RISKY BUSINESS: The Charge of the Light Brigade
How 1936’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions
1936’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is one of the most infamous movies in Hollywood history. Written by Michael Jacoby—from a story by Rowland Leigh—and directed by Michael Curtiz, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” premiered to rave reviews and huge box-office. It received several Oscar nominations and ended the year as Warner Bros.’ most successful movie.
And yet, Warner Bros. never re-released “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (TCLB) because of what happened during the making of the film. The movie likely would never have been seen again if Warner Bros hadn’t sold the rights to it (and many other films) to Associated Artists Productions in 1956.
The films stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in their second of eight on-screen pairings. TCLB is the first time that Flynn unveiled what would become his signature mustache and one of the few times he dies on screen. Praised at the time for its heart-stopping action, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is remembered now for its carnage.
While the production as a whole was plagued with issues, it’s the titular and climactic charge that led to this movie’s infamous reputation. At least one stunt man died during the scene, but the horse death-toll is far larger. At least 25 horses died in this scene, and some reports claim it is as high as 200.
Let’s look at the final battle, but CONTENT WARNING: it is tough to watch knowing how many of these horses (and at least one man) died:
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” rewrites history, turning a tactical blunder into a noble and heroic act. It tells the—inaccurate—story of British Lancers charge in the Battle of Balaclava. Set during Crimean War and the Indian Rebellion of 1857—two events that didn’t happen at the same time—and based on the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem of the same name, TCBL fabricates a love triangle, changes circumstances, and invents much of the story whole cloth.
But the script didn’t kill anyone. The production did. Let’s examine what happened and why.
“I have done some three hundred Running Ws and never crippled a horse.”-Yakima Canutt, Famous 1930s stunt rider and action director.
To understand what happened in this scene, we have to go back in time. So much has changed in the over eighty years since this film was made, from production practices to American’s view of horses. Let’s head back to the 1930’s and look at three common filmmaking habits of the era:
- Trip wires
- The Running W
- The way things are done
Back in the 1930s, tripwires were the industry standard. Horses and other animals were routinely injured during production, both in America and Europe. When a production needed a horse to fall, they made the horse fall. To do that, they tripped it.
This is exactly how it sounds. Tripping a one-ton animal that is running at full speed is not a controlled stunt. This is a grit your teeth and hope for the best situation. The best stuntmen of the era were capable of avoiding injury themselves but the horses weren’t so lucky.
This is due, in part, to the fact that in the 1930s, horses were going through a bit of a transition in the public consciousness. America was still transitioning from an agrarian society to an industrial one in the early 20th century, and some still viewed horses as work animals, as property, and not as living creatures that needed to be treated humanely. This was still twenty years away from the founding of the Humane Society.
In that era, Hollywood productions would purchase horses for their films. So that, as their property, they could do with them as they pleased. In contemporary Hollywood, horses are borrowed from owners and breeders, often at steep prices.
Of all the tripwires used at the time, the most popular – and one that caused the most issues on “The Charge of the Light Brigade” – was the Running W.
The Running W
The running W is a particular type of tripwire where the rider initiates the trip. In other instances, a wire would stretch across the path of the horse and trip it at the designated spot. Running Ws are different.
To properly execute a Running W, a wire is attached to one of the front legs of a horse. This wire is then held by the rider. In order to be most effective – and believably appear as if the horse was hit by cannon fire as in TCLB – the rider must get the horse into a full gallop to ensure that the horse won’t just stutter step but fall to the ground.
Once the horse is running at full speed and hits the point where it needs to fall, the rider will then yank on the wire. This sends the horse crashing into the ground face (or neck) first, causing serious injury or death. The rider flies over the horse’s head and lands in the dirt, not always safely.
The Running W was used for all the horse falls in the charge scene. One of the founders of the stuntman trade and successful action director, Yakima Canutt claimed to have done hundreds of Running Ws without ever killing a horse. Regardless of the accuracy of his claim, Canutt was not on set for “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The people who were couldn’t claim his track record.
“If anyone gets wounded, he gets extra pay.”-Michael Curtiz
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” was directed by Michael Curtiz and the charge was overseen by action specialist and second unit director William “Breezy” Reeves Eason. Both of these guys have troubling histories.
Michael Curtiz has appeared in a Risky Business article before. He was the director responsible for drowning people during the flood scene of 1928’s “Noah’s Ark.” He had a reputation for being hard to work with and a director who liked to put people in harm’s way.
On “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Curtiz put his actors through hell. Flynn complained of terrible working conditions on set and noted that Curtiz “didn’t care who hated him or for what.” De Havilland said, “He was a tyrant, he was abusive, he was cruel.”
