A subversive epic revisits (and questions) military heroism
The Charge of the Light Brigade ranks among Britain's cherished military myths. On October 25th, 1854, British cavalry launched a suicidal assault against Russian troops at the Battle of Balaclava, an action in the Crimean War. Historians conjecture the charge was caused by miscommunication between British commanders: the result was indisputably disastrous. Thanks to Lord Tennyson's poem however, it's remembered not as murderous folly but heroism against impossible odds.
The Light Brigade inspired a short 1912 silent movie, using 800 American cavalrymen to recreate the Charge. In 1936, Michael Curtiz directed The Charge of the Light Brigade, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It's typical Hollywood hokum, conflating the Crimean War with India's Sepoy Mutiny: Flynn's cavalry officer initiates the Charge as revenge against an Indian prince. The story's ludicrous but the epic battle scenes, using hundreds of stuntmen and horses (many, sadly, killed while filming), hold up remarkably well.
Thirty-two years and an Empire's collapse later, the Charge received a different approach. Tony Richardson started in the theater, directing John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. Richardson and Osborne founded Woodfall Productions, adapting these plays into films before producing Tom Jones (1963). That movie's mixture of period detail and bawdy farce won several Oscars. Nonetheless Kevin Brownlow, Charge's editor, initially considered Richardson "totally the wrong director" to revisit the Light Brigade.
Richardson's Charge proved an arduous production - according to Mark Connelly, Britain's most expensive film to date. Actor Laurence Harvey, planning his own Light Brigade epic, sued Richardson. Richardson replaced Osborne with Charles Wood, the scenarist of Help! and How I Won the War. Filming in Turkey was complicated by temperamental stars, budget restrictions and an earthquake which demolished production headquarters! Turkish military extras left on maneuvers, leaving Richardson with a few dozen stuntmen for the climactic battle.
Richardson refused to screen Charge for critics ("accidulated, intellectual eunuchs"), who savaged him in turn. Vincent Canby attacked his "grapeshot movie technique"; Pauline Kael complained "you can't figure out what went wrong or who is responsible." Critical scorn matched audience indifference: Charles Wood later mused that "we were considered too clever by half." Charge flopped, leaving later generations to reconsider.
Using Cecil Woodham-Smith's book The Reason Why, Richardson crafts a scabrous satire of Victorian England. Where Tennyson sees heroism, Richardson sees insanity. Tradition becomes an elitist joke, imbecile aristocrats buying commissions over experienced officers. Imbeciles like Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), who spent £35,000 on the 11th Hussars' colonelcy. Never mind that Cardigan prefers flashy uniforms and sex to soldiering: "If they can't fornicate they can't fight!" he says of his troopers. "And if they don't fight hard I will flog their backs raw, for all their fine looks!"
Richardson plays up the Army's personality clashes. Cardigan punishes subordinates for trivial offenses (say, ordering Moselle at a champagne dinner) and feuds with division commander Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), his brother-in-law. Their commander is Lord Raglan (John Gielgud), a senile general still living in Napoleon's era. More than once, Raglan mistakes the Russians for his French allies. Our hero is Captain Louis Nolan (David Hemmings), a brash young cavalryman fuming over institutionalized stupidity.
Charge vacillates between social satire and antiwar epic. Immaculately staged tableaux (Cardigan's troopers resplendent in blue tunics and red trousers; dingy barracks and society balls) alternate with broad, often grotesque humor: Raglan's airhead soliloquies, Cardigan's slapstick tryst with Fanny Duberly (Jill Bennett). A glamorous parade degenerates into a funeral march, as soldiers die of cholera. It's like Lawrence of Arabia morphing into Doctor Strangelove.
Richard Williams' animated interludes provide a singular pleasure. The future animator of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? imitates Punch's graphic style, showcasing Victorian England's self-image as center of the world. These cartoons provide exposition while mocking jingoism: a British lion pummels a Russian bear; Queen Victoria lifts her skirt to unleash the Royal Navy; dancing angels proclaim Britain's victory. Inventive and riotously funny, they're Charge's highpoint.
Sloppy storytelling does damage Charge. Richardson later wrote that he "junk[ed] whole scenes, subplots and sequences" from his rough cut and it shows. Early scenes contrast aristocratic officers with proletariat troopers, but the latter disappear once the war starts. Similarly, Nolan's romance with Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave, aka Mrs. Richardson) eats up screen time without amounting to much. Along with the tonal dissonance, it makes Charge challenging.
Yet Charge gets more right than wrong. David Watkin's photography and the impeccable detail are endlessly beautiful, and John Addison's bombastic score provides ironic counterpoint. Wood's script generates delectably arcane insults: "Draw your horse from 'round your ears," Cardigan instructs Lucan, "and bring your head out of his arse!" Charge isn't completely accurate (Nolan combines several real officers, while witty diarist Fanny Duberly's unfairly portrayed as a slut) but gets the important things right: several scenes recreate historical dialogue verbatim.
The remarkable cast helps, too. Trevor Howard, as Cardigan, alternates wit and savage bombast, savoring Wood's dialogue then exploding into feral rage. He's a perfect aristocratic Id, valuing pleasure and complacency over morals or common sense. Harry Andrews makes a vicious foil, and John Gielgud provides hysterical comic relief. David Hemmings gives Nolan dash and arrogance, a very '60s antihero. Vanessa Redgrave and Jill Bennett are less well-used. Character actors like Peter Bowles, T.P. McKenna and Alan Dobie relish supporting parts.
Charge's first hour is sober period drama: Cardigan's feud with Nolan and the latter's romance with Clarissa dominate. Richardson's war scenes balance pageantry with cynicism: Cardigan dines on his yacht while his soldiers shiver in tents. The final battle gets excruciating build-up: Cardigan and Lucan puzzle Raglan's inscrutable orders as the Russians advance. "If you look before you, you will see neither enemy nor guns," Lucan tells an exasperated Nolan. "The usefulness of such an order eludes me."
Nolan goads Lucan into action: "There are your enemy, there are your guns!" he shouts, pointing into the wrong valley - where a Russian division awaits. Lucan orders Cardigan forward, both sensing the forthcoming disaster. "Here goes the last of the Brudenells," Cardigan mutters. Only Nolan anticipates the Charge as a chance for glory.
Nolan belatedly realizes his mistake - just before an artillery shell kills him. The Light Brigade advances, its ranks decimated by cannon and musket fire. Richardson alternates long-distance crane shots with grungy close-ups and frantic editing, each eliding heroic grandeur. Unlike Curtiz's Charge, Richardson's is a gruesome blunder - the apotheosis of an entire rotten system.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is indisputably an acquired taste. But its ambition and scope more than compensate for its faults and failures. Whatever its shortcomings, there's never been another film quite like it.
Sources for this article: Mark Connelly's The Charge of the Light Brigade (2003) and Tony Richardson's The Long-Distance Runner (1992). Those interested in historical background should read Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Reason Why (1953) and Terry Brighton's Hell Riders (2004).