Cast & Crew
Jean Pierre Aumont
In 1856, at the height of the Crimean War, Turkish ally Great Britain sends munitions expert Maj. Bruce Lindsey with a model of its new, powerful cannon to British headquarters in Balaklava. After Capt. Eric Renault escorts Bruce through dangerous enemy territory to the fort, the major demonstrates the breech loading cannon's potential to Gen. Stanhope. Impressed, Stanhope immediately orders Bruce to return to London with a large order for the new weapon to fight against the impregnable Russian naval base at Fort Molokov in Sebastopol. Before leaving, Bruce briefly reunites with nurse Maria Sand, who puts off his proposal of marriage until the war's end. Shortly after his departure, Bruce is seized by Russian troops, who have been mysteriously tipped off as to the nature of his mission. When Stanhope learns of Bruce's capture, he summons Eric, whose experience in the French diplomatic corps he hopes will assist in negotiating Bruce's freedom. Along with Corp. Tim Daugherty, Eric sets off in search of Bruce, only to become trapped behind enemy lines when Stanhope is forced to withdraw his troops after a harsh Russian assault. Eric and Tim seek help from a caravan of traveling gypsies, musicians Asa and Keta and fortune-teller Tanya, who reluctantly agree to shelter them from a Russian patrol. That night when Russian corporal Bonikoff attempts to force himself on Tanya, Eric insists that not only is he her husband, but that Tanya is under the special protection of Russian general Boris Inderman. The following day, Bonikoff places the men in a cave outside the city of Sebastopol, and takes Tanya and Keta into Fort Molokov, where he presents them to Inderman. Inderman takes an immediate liking to Tanya and agrees to place the gypsies in a privileged cottage under his protection in exchange for the women's private attendance. Upon leaving Inderman's rooms, Tanya spots Bruce, beaten senseless, being escorted to the general by Dr. Manus. Manus reports to Inderman that Bruce has apparently suffered a mental collapse from the interrogation torture, but Inderman demands they continue to discover the details of Bruce's mission. Eric, Tim and Asa are forced to work for the Russians during their battles, but Eric uses the opportunity to study the fort's troop relief schedule. When Tanya reveals she saw a beaten British officer, Eric surmises it is Bruce and plots to find him. Meanwhile, acting on Dr. Manus' suggestion that Bruce might be shocked out of his stupor by a familiar face, Inderman sends a telegraph to Stanhope indicating that because the Russians are short of medical assistance, they will allow an English medical delegation to come to the fort to tend to their injured soldiers. Believing Eric is dead and viewing the offer as another opportunity to locate Bruce, Stanhope sends a contingent that includes Maria. Back at the fort, Eric asks Tanya to help him attend a large party thrown by Inderman the following night, and she coaches him on several fortune-teller tricks. At the party, Eric impresses Inderman and his guests, and the general wonders if Eric's talents are legitimate. Eric agrees to a test and when he outwits Inderman, the general takes him to Bruce, hoping Eric can read the dazed officer's mind. When Eric relates that Bruce's thoughts are jumbled but include a nurse and a cannon, Inderman is further convinced of Eric's mind-reading abilities and gives him full access to Bruce. When the British group arrives at Fort Mokolov, Maria, who is actually Inderman's spy, contacts Inderman, who hopes her presence will also assist in rousing Bruce. That night, Eric visits Bruce alone and learns that his friend has been shamming his stupor. When Maria visits Bruce, he asks her to take a message back to Stanhope detailing Eric's information of the troop change movements, which will provide a vital window for attack. Instead, Maria informs the men of her true loyalties before heading off to report to Inderman. Eric and Bruce attack the guard and race after Maria, and in the ensuing chase Maria is struck and killed by a runaway wagon. Eric asks Bruce to break into the telegraph office and send a coded message to Stanhope to begin an immediate bombardment, followed by a cavalry assault at the critical moment of the troop change at dawn. Eric then returns to Inderman's rooms for Tanya, and in the ensuing struggle, kills Inderman in a shootout. Eric and Tanya then outrace the British bombardment and meet Bruce and the others safely just as dawn breaks and the cavalry assault begins. After the successful destruction of Fort Molokov, Eric is presented with a medal of commendation and he and Tanya are married.
Jean Pierre Aumont
Robert E. Kent
Charge of the Lancers
But before Castle became known for his low-budget horror he was a jack of all trades, working on Broadway as a carpenter, props man and actor. In Hollywood he worked as an assistant to directors as notable as Orson Welles (doing second-unit work on The Lady from Shanghai, 1947) and even made his directorial debut holding the reins for one of the thirties most popular detective series, Boston Blackie (1943's The Chance of a Lifetime).
