Charge of the Lancers (1954)
Director: William Castle.
Starring: Paulette Goddard (Tanya the gypsy), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Captain Eric Evoir), Richard Stapley (Major Bruce Lindsey), Karin Booth, Charles Irwin.
This is more about love than history. But there is some history. A British officer has an affair with a beautiful gypsy set against the background of the Crimean War (and, more specifically, the Allied attempt to take the Russian naval base at Sebastopol) Captain Eric Evoir (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Major Bruce Lindsey (Richard Stapley) vie for the attentions of a nurse (Karin Booth). Throw the gypsy (Paulette Goddard) into the mix and the love situation gets even more complicated.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
"In 1854 a bitter war broke out on the tiny peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea. It was the war destined to create the pattern for future world wars. Tsarist Russia set the stage for the . . .conquest of Turkey aiming its guns at control of the seas and domination of many lands. The conflict became almost world wide when England, France and Sardinia formed an alliance with Turkey in its fight for freedom. For two years the Allies tried without success to take the Russian base at Sevastopol. The Russian Molokov and Redan forts seemed impregnable But early in 1856 an English officer arrived from London at the Crimean port of Balaklava and was dispatched at once to British headquarters. With him, he brought a heavy crate."
(Sevastopol is in today's Ukraine. It is located on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea peninsula. The city was formerly the home of the Russian Soviet Black Sea Fleet.)
The officer, Major Bruce Lindsey, is being transported via horse and wagon to Balaklava. The wagon driver is a real talker. Accompanying the Major is Captain Eric Evoir. Just as the driver is saying that it's very safe in this area, a Russian cannon ball explodes near the wagon. The major is sure that the Russians found out about the important crate they are transporting and that's why they are trying to stop the wagon. The Captain takes over the driving and they manage to get out of the range of the cannons. The Major thanks the Captain for saving him once again. He says he is indeed fortunate that the French Captain is attached to the lancers and not with his French regiment.
They arrive at headquarters. The Captain mentions that the nurse Florence Nightingale is even here at headquarters. A nurse named Maria comes running over to them. She kisses the major on the lips. The captain says they have to go in and see Gen. Stanhope.
The Major is going to show the General and others how to work the new breech loading artillery piece. He fires the piece and its shell bursts through the wall set up to resemble the walls at the Russian forts.
Back at headquarters Stanhope tells Evoir and Lindsey that if the two Russian forts fall, then Sevastopol will also fall. He says that tomorrow Lindsey will leave for London with the general's okay to proceed with building a large artillery piece. Evoir will set up an escort to take Lindsey back to Baklava. The Captain doesn't have to go on the trip. The 17th Lancers will start their training and Evoir will help with that.
When the two officers leave the general's office, Lindsey expresses his disappointment. He thought he could be spending a lot of time with Maria. He and Evoir have a playful chatter about which of the two of them will be the groom and who will be the best man. Bruce goes over to see Maria. He tries to get her to promise him that when he gets back from London, she will marry him. Maria says he should wait longer than that because the two of them don't know each other that well.
The Major with a four man escort comes riding down the path. Waiting for them are 10 or so Russians on horseback. The officer in charge tells his men that he wants the officer taken alive. The two forces run into each other and the fighting starts.
Evoir is going to the boxing matches tonight. The fellow fighting is a huge Turkish fellow. Evoir asks him who he is going to fight and sadly the Turk has to tell him that his opponent will be Captain Eric Evoir. This upsets Evoir. It upsets the Turk too because he says he hates to smash down a fellow officer. Evoir goes in to be examined by nurse Maria. He takes advantage of the situation and kisses Maria.
The General tells Evoir that Lindsey has been captured by the Russians. The enemy knows something about the new cannon. Stanhope now asks if Eric is willing to risk his life to get into Sevastopol? He wants Eric to get into Sevastopol and find out just how much the Russians know about their new breech loader. If they know about it, then the Allies complete strategy will have to be changed. Eric does speak Russian because he was in the diplomatic corps in Moscow. Stanhope says they will make up an excuse for Eric's going. They will say he was transferred elsewhere. Eric takes the job.
The Russian officers watch the boxing match put on for the troops through a telescope. They are planning an attack on the Allied headquarters.
A boxer is knocked out and now the Turk and Eric will fight. This will be a fight to see who is the champion boxer for the 17th Lancers. The bout begins and Eric does well for himself as a counter-puncher against the huge giant. He gets the Turkish officer up against the ropes and wails on him for awhile. The match is ended when the fire from the Russian cannons hits in the midst of the crowd gathered around the ring to watch the fight. The referee and the two boxing officers are all laying on the ground in the ring. Now the Russian cavalry charges the headquarters' area.
