Wood Work

“You have been wounded by a cut across your eye, which has blinded you.”

“Am I in pain?”

“You are in pain, I believe.”

I’m always amazed by this exchange in CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which I believe was written on location by screenwriter Charles Wood. It captures something about the state of being in shock. Wood deliberately doubled down on the stiffness modern period movies usually try to avoid: his reading of Victorian texts convinced him that the stiffness belonged there.

Anyway, I’ve written more about the late, great Mr. Wood in this quarter’s Cineaste.


7 Responses to “Wood Work”

  1. ukjarry Says:

    Rummaging last week through my semi-forgotten pile uncollected Ken Tynan pieces I discovered a few items related to Charles Wood:

    A 1967 Observer interview with Wood and Lester about How I Won the War

    A chunk of an essay for the New Yorker surveying contemporary Brit theatre contains a review of Dingo [from the period when Tynan stopped reviewing plays in general because he was dramaturge at the National theatre)

    Tynan replying to Richardson’s treatment of the critics of The Charge of the Light Brigade

    Would any of this be of interest?

  2. dbenson Says:

    Remember seeing this in a theater, sitting next to my father. After Richard Williams’s animated inserts, the scene that made an impression was Cardigan dining with a tedious officer and his wife. The officer senses he’s a third wheel and makes an awkward exit; Cardigan and the wife promptly begin stripping and the scene ends with spanking. I was old enough to know about sex, but wasn’t following all the movie’s threads and thought this interlude was coming out of nowhere. I asked Dad what was going on, and he whispered back “Rank hath privilege”.

    That shaped my understanding of the Victorians for years to come. The Flashman books, a great favorite of Dad’s, merely confirmed my biases.

  3. ukjarry, I would love scans especially of the Wood/Lester interview, but it all sounds marvelous.

    I wish Lester had been able to film the first Flashman, which had a Wood script, would have been a three-hour epic on the Abel Gance scale, and, on the page anyway, seems to merge the filmic jokery of sixties Lester with the more rigorous 70s period films.

    Lester once spoke about two officers in Afghanistan, whose tower was hit by a shell and began to collapse. “I think perhaps we’d better leave.” They both ran downstairs and escaped, and then the senior one put the junior on a charge for running down ahead of him. “They WERE cardboard characters,” said Lester. “Finest-quality British cardboard.”

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Showing Flashman in a real war would have been a high-wire act to be sure. A realistic, horrific war with a clever, self-serving SOB as the one comic element? A heightened reality of ghastly absurdities and cynicism where Flashman’s behavior blends in all too smoothly? The books pull it off because everything is filtered through Flashman’s eyes. He’s a frankly unrepentant liar, coward, and cad; and while he may be horrified by what he sees it will never cause him to become a rebel or reformer. He’ll just find a way to exploit it for survival, profit, or pleasure.

    “Royal Flash” works because it’s less a scoundrel running loose in history than pure romantic fantasy. Yes, it has Bismarck and Lola Montez, and the sex and scheming are a tad juicier than old Hollywood would have allowed. But it’s ultimately about taking a familiar formula, heavy on Love and Honor, and replacing the appropriate hero with our boy Flashy.

    In “Three / Four Musketeers”, we quickly catch on that EVERYBODY’s Flashman, so there’s no place for a designated cynic / opportunist. War, sex, politics, and everything else is clearly ridiculous despite elegant trappings (a perfectly valid reading of Dumas, who often has tongue in cheek when speaking of noble things). Sometimes a character sets another objective above survival, profit and/or pleasure — country boy D’Artagnan craves quick glory; his new friends persuade him to make some practical allowances — but beyond that all bets are off. Duels are really brawls. Religious callings deter neither Richelieu nor Aremis from thoroughly secular activities. And D’Artagnan is the guy we happen to follow; easy enough to retell the story following Athos the fallen nobleman or even uncomplicated Porthos*. No character is filtering the story or giving us a perspective; it’s all there onscreen for us to sort out.

    In such a world there’s no need or even much room for a Flashman center stage. A true epic of the British Empire might play out the same way. “Flashman at the Charge” does include Flashy trying to stay out of harm’s way (he more or less succeeds, ending up a prisoner of a Russian aristocrat with nubile daughters), but in the movie “Charge of the Light Brigade” his sensibility would be redundant …

    Well, there’s a nice flashback to freshman college essays.

    * A worthwhile note on Porthos’s character in the books: Aremis persuades him to join a scheme that goes south, big time. They’re both on the run, and Aremis reveals to Porthos that the whole project is likely to cost their heads. Porthos is totally untroubled and bears no grudge. He sees that Aremis acted in self-interest, and what could be more natural? Shortly thereafter Porthos dies spectacularly to cover an escape; Dumas obliquely reveals that Aremis, in solitude, wept.

  5. Apparently various people have suggested that Flashman can’t work on film unless he somehow narrates the action to give us his particular form of comic distance, like Alfie, or Alex in A Clockwork Orange. It might help. Lester disagreed, but did find the part hard to cast. “I don’t know who I’d cast NOW,” he told me, after explaining that Malcolm McDowell could play the coward very entertainingly, but couldn’t give you the surprise of that because he didn’t look heroic enough.

    Fraser always felt Errol Flynn would have been the best casting.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Suddenly remembering “Little Big Man”. Dustin Hoffman’s character is more a tossed-about witness to history rather than a central figure. He’s not a blank slate, but much of the time he’s a bit like a Keaton character, trying to make the best of wherever fate throws him. His narration is not so much an old man looking back with perspective as matter-of-fact testimony with opinions largely unchanged.

  7. Yes, with the framing structure retained from the novel, we have a protagonist whose real purpose is to be a witness to history. And while the book may encourage a tall-tale unreliable narrator reading, I don’t think that really occurs to you watching the film. Either way, his perspective offers an alternative to the usual recountings of history in western films, which makes it a natural for film adaptation.

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