curtiz got his way and the guerrilla attack was reinstated. The horse stampede was “restored” by inserting stock footage of running horses obtained from Futter Studios in a film-swap deal.
After reading the script, Curtiz was dismayed by the dull wrap-up. He laid out his concerns to Wallis:
“I know in my heart, you must feel as I do, that after a terrific climax, it would be dangerous to allow the story to end in a conversation between two old characters. I beg you to consider seriously my suggestions, knowing that we must find a more effective ending.”
— Michael Curtiz
Curtiz and Irving Rapper wrote a thoughtful finale with a lap dissolve from the dead Errol Flynn on the battlefield to a debate in the House of Commons decrying the military disaster, which culminates in Benjamin Disraeli’s saving the day with a stirring speech, stating that “our bitter rancor, gentlemen, will not resurrect our dead.” The scene shifts to a parade scene of the 27th Brigade in which Lord Raglan presents a posthumous Victoria Cross to Flynn for the final fade-out.
Wallis responded courteously but declined to use Curtiz’s proposed ending. Ego may have played a part, but in the end, it was about money. The executive producer was not about to build another set or hire more actors for a newly conceived ending with production already under way. Wallis even attempted to obtain footage from The Lives of a Bengal Lancer to save money on Light Brigade, but Paramount turned him down.
Although the Light Brigade would be a beautifully shot picture, it certainly didn’t appear that way to Wallis shortly after the start of production. He was determined to curtail Curtiz’s peccadilloes before the picture progressed too far to stop him. Curtiz immediately indulged his habit of changing approved wardrobe after adding a clutch of white feathers to Surat Khan’s (C. Henry Gordon’s) turban. Wallis had the scene filmed over again and threatened to remove Curtiz from the film: “I’m not going to suffer through this picture with him like I did on Captain Blood and I am not going to fight him all the way through.”
After discussing in detail with Curtiz what was needed before the director went to Lasky Mesa to film the Chukoti fort sequences, Wallis previewed the initial dailies from the location with disgust. Beyond fulminating over Curtiz filming Flynn through a rotating waterwheel, Wallis was distraught over footage shot inside the fort that was muddled with people who were not principal actors. There were women with pots on their heads and children running around, along with assorted goats and horses. Curtiz envisioned the fort as it was in the script: a small frontier outpost crowded with soldiers and sepoys along with their families, who were to be slaughtered by the Amir’s barbarous host. Wallis wanted long lines of British troops in formation, clean shots of a tidy headquarters, and, above all else, close-ups of the actors whenever they uttered a word of dialogue.
Once again, it was the cinematic cultural divide between the executive producer who grew up in Chicago watching plays and nickelodeons and the director from Budapest with an artistic sensibility—and a reverence for realism—bred into his bones from the time he directed his first film (when Wallis was twelve years old). Despite their growing friendship, Wallis was fed up. In a detailed three-page memorandum, he laid out instance-by-instance where he thought Curtiz was going wrong with the filming, sending copies to producer Sam Bischoff and Tenny Wright. Wallis concluded in purposeful language:
“I have to go through this with you on every picture and I am beginning to wonder why. . . This is the last note that I am going to write you on this picture. . . . From now on, I will expect you to shoot the script and the story, and I want you to stop shooting through foreground pieces. I want the camera in the clear, and I want you to forget about all of this crap about composition because if the story is no good you can take the composition and stick it!”
— Hal Wallis
Four days later, Wallis upbraided Curtiz for not shooting close-ups from different angles, that is, cutting in the camera. He wrote another note to the director and the tone was ominous: “I remember about four months ago when you came to my office and pleaded to be allowed to make this picture and promised me that if you got it you would absolutely behave and do everything you were told to do and I would not have any trouble with you on the picture, but I have had one headache after another.”
It had finally become personal for Wallis, and Curtiz realized he was licked. The director had to compromise or he would be removed from the film. Quitting was not an option. If he walked off the picture, his career would be jeopardized. He had seen firsthand what happened to people who crossed Jack and Harry Warner, and his application for citizenship was still pending. Curtiz began letting the close-ups and two shots run full, and he reduced the number of foreground compositions in favor of the style Wallis preferred.