Stanhope says that the Russians knew that they would be occupied with their boxing matches this evening. He orders his men to retreat across the ravine. Eric awakens. He checks on the Turk who is dead, but the referee is still alive. Eric tells the referee, the corporal who drove the wagon for Eric and Bruce, that they have to get out of her now. They start running. The Russian cavalry now reaches headquarters.
Eric and the corporal see a Gypsy wagon passing by and they jump into the back of the wagon. There they run into Tanya the Gypsy who tells fortunes. She screams, but Eric soon quiets her down. He asks her for help and she gives them some Gypsy clothes to wear. They get dressed in the gypsy costumes. They are just in time, because the Russians are headed for the Gypsy wagon. They stop the wagon and look in the back. He tells his men the three can be used as laborers for the Russians. They will take them to Sevastopol. This news pleases Eric because now he is going to be driven right into Sevastopol.
On their way to Sevastopol, the Russians stop when they hear the sound of cannon fire. The Allies are firing on Sevastopol. The officer in charge says they will stay here for the night. A Russian corporal starts making eyes at Tanya. He comes over to her and orders her to come with him. Eric tries to stop him, but two more Russians come over to subdue Eric, if necessary. Eric tells the corporal that he is making a big mistake. General Indermann has a special affinity for his wife and he won't like it, if she is accosted by a Russian corporal. This is enough to make the corporal back down. He now says when they get to Sevastopol he will take the Gypsy straight to Gen. Indermann.
Sevastopol. The real Gypsy, the driver, and the corporal and Eric are thrown into a jail cell. Meanwhile, the Russian corporal brings Tanya and the other Gypsy woman to meet Gen. Indermann. He takes Tanya into the general's room. He explains that he was told that the Gypsy was under the general's personal protection. The general looks over Tanya and likes what he sees. Tanya says she and the other Gypsy woman, who is a good cook, can make the general's stay here a lot more pleasant. He tells the corporal to tell the colonel to set the two Gypsy women up in the caretaker's place.
As Tanya and the two others leave the general's headquarters, Russian soldiers bring in Bruce to introduce him to the general. The general is told that the British officer seems to have some brain damage when he was knocked unconscious with a pistol. The officer has gone crazy and the situation is hopeless. The doctor says he does not agree. Left to heal, the officer could recover his memory. The General tells the doctor to work on the British officer and get results. The man knows something about the new weapon and the Russians must know more from him.
The Russians at Sevastopol are firing their cannon at the Allied forces. One unit now replaces the men who have been firing the cannon for two or more hours. The three "Gypsy" men are working as cannon cleaners. The colonel goes over to them and tells them to come with him. He takes them to the caretaker's place and says that the two Gypsy women will join them later. The men will act as caretakers. Their Gypsy wagon will be brought to them to use to deliver supplies to the Russian troops.
Eric worries about Tanya, but the Gypsy driver tells them that a woman as resourceful as Tanya can take care of herself. Tanya and the older Gypsy woman enter the place. The driver kisses the older woman and Tanya asks Eric if he is not going to give his wife a kiss? Eric says no and Tanya says that Eric is feeling jealous. She loves that. She tells him that she takes care of two Russian generals, but that does not include any sex. Flirting yes, sex no. She gives Eric a passionate kiss and Eric kisses her back. She now tells Eric that she saw a British officer being brought in to speak with Gen. Indermann. It's possible that this could be Eric's Bruce. She now says she has to return to the generals. She says goodbye, blows a kiss to Eric and leaves.
Gen. Indermann goes in to check on Bruce's progress. Bruce appears as if he is almost in a catatonic state. The general tries to get him to talk, but it's useless. He expresses his disappointment to the doctor concerning the prisoner's lack of progress. The doctor says if only they could show the officer someone he knows -- a familiar face. The general decides to drop a request to Gen. Stanhope.
Gen. Stanhope calls in a number of doctors and nurses into his office. He says the Russians have sent him a strangely humanitarian message. The Russians don't have enough doctors and nurses to care for the British prisoners of war. So, if they want their men to receive the proper aid, they should send some of their own doctors and nurses to Sevastopol. None of the selected crew tries to get out of going to Sevastopol. Maria is one of those who is going. She asks the general if there is any news of Captain Eric Evoir? The general says no and that they must presume that the captain is dead.