Curtiz nearly lost his job directing TCLB. Producer Hal Wallace grew tired of Curtiz’s constant disregard for Wallace’s directives. Curtiz kept changing shots, scenes, costumes, and more even after Wallace had warned him to stop. It wasn’t until Wallace threatened to fire him that Curtiz began to play ball.
When it came time to pick his second unit director for the charge scene, Curtiz managed to choose someone with a worse record than himself.
William “Breezy” Reeves Eason
William Reeves Eason got the nickname “Breezy” because of both his penchant for printing the first take of an action scene and his attitude toward safety.
He was also known for the most spectacular action scenes in the business. This is likely because he didn’t care who he hurt to get the shots he wanted. When the first take injures and kills your cast and animals, who could afford to shoot another one?
Breezy is responsible for what is considered to be one of the worst episodes of animal abuse in film history: 1925’s “Ben-Hur.”
On that production, just like TCLB, Breezy was the second unit director in charge of the biggest scene in the film. In the case of “Ben-Hur” that was the chariot race. Filmed in Rome, 100 to 150 horses died during the chariot race. The trouble and cost of treating the injured horses proved too much for Breezy. Breezy had the horses shot and sold for horsemeat.
That production was such a mess that his initial chariot race footage was unusable. Breezy had to reshoot it, this time in Culver City, California. But the horses were still not safe. At least four horses died during the reshoots.
How Things Are Done
At Epitome, we hear one complaint about on-set safety issues more often than any other: “This is just how things are done.”
Killing horses and courting danger was just how things were done back in 1930s. No one seemed to care that the director of TCLB had a history of killing cast members. Nor did anyone seem to care that the second unit director was second only to glue manufactures when it came to killing horses.
We know no one cared because these two men continued to work after earlier infractions. And went on to have long and illustrious careers beyond TCLB.
After the success of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” both Curtiz and Breezy were in high demand. Big profits erase all sins.
Let’s not forget, however, that TCLB has been financially buried a hundred times over by far safer films. Death and injury do not equal profits. But, today, they will make you hard to insure and bond.
The combination of troublesome industry standards, trip wires, repeat offenders, and little focus on safety created a perfect storm for injury and death on TCLB. Let’s look at how risk management could have made things safer.
How Risk Management Could Have Increased Safety
Production risk management puts safety first. It requires looking at scenes pessimistically and thinking “what’s the worst things that can happen here?”
At Epitome, we specialize in production safety and have detailed procedures for comprehensive risk management. To illustrate how we could have assisted with TCLB, here are some of the processes, tools, and products we use to maximize safety and minimize risk.
Let’s turn our attention to the stuntman who died during the charge scene. He died because a broken sword was left in the sand between takes. When the stuntrider fell from his horse during a planned stunt, he fell on the jagged sword, which stabbed him through the chest.
At Epitome Risk, we begin working on a project during pre-production. Part of our pre-production process is going on location scouts to help determine potential risks. But that is not the end of our location safety strategy.
During production, our Risk Management Director (RMD) is on set every single day, helping to mitigate risk in real time. The RMD, in cooperation with the crew, does a walk through of every location on the day to ensure that safety issues haven’t cropped up since the location scout.
Big scenes like this one, with explosions, falls, crashes, horse jumps, cannon fire—basically chaos on camera—create messes. Our RMDs know how much shrapnel and detritus would be in the sand after one take of the charge and they would want to make sure that all of it is removed before we go again.
Scenes like the charge in TCLB take a while to reset. During the reset period, our RMDs would lead a safety team to walk through the location to make sure that potential safety hazards are removed before production rolls on another take.
But, in truth, we should have known about the missing sword much earlier.
This vital step could have saved the life of the stunt rider. Now let’s save some horses.
Control the Stunt
Thankfully, tripwires have been banned from films (more on this in a moment). Today, horses are trained to fall instead of made to fall.
Stunt safety is about control. We must be able to control the action—both the cause and the effect of a stunt—if we want to maximize safety. When we aim to really make something happen, we expose ourselves—and the production—to the randomness of real life.
This is not real life. This is a film. We must make it look believable but that is not the same as “real.” Stunts are usually performed multiple times. If we can control the action and keep people and animals safe, we can perform the stunt take after take. But once we “do it for real,” we invite risks that could derail the entire production.
When our RMDs come across specialize situations like en masse horse falls, they call in one of our Subject Matter Expert (SME). If we had to film TCLB today, our script risk analysis would have flagged this scene during pre-production and ensured that an equine stunt SME was on set to support our RMD for the entirety of the charge stunt sequence.