Both Flynn and de Havilland were unhappy about laboring under a director they considered a tyrant as well as with a script that seemed to be a juvenile adventure story. Flynn looked smashing in his British uniform along with his new mustache (championed by Jack Warner), which the actor would maintain for nearly his entire career. There were no more of the sweaty palms and clenched teeth of Captain Blood. His comfort in front of the camera allowed him more time to reflect on the vagaries of movie stardom. No one was more let down than Flynn when it was announced that Curtiz, and not Borzage, would direct The Charge of the Light Brigade. Working outdoors in the freezing mountains of Lone Pine with spartan accommodations and bad food, Flynn found his distaste for the director evolving into a loathing that raised his frigid body temperature. Even though the company was in Lone Pine for only a week, Flynn felt like a member of the Donner party trapped in the Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846:
“The wind was like a knife; it cut through everything, and it raced through our thin costumes. . . . Meantime the hard-boiled Curtiz was bundled in about three topcoats, giving orders. . . . I didn’t know enough to tell him to give me one of his coats, or to drop dead. He didn’t care who hated him or for what. He’d keep us waiting hour after hour sitting on the horses, freezing to death.”
— Errol Flynn
Being immersed for long periods in the fetid water of Lake Sherwood or buffeted by the heat and dust of the San Fernando Valley didn’t improve Olivia de Havilland’s disposition, and neither did her role in the film. Inserted into its historical contortions is a trite love triangle between Vickers, Elsa (de Havilland), and Flynn’s brother, Perry, a fellow soldier played by Patric Knowles. Elsa is betrothed to Geoffrey Vickers, who returns to India to find her in love with his younger brother. It was the same dusted-off plot from dozens of other potboilers. She ended up disliking Curtiz nearly as much as Flynn: “Curtiz was a Hungarian Otto Preminger, and that’s that. He was a tyrant, he was abusive, he was cruel.” After viewing the completed film, de Havilland thought her performance was awful.
David Niven, who was borrowed from Sam Goldwyn and cast as Flynn’s heroic aide, claimed that Curtiz’s language malapropisms were a “source of joy to all of us.” The future author recalled Curtiz’s staging of horses during one scene. “Okay,’ he yelled into a megaphone, ‘Bring on the empty horses!’ Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. ‘You lousy bums,’ Curtiz shouted. ‘You and your stinking language . . . you think I know fuck nothing. . . . Well let me tell you—I know FUCK ALL!’”
In his memoir Niven also wrote about Curtiz’s personal involvement in a cruel practice that allegedly resulted in the mass crippling and destruction of horses: “Curtiz ordered the use of the “Running W,” a tripping wire attached to a foreleg. This the stunt riders would pull when they arrived at full gallop at the spot he had indicated, and a ghastly fall would ensue. . . . Flynn led a campaign to have this cruelty stopped, but the studio circumvented his efforts and completed the carnage by sending a second unit down to Mexico, where the laws against mistreating animals were minimal, to say the least.”
Niven’s account was partially accurate. Flynn apparently did report the maltreatment of horses to the Humane Society at some point. He despised any type of cruelty toward animals and blamed Curtiz for the abuse. Flynn’s widow, Patrice Wymore, told me, “I know Errol was terribly incensed at his [Curtiz’s] treatment of animals.” But contrary to Niven’s assertion and other published reports, no portion of The Charge of the Light Brigade was filmed in Mexico. His claim concerning Curtiz’s responsibility regarding the mass inhumane treatment of horses appears to have been grossly exaggerated.
Nearly every man in Hollywood who could skillfully ride a horse—including the author’s great uncle—appeared in the film. Curtiz himself did not necessarily order the Running W to be used. Use of a trip wire held by the rider and attached to a foreleg was standard practice in the industry at that time. Yakima Canutt, the legendary second-unit director and godfather of movie stuntmen, lost just two animals to freak accidents in more than half a century of continually handling horses in action movies. In his memoir Canutt provided clarity concerning the use of the Running W: “It was something that caused a lot of controversy for stuntmen and Western producers. I remember reading an article written by an officer of the Humane Society that stated we were tying wires on the horses’ legs and crippling them so badly that they had to be killed after the stunt. The Running W, used right, will not cripple a horse. I have done some three hundred Running Ws and never crippled a horse.”
After Canutt demonstrated the proper use of the Running W for a group of Los Angeles Humane Society officials at Vasquez Rocks, they approved the practice for use in Virginia City, a 1940 Curtiz film starring Errol Flynn. Canutt remembered: “It was generally understood in Hollywood that Flynn had reported to the Humane Society about horses being mistreated, but it wasn’t on Virginia City. I did a couple of Running W’s for him in that picture, and he always watched me doing it and all he ever said was, ‘Now why don’t all the fellows do them that way?’”
