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Hollywood History

June 2024
1min read


In “Hollywood History” (September), Mark C. Carnes writes that “British India did exist, and so did the Light Brigade and Balaklava Heights,” but the rest of 1936’s The Charge of the Light Brigade “was fantasy.”

Not so. In the movie a besieged British garrison is treacherously attacked as it boards boats for what Surat Khan promised would be safe passage down river. Precisely the same thing happened at Cawnpore in 1857, albeit not on the northwest frontier but in the northwestern provinces. The mastermind was Azimullah Khan, the Muslim aide-de-camp of a Hindu prince named Nana Sahib. Hundreds of European men, women, and children were massacred in the river, and those who were spared were massacred two and a half weeks later, so that when the British reoccupied Cawnpore they came upon a scene similar to what the British reinforcements discover in the movie.

The considerable liberty the screenwriters took was to reverse the chronology of two wars and place the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 ahead of the Crimean War of 1853-56. As outlandish as Surat Khan’s appearance in the Crimea may seem, even this is based on fact. En route home from England to India in 1856, Azimullah Khan actually stopped in the Crimea, where, as a guest of the great war correspondent William Howard Russell, he was so inspired by the sight of “those Roostums” (the Russians) killing English soldiers that he became convinced that the British could be thrown out of India. Obviously Azimullah was not killed at Balaklava. He did, however, disappear after the mutiny, some think to Turkey.

The Cawnpore massacres (with which many moviegoers would have been familiar in 1936) and the terrible reprisals that followed silenced the anti-imperialists of the nineteenth century for a while. If their depiction in The Charge of the Light Brigade had a political purpose, it may have been to perform the same function in the gathering gloom of the twentieth century by invoking racial solidarity in defense of the British Empire, a cause for which many Americans, not to mention Englishmen, felt considerable ambivalence.

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