Before long, Castle was directing several movies a year for Columbia, and in the process, learning how to make things work on extremely small budgets. By the time he got to Charge of the Lancers (1954), featuring Paulette Goddard in one of her last lead roles, it must have been second-nature to him.
Charge of the Lancers, from Columbia, opens as two officers, British Major Bruce Lindsey (Richard Stapley, aka Richard Wyler) and French Captain Eric Evoir (Jean-Pierre Aumont), transport a new weapon to be used against the Russians at the height of the Crimean War. The new breech-loading cannon, powerful enough to break through the battlements of the Russians at Sebastopol, is a heavily guarded secret fervently pursued by Russian intelligence (insert "Atomic Bomb" for "Breech-Loading Cannon" to make it clearer in case the sledgehammer missed your head).
Our two officers are in love with the same nurse, Maria Sand (Karin Booth) but Bruce must leave to bring word of the test cannon's success to the British command, leaving Eric to woo Maria while preparing for a boxing match that evening. Bruce is taken prisoner by the Russians, the British fort is attacked and Eric is knocked unconscious by artillery. When he comes to, the regiment is gone and he's in his boxing tights but having been previously given the order to go find Bruce, he hitches a ride on a Gypsy wagon and heads for Sebastopol. On board the wagon he meets Tanya (Paulette Goddard) and the two pretend to be husband and wife to break inside the camp and rescue Bruce.
Though only in her early forties, Paulette Goddard was reaching the end of her career in 1954. She never had the star power necessary to keep a career in film going well into her sixties and seventies like a Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman. It would be nice to say she went out in style with a grand final statement but, sadly, that's not true. Her Tanya seems completely disconnected in spirit from the film. Her lines, surprisingly, are delivered flatly and the viewer relies on the actors around her to keep the pulse of the movie beating. Still, it's Paulette Goddard, and her smile and beauty make the lack of spirit easier to take. Jean-Pierre Aumont seems to have a good time in his scenes with her and, suspecting the movie may have been shot in sequence (and quickly), she warms up, just a bit, to both him and the action by the end.
William Castle, behind the lens, may have been too preoccupied with the budget to worry too much about Paulette's performance. Judging by the single camera setups, long takes and minimal action, it would appear Castle had only a meager sum with which to work. In his autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants off America, he relays the constant budgetary battles with Harry Cohn at Columbia, even recalling the difficulties of getting the actors playing the Indians in Conquest of Cochise (1953) to shave their heads for realism. Sam Katzman, the producer, informed Castle that a shaved head cost the studio money because the actors would need wigs for other parts until their hair grew back. The solution? A hundred bathing caps painted brown. Katzman assured Castle, "They'll look bald. Nobody'll know the difference. I promise you, Bill." Of course, no one notified Cohn, who blew up when he saw the bathing caps bill and demanded to know who had authorized an Indian swimming scene.
During this period, 1953-1956, Castle said, "I was living in a kaleidoscope. My eyes were becoming two mirrors, and every movement I made now reflected continually changing patterns." He was trying to be a director but had to constantly keep his eye on the budget. The battle scenes that open and close Charge of the Lancers rely heavily on tightly shot action: Crowding everyone together into a ten-square-foot area and shooting from below in a desperate attempt to make it appear as if there are regiments involved, not merely a couple dozen men. The cannons fire, one round here and there and the beautiful sunlit valley never really fills with smoke or feels threatened or under siege and, yet, Castle somehow makes it work, considering how little he had. It may not feel like a full scale battle but it does, at least, relay the idea of one. No small feat, considering the viewer never sees a long shot of a full scale battle taking place.
Charge of the Lancers is late Columbia Castle, made on the cheap, sharply and cleanly with very little help from the studio. It's doesn't have the camp flavor or gimmickry of his later work. There's no fun to be found like there is in House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts (1960) or The Tingler (1959) and no actor with the fire and brilliance of Vincent Price, the undisputed champion of making lackluster screenplays seem downright scintillating. No, it has none of that, but it does have heart and a will. A will to succeed despite every possible disadvantage thrown its way.
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Music: Arthur Morton
Film Editing: Henry Batista
Cast: Paulette Goddard (Tanya), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Captain Eric Evoir), Richard Stapley aka Richard Wyler (Major Bruce Lindsey), Karin Booth (Maria Sand), Charles Irwin (Tom Daugherty), Ben Astar (General Inderman), Lester Matthews (General Stanhope).
by Greg Ferrara
William Castle, Step Right Up!...I'm Gonna Scare The Pants Off America
James Monaco, The Encyclopedia of Film
Charge of the Lancers
Released in United States Winter January 1954
Released in United States Winter January 1954