Unfortunately, Canutt wasn’t assigned to Light Brigade. The second-unit director hired to direct most of the key action sequences was B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason. According to the director Andrew Marton, Eason was “a crazy, drunk Irish-American, happy-go-lucky, who had the uneducated man’s flair for doing the right thing at the right time.” He was generally regarded as the best second-unit action director in Hollywood. Eason reportedly earned his nickname by always printing the initial take of an action shot (Eason apparently assumed the nickname from his late son, a 1920s child actor who was accidentally killed on location by a tragic accident), but the moniker could also be ascribed to his attitude toward safety. Eason took extreme risks in directing action sequences and was indifferent about the treatment of animals so long as he captured the necessary footage. Although his work was usually confined to Westerns, Eason made his reputation by directing the chariot race in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, a production marred by perhaps the worst episode of prolonged animal abuse in motion picture history. During the production in Rome, an estimated 100 to 150 horses died during Breezy Eason’s direction of the chariot race action scenes. Rather than deal with the inconvenience and cost of treating injured horses in Italy, they were simply shot dead and sold by the wranglers for horsemeat. Some of the dead animals were used in posed publicity shots and lobby cards by Metro. The production of Ben-Hur became a chaotic mess; none of the Rome chariot footage was usable. When Eason staged the sequence over again in Culver City, a disastrous collision killed four horses. Yakima Canutt diplomatically remarked about Eason, “I sincerely admired him for his ability as an action director, but I always felt that he took too many risks.”
The bulk of the action sequences were filmed at Lasky Mesa during the first week of June; Curtiz and Eason directed the charge scenes using separate units. The scenes required 280 extras and 340 horses and were filmed with multiple cameras along a thousand-foot bulldozed road that paralleled the horse riders. The scenes included explosions from rigged detonations on an open plain, as men on horseback at full gallop took falls. At least two stuntmen were hospitalized with severe leg injuries. The final stunt and action sequences of the charge were filmed in Sonora, California, near the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The studio had already been lucky after a spooked elephant ran amok during an earlier leopard-hunt action sequence in the film that Eason had shot at Lake Sherwood. The agitated pachyderm was caught before any injuries occurred. Warner Bros. would experience nothing but misfortune during the week of June 14 in Sonora.
The Sonora location was logistically favorable—a wide plain in a valley surrounded by hills on three sides—but the ground was a thin layer of soil over solid rock. Eason approved the site and had a six-hundred-foot-long trench excavated along one edge of the plain to install a car with multiple cameras that could film the riders at a low angle, along with other trenches for camera placement. The use of dynamite created dagger-like protrusions in ditches that resembled craters. After a day for setups, Eason began filming stunts and horse falls with more than sixty riders, upward of eighty-one horses (approximately thirty of these were locally purchased), sixteen cameramen, numerous assistants, a fire engine, and an ambulance. By the last day of filming, two ambulances were needed.
Powder technicians rigged dozens of explosives that were triggered as the riders galloped through the mayhem toward the end of the valley. One technician was treated for sunstroke and a stuntman reportedly broke his neck. Other riders were injured when they were thrown or fell on the rocky terrain. The horses fared worse. After Eason concluded filming the stunts, including six Running Ws and six pitfalls, two injured horses had to be put down and another subsequently collapsed and died. The local chapter of the ASPCA discovered what was going on and dispatched a representative to investigate before the company could leave or cover up what had happened.
On June 29, 1936, three Warner employees, including Eason’s first assistant, Jack Sullivan, pled guilty in court to animal cruelty and were sentenced to pay a fine of fifteen dollars and received a suspended ten-day jail sentence for using the trip wires that caused the death of the horses. Frank Mattison, who fretted about the second unit expending overhead funds by sitting around in Sonora, viewed the situation as a nuisance. Mattison facilitated the court pleas without first conferring with the Warner legal department. The guilty pleas to animal cruelty by Warner Bros. employees were reported in San Francisco newspapers and picked up by the Associated Press. More than one thousand letters of protest poured into the studio. Animal welfare organizations in America and England began to line up against the film.
