“CHARGE FOR THE GUNS!”
In what may be one of the poorest films ever to be highlighted here, we’ll today take a look at 1954’s Charge of the Lancers, starring Paulette Goddard and Jean-Pierre Aumont. Directed by William Castle a few years before his most popular string of films with Vincent Price- most notably The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill, here we see him try his hand as historical drama with touches of comedy.
The story is relatively straightforward. Set during the Crimean War, the English are laying siege to the Russians in their fortress of Sebastopol, but their efforts are at a stalemate. Fresh on the scene appear Eric Evoir (Jen-Pierre Aumont) and Bruce Lindsey (Richard Wyler) to demonstrate a new breech loading cannon which will devastate the fortresses thick walls. The cannon is tested with great success and immediately placed into production.
But before long Bruce, who has the plans for the gun memorized, is captured by the Russians, who strangely know exactly who to capture. Eric is given the secret mission of infiltrating the enemy’s lines and rescuing him.
Stranger still, before departing Eric decides to compete in a army-wide boxing competition, during which the Russians launch an surprise attack. Now separated from his unit and in his skivvies, Eric and his trusty sidekick Charles (played by Tom Daugherty) set out to find some proper clothes. Immediately on cue a gypsy wagon appears. Here they meet Goddard in the form of Tanya the gypsy maiden. However, yet again the lucky Russians appear and they are again captured with the entire wagon.
As the oddities continue, somehow the gypsy band become entertainment at a party for the local Russian general. After masquerading successfully as a fortune teller and passing a test in the form of a game of Russian roulette, Eric is presented with the captive Bruce, who hasn’t spoken since his capture. Daftly clever, Eric ‘sees’ just enough of the new weapon to buy himself some time with his Russian masters.
A band of English nurses has also been sent into the Russian lines to help with the wounded. Among these is Nurse Maria (Karin Booth), who early on in the film both Eric and Bruce flirt outrageously with. Though again, by this time Eric has moved on to an unbelievable romance with Tanya.
In a rough attempt at subterfuge, it is revealed that Maria is actually a spy of the Russians. She’s immediately tasked with finding out what Bruce knows about the new weapon. As she meets with Bruce and Eric they come up with a plan to topple the Russians, which of course Maria immediately passes on to them.
The ‘boys’ summarily escape and Maria is killed, after which they telegraph back a request to the English to launch a specifically timed attack. Of course the English honor the request and save the day. Of course the victory is secured without the special new cannon they needed, which makes one wonder why all the fuss over it anyway.
In one of the more startling gaffes of the picture, the Russian flag flown is correct, but consistently shown flying upside down. When coupled with the frequent use of poor rear projection and the overwhelming presence of the new ‘recoil-free’ cannon evidently used in Crimea at the time Charge of the Lancers definitely isn’t a picture for those looking for more than a passing relevance to reality. If you look closely in a few shots in the final battle, fallen soldiers fall over the cannon only to have the barrel itself bend to allow the soldier to fall then mysteriously snap back into place. Extremely engaged minds might wonder whether the cannons are of foam or rubber, though most won’t care.
Tons of action features throughout the picture, but never gels into a coherent final unit. Instead the finished product feels like a predetermined series of set pieces without any glue to cement them together. Though never known for his ability to direct humor, William Castle fumbles the attempts that are sprinkled throughout. For the most part Jean-Pierre is the foil in this comedic vein, though most of it falls flat through either poor delivery or simple bad writing. For a movie of this length there should be a limit on the volume of underwear jokes permitted.
Perhaps trying to capitalize on her name, Paulette Goddard is cast in the lead role, even though her role appears roughly a third into an already short feature. Well past her prime and in one of her last films, Goddard looks not only tired and bored (who can blame her on the latter) but also suffers from miscasting. It’s clear that offers for her services were few and far between as she’s cast as a gypsy maiden. In several scenes her disengagement with the material is paramount, such as a scene early on when she meets Eric. She’s talking about something quite serious with him, then in a completely different tone she croons, “Oh, Eric!” while jerking herself in for a quick embrace.
Charge of the Lancers is one of those films definitely made to capitalize on technicolor and in that sense it does succeed. Every opportunity imaginable is used to add color to the picture form the myriad of uniforms used to the vibrant gypsy garb. Sadly, the remainder of the picture makes for some challenging watching.