One of the issues with TCLB, however, is that even the “experts” at the time would have recommended tripwires. So let’s look at how risk management can help change work culture.
Change the Culture
The culture of risk on filmsets goes all the way back to the beginning of Hollywood. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is just one example from a field of thousands.
To change a workplace culture, you need to establish new standards. To establish new standards, you need a thorough account of the way things were done. A lack of documentation can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing sub-optimal behavior and enabling repeat offenders.
Our RMDs create detailed daily logs. These logs document the safety issues—both successes and failures—and the risk mitigation decisions that went into attempts to avoid dangerous situations. When there is a safety issue, the RMD details what occurred, why it occurred, and actions that could have been taken to prevent it.
These daily logs are then compiled, along with other documentation, into a thorough after-action report that catalogs and explains the risk mitigation efforts across the entire production. Our after-action reports provide valuable lessons-learned for the cast, the crew, and the production company. It is also valuable information for potential future insurers.
As an impartial third-party, Epitome Risk can prioritize safety in a way that crew members, no matter how well-meaning, simply cannot. We must remember that accidents shut down productions. By helping to prevent accidents, risk managers save time, money, and the entire project itself.
By partnering with Epitome, productions gain peace of mind and confidence without sacrificing production quality. We take the time to question the “way things are done” and identify safer—and often easier—ways to achieve the same goals.
Every once and a while the “way things are done” goes too far and everyone takes notice. In TCLB, the sheer number of Running W’s and trip wires—the feeling that you are watching a horse snuff film—forced the industry to change.
The Charge That Changed Cinema
Errol Flynn complained publicly about the mistreatment of horses on the set of TCLB. Through his efforts and the organized protests of animal rights groups, Congress passed a law making the use of trip wires on filmsets illegal.
The controversy also sparked changes from within the industry. Warner Bros. was one of the first studios to require animal safety experts to be on set during productions to ensure the animals were treated humanely and were not harmed. This practice quickly became the industry standard.
This standard still exists today. When you watch the credits of a motion picture all the way to the end, you’ll see the legacy of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The words “No animals were harmed during the filming of this motion picture” (or words to that effect) now appear on all Hollywood films involving animals.
When it comes to thorough documentation of safety, few do it better than Humane Hollywood. After TCLB, American Humane opened its West Coast branch and began protesting animal cruelty in film. By 1940, American Humane’s presence was required on all filmsets.
You can visit their website and examine their entire catalog of safety records from nearly every production they have worked on. It is a truly remarkable archive of animal safety.
Sadly, no equivalent organization or archive exists for human safety on filmsets.
Here at Epitome Risk, we endeavor to help create a new culture and a new standard of safety on filmsets. One that prioritizes safety—both human and animal—and catalogs risk management decisions with as much—if not more—detail as Humane Hollywood.
Despite hating Michael Curitz during this production, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland went on to work with Curtiz several more times, most famously in 1938’s “The Adventure of Robin Hood.”
The success of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” made Michael Curtiz one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors. His subsequent directing career is filled with classics like “White Christmas,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Casablanca.”
Out of deference to and respect for Curtiz, William “Breezy” Reeves Eason took his name off “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” His involvement in the film is only known today because of records from the time of production. Breezy’s career took off after “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Before he died at the age of 69, he had 159 directing credits.
While Hollywood’s pivot toward animal safety has likely saved the lives of countless animals in the decades since “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” it doesn’t necessarily guarantee animal safety.
Two 21st century productions are noteworthy for their animal treatment and resulting deaths. The HBO drama “Luck,” which filmed at the Santa Anita Racetrack, saw at least three horses die during production. And Peter Jackson’s 2012 “The Hobbit,” which filmed in New Zealand, was riddled with complaints of animal mistreatment and abuse.
Changing a culture is much like swimming upstream. If you are not actively swimming against the current, you are going with the flow. True safety and good risk management requires all of us to swim upstream every day. Luckily for all our clients, Epitome is filled with strong swimmers.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
Major Sources & Further Reading:
- “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film” by Alan K. Rode
- “Bring on the Empty Horses” by David Nivens
- The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936): Separating Fact from Fiction by Alan K. Rode
- The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots by Kevin Forde for Cracked, 2011.
- Fires, Crashes, and Fascism: The Crazy Story Behind the Making of 1925′s ‘Ben-Hur’by Gwynne Watkins for Yahoo! Entertainment, 2016.
- Devil-May-Care: Curtiz and Flynn in Hollywood by Constantine Verevis from the book “The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz,” edited by R Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance, 2018.
- Hollywood’s Long History of Animal Cruelty by Susan McCarthy for Salon, 2012.