Millennium Post

Celluloid antics in black and white

Imperial rule in India was nothing if not culturally sensitive, looking after the potential cultural sensibilities of Indian audiences in matters of the consumption of cultural products. Long-standing practice of banning books and other printed material considered to contain subversive political ideas and/or subjects offensive to ‘Indian sentiment’ from entering India was supplemented by new regulations directed at new media. With this in mind, the India Office took upon itself the task of liaising with the Government of India and the British Board of Film Censorship to ensure that anything which might offend the subjects of the Empire in India, British or Indian, be kept from their sensitive spirits in their own interests.

The question of what constituted acceptable material for audiences in India was of course centrally connected to an imperial government’s concern about the governability of India. Anything likely to cause political unrest was to be discouraged greatly. Of particular concern was the Hollywood motion picture industry, whose interest in a good yarn could not be curtailed by a sense of what the India Office considered suitable history and/or suitable entertainment which did not offend.
We need not concern ourselves here with what exactly ‘Indian cultural sensibilities’ were, because there has been a great deal of writing on the invention of tradition, and in particular on how many so-called indigenous Indian traditions were invented under colonial rule. This does not mean that they were entirely invented ex nihilo by the coloniser’s conspiratorial social engineering, but that the forms in which we know them – as ‘tradition’ – owed much to the colonial period. Whatever the origins of a colonial official’s definitions or anxieties about Indian cultural sensitivities, these definitions and anxieties could be seen in action in various decisions made to defend them.

In January 1936, an early warning of impending disaster in the form of a film to be made by Warner Brothers, The Charge of the Light Brigade, was provided by F.A. Evans, of the British Consulate Los Angeles, California, to PM Broadmead, at the British Embassy in Washington. (Hollywood was obviously considered important enough by the British establishment to warrant diplomatic representation.) 

It promises to be one of the worst films to have come out of Hollywood for some time, since it proposes to sacrifice history to the strange idea of dramatic values held by the writers of the script. … The script was lent to me by the man who will probably act as technical adviser in the film, and whose future would undoubtedly be jeopardised if it were learnt that he had shown me the story.

This was in the nature of a kind of journalistic scoop that, unfortunately, could not be acknowledged or publicised, for as Evans noted, ‘… as I am not supposed to have seen the story, I cannot take the matter up directly with the Company.’ Evans was not certain whether correspondence with the company would help. ‘As no doubt you are aware,’ he wrote, ‘Warner Brothers and the Hearst organization are closely identified, a fact which makes me the more hesitant to tackle them direct.’
William Randolph Hearst, the media baron on whose life Orson Welles based his film Citizen Kane, is well known in his life for having, among other things, endorsed Adolf Hitler as a world leader, but he was far from alone in this. His legendary power as a political fixer was at the time at its height.
But Evans also had what he thought was a solution to the problem:

It has occurred to me that the only way out of the difficulty is to allow the British Industry to know that this abomination is about to be perpetrated, in the hope that one of the British companies might be persuaded to produce a more faithful though perhaps no less romantic story in England, if possible in advance of the Warner production.

In other words, what Evans proposed was to plagiarise the idea and produce a British film on the subject first – a proposal which, we might add here, shows good academic credentials.

Evans said he had already discussed this with two colleagues at the Los Angeles consulate, identified as Charlton and Cane. Cane had said that he had an old friend at the Federation of British Industries (or at the Department of Overseas Trade; it is not quite clear from context), one Neville Kearney, and Cane said that if Sir Edward Crowe (who was then the Director of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraphy Company) could be told of this situation, he could ‘put the suggestion of a British production confidentially to Kearney, who in turn could discuss it equally confidentially with his contacts in the Industry’ – but since ‘political considerations are involved’, Evans said that he was talking to the Embassy first. There was not, however, a lot of time left: Warner Brothers was starting production in about two months.

The correspondence also contains a plot summary, presumably provided by Evans’ informant, a copy of which was sent to India on 20th Feb 1936. This was the story which, the summariser noted, would probably be in the film with minor modifications. Scenes depicted were in India and Crimea. The film opens in India 1854, dealing with the life of a regiment of Indian native cavalry (lancers). There was a love interest involving the daughter of the Commanding Officer, one of the subalterns of the regiment, and his brother. The script also dealt with the family life of one native soldier, a Sikh. His infant son was one of the leading characters. The native regiment bears insignia similar to that of the British 17th Lancers (the Skull and Bones).