Jack Warner wasn’t about to let his expensive epic suffer from bad publicity that he considered manifestly unjust. He immediately orchestrated a legal counterattack. The studio’s attorney Roy Obringer accused the ASPCA investigator of exaggerating the events, which opened the floodgates for Humane Society articles relating the deaths of “three or four hundred horses.” The studio maintained that none of the destroyed horses had been injured because of the use of the Running W or trip wires. Obringer and A. J. Guthrie traveled to San Francisco and showed the local head of the Humane Society photos of the dead horses, which had no trip wires attached to their forelegs. The ASPCA was unconvinced and stood behind its investigator. Archival Warner legal files revealed that the ASPCA investigator who originally showed up in Sonora, a man named Girolo, hit up Frank Mattison for a hundred-dollar “loan” and later tried to extort additional money from Warner Bros. personnel. The studio theorized that Girolo notified the San Francisco newspapers about the guilty pleas when his second shakedown attempt was rebuffed.
The attending veterinarian, Warner Bros. employees, and other principals on the scene provided signed statements and sworn affidavits that attested to the nature of the injuries of the two horses that were put down, along with the third horse that subsequently died of heart failure. There was a fourth horse that was killed as a result of falling and striking a sharp rock during a scene filmed in Chatsworth. Unable to reverse the guilty pleas of its employees, Warner Bros. concentrated on correcting reports about the deaths of numerous horses. The studio successfully sued the Women’s Guild of Empire in Great Britain for libelous statements about the film that included a recommended boycott.
As a result of the legal and publicity ramifications caused by their alleged mistreatment of horses, Warner Bros. instituted an internal policy requiring a Humane Society representative to be present at every film production involving horse and animal stunts. The bad publicity was exacerbated by the subsequent drowning death of a horse after a stunt jump off of a 70-foot cliff into the Lake of the Ozarks during Twentieth Century Fox’s production of Jesse James (1939) which kept public awareness focused on the inhumane treatment of animals by the motion picture industry. The use of the Running W and pit falls in films was permanently banned in December 1940.
Although it is possible that more horses could have been killed in Light Brigade, there is not a scintilla of evidence that other animals died or that Warner Bros. orchestrated a cover-up. The mythical mass murder of horses ended up historically tarring a single individual: Michael Curtiz was identified as being responsible for the “carnage,” to use David Niven’s term. That the director wasn’t even present at the location where three of the four animals were injured and put down and was a skilled rider who loved horses didn’t matter. Although the treatment of horses on this film didn’t come close to the horrors of Ben-Hur during the previous decade, Curtiz’s reputation as a directorial martinet made it convincing for Flynn, Niven, and others to ascribe the blame solely to him. It also didn’t help that Breezy Eason removed his name from the credits in deference to Curtiz. Conversely, it is debatable whether Curtiz would have done anything differently even if he had been present in Sonora. The very nature of the production lent itself to severe injuries to horses and their riders. Light Brigade‘s reputation has suffered due to the evolution of public perception about the treatment of animals. Horses were still viewed from a frontier and agrarian perspective in 1936. Popular sentiment concerning the treatment of horses and other animals has changed radically since then. It is difficult for many modern viewers to watch the thrilling battle scenes in the picture without averting their eyes as horses and their riders tumble wildly.
Curtiz was in his element. He loved working outdoors, staging the battle scenes, coaching the actors, and manipulating the cameras to best advantage. At Lake Sherwood he jumped up on a large boom and acted out the scene to several hundred extras by brandishing his microphone like a rifle. The columnist Sheilah Graham skirted Tenny Wright’s ban on visitors and observed Curtiz in action at Calabasas: “‘More smoke up here,’ shouts director Michael Curtiz. ‘British and Russian lancers, get on your horses!’ yells his assistant Jack Sullivan. In the general confusion an electrician at the switchboard pushes a button and a large explosion results. A horse throws its rider. ‘No matter what happens, no matter who gets hurt, no one is to run into the shot,’ warns Sullivan. ‘If anyone gets wounded, he gets extra pay,’ reminds Curtiz.”
The Charge of the Light Brigade charged to the top of the box-office charts, bringing in grosses that were nearly identical to Anthony Adverse’s. The bravura sweep of the film, the heart-stopping battle scenes, and Max Steiner’s thrilling score — his first of over 150 for Warner Bros. — overcame any concerns about cruelty to horses, a weak script, and the rewriting of military history.