Tanya and Eric hug and kiss. She tells him that when the war is over, he will take her to Paris where he will buy her jewels and make love to her. Eric tells her that the general is giving a party tomorrow night and he wants Tanya to get him into the party. He also wants her to try to find out as much as she can about the people at the party.
Eric is at the party dressed as a gypsy again. He is called up by the general to amuse the crowd with his Gypsy tricks. He says he will read the minds of his guests. Earlier, Tanya asked the guests a lot of different questions. She then told this information to Eric. Now Eric will use this information "to read the minds" of the guests. He puts on a good show. But the general wants to give the Gypsy one more test.
Eric is asked to go with one of the guards. Eric goes to see the general and the doctor. The general has lain out on a table three pistols, of which only one is loaded. The general wants the Gypsy to select a pistol, put it to his head and pull the trigger. The general forces him to do this and luckily when Eric pulls the trigger the gun only goes click. But now the general insists he choose one of the two pistols left on the table. So Eric pulls the trigger on the second gun put to his head. Click. So then he grabs the last pistol and does the same and gets the same result: click. The general is impressed.
The general and doctor take Eric now to read the minds of the prisoner of war. Eric looks closely at Bruce and tells the Russians that this man is in a catatonic state. How is he to read the man's mind? They tell him to try to do it anyway. So Eric pretends to read Bruce's mind. Then he tells the Russians that the prisoner says two things. One was a beautiful nurse and one was a strange-looking cannon. The general is pleased with this and tells Eric to come and visit Bruce any time, but he must be accompanied by a Russian guard.
The British delegation of doctors and nurses has arrived in Sevastopol. The general and doctor go to talk with them. Since Maria is the prettiest and youngest of the nurses, the general asks to speak to her in private. After everyone has gone, the general tells Maria that it is good to see her again. He informs her that Major Lindsey has been in a state of shock after being hit on the head during capture. He wants Maria to go in and see the major.
Meanwhile, Eric goes in to see Bruce. When they are alone they start planning how to escape from Sevastopol. Bruce draws him a map of the grounds. Now Maria comes in. Bruce breaks out of his catatonic state to say hello to her. Eric tells her that she must get a message to Gen. Stanhope from them. He tells Bruce and Maria that there is a seven minute interval during the morning in which the afternoon crews supplant the morning crews. If the Allies attack during this interval they will be able to take Fort Malakov.
Now Maria reveals that she is a spy. She calls the guards in and tells them to take these two men to Gen. Indermann. She tells the two prisoners: "War made us friends; I'm sorry that it had to make us enemies." Maria leaves. When the two guards start to take the prisoners to the general, the prisoners overpower the guards. The guys take a short-cut and are able to stop Maria's carriage. They overpower the driver. Maria starts lashing at Eric with her horse whip. The horses get scared and jolt out of there, throwing Maria out of the carriage and onto the pavement. Maria is dead. The two men run off to find the telegraph office.
They find the telegraph office and the telegraph wires. Eric tells Bruce that he wants him to do the following: "Follow this line to a place where you can cut into it. . . . Send it [the message] in code and ask for an immediate, heavy, artillery barrage followed by an attack on Malakov at 2 minutes past 6." They will meet at the bridge at the end of town.
The general tries to get information out of Tanya. He wants her to tell him where her two friends went. At the general's place, Eric kills the guard. The general senses the enemy is close. He goes to shoot Tanya, but Eric shows up. The general shoots at Eric, but misses. Eric shoots the general and he falls to the floor. He gets Tanya out of there and they run to the bridge at the end of town. The others are already waiting under the bridge for their arrival. The Allied bombardment opens up and several times the escapees have to find temporary shelter. Tanya and Eric reach the bridge and their companions.
The bombardment stops and the Allies go to the attack. They overrun the trenches of the defenders and fight hand to hand to the death.
It is quiet now in the valley. The Gypsy wagon rolls along the road. In the back Eric and Tanya, now husband and wife, hug and kiss each other.
Costume drama that's okay to watch. There is a twist in the plot toward the end of the film that was good. Paulette Goddard (asTanya the gypsy) looks a bit old for the young Jean-Pierre Aumont (as Captain Eric Evoir). The film was one of her last films. The Jewish kid from Queens, New York City was born in 1910, so she was 44 years old. Her marriages included husbands Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. On the other hand, her co-star Jean-Pierre Aumont was born in 1911. So maybe he had a better make-up team?
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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