The Indian section of the story winds up with the headquarters of the regiment, ‘with its women and children including the leading female character, defending a fort against a treacherous Indian Chieftain.’ Defenders are persuaded to surrender by the besiegers’ false promises, ‘the surrender being followed by incidents based upon the massacre at Cawnpore.’ [This was a sensitive point in British-Indian relations – the massacre of European civilians at Kanpur is one of the central atrocity stories of 1857 told to a British public across the generations.] Most of the characters die here, including Commanding Officer and Sikh child. Hero and leading lady escape.

The perversion of history begins about this point, when Lord Raglan is found as Commander-in-Chief of the “Army of India” with headquarters at Delhi, and the hero is an officer on his staff. Reference is made to the imminence of war with Russia, and quite surprisingly it is decided that the Indian Lancer regiment shall form part of the British Expeditionary Force, which is being sent to the Crimea. No consideration is given to the fact that there was such a thing in 1854-55 as the East India Company and that the Company’s troops were not normally employed in expeditions outside India, nor is any attention paid to the earlier portions of the Russian War. The transfer of the regiment is explained by the desirability of getting the troops away from the scene of the slaughter of their families, and a further and even more improbable reason is in the fact that the Indian Chieftain has quite inexplicable become attached to the staff of the Russian Commander-in-Chief in the Crimea, and the regiment will have a chance for revenge in that theatre of war.

The summary continues:
Through deliberate disobedience and the forgery of orders, the hero arranges for the charge to be made upon the Russian batteries by the Light Brigade, in the first line of which ride the Indian Lancers. We are left with the impression that the charge is entirely successful and was instrumental, by diverting the attention of the Russian Forces, in enabling Lord Raglan to deliver a successful general attack against Sebastopol. The hero is killed; his brother, who has developed a fatal passion for the leading lady, is left to pursue his suit, and a posthumous V.C. [Victoria Cross] is awarded to the hero.

And finally, the summary of reasoning as to why the film was considered so sensitive was provided:
 This film promises to be thoroughly objectionable, first, because it re-hashes all that was successful and sensational in “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer”, second, that it represents a painful incident in the Indian history which had better be left unrecalled, at the present time at least, and third, that it takes extravagant and contemptible liberties with an incident which is probably one of the most sacred in the traditions of the British Army. [See more:

Broadmead’s reply was sceptical: ‘From your account it seems to be a pretty rotten film and I agree that the depiction once more of scenes of bloodshed and political travail in Indian is objectionable, especially if episodes reminiscent of incidents in the Mutiny are included.’ But he was not sure that a rival film from Britain would be worthwhile, especially as British film companies’ commercial objects would not be served by a race with Warner Brothers ‘merely to please some Department of His Majesty’s Government or the Government of India.’ And Warner would not necessarily halt production upon the news of a rival film, even if it were possible. Broadmead suggested instead that Evans should deal directly with the company. Since he had been consulted on a technical point he could even ask to see the script officially, rather than have it surreptitiously slipped to him, but of course Evans would be the one who had to decide. And he could suggest modifications, especially with a view to the sensitiveness of Indian opinion.

The Foreign Office’s America Department concurred: ‘We agree with you that an approach to the British film industry with a view to the production of a rival film on the same subject would serve no useful purpose.’ But they added: ‘We have thought it worth while however to inform the British Board of Film Censors very informally that Warner Brothers may be putting such a film into production. The Board, which as you doubtless know is now presided over by Lord Tyrrell, is, of course, a body entirely independent of government control and in fact represents a voluntary censorship created by the trade themselves. At the same time they are always very willing to listen to any views expressed by government departments and in the present instance have undertaken to scrutinise the film in question for any objectionable features.’

The film was of course made, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and directed by Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian director who later made films like Casablanca (1942). It was The Charge of the Light Brigade that produced the immortal Hollywood line, ‘OK, bring on the empty horses’: Curtiz, for whom English was in 1936 a relatively new language, wanted to film riderless horses after the conclusion of the charge.
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