While the British cavalry’s ill-fated charge during the Crimean War in 1854 was famously enshrined in that poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the subject of the gung-ho (to say nothing of historically inaccurate) 1936 Hollywood movie directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, this audacious 1968 version re-envisions the conflict for a generation mired in Vietnam and mistrustful of authority. It is a marvellously ambitious, sadly unsung and still controversial British masterpiece.
On the eve of the British empire’s entry into the war, following the Russian invasion of Turkey, dashing, young Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) attends the wedding of a close friend and is unexpectedly smitten with his wife, Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave). While the landed gentry wrestle with romantic feelings in rural England, across the filthy slums of Victorian London a loquacious drill sergeant lures working class lads to enlist for the next “great” war. Scrubbed and suited, housed in festering barracks, they are brutalized into a fighting unit whilst elderly upper-class officers reminisce fondly about the glory days at Waterloo. The intelligent and educated Nolan instantly clashes with his superior, Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), a bombastic buffoon whose swaggering self-importance and sense of entitlement stems solely from class and rank. As the Victorian propaganda machine - illustrated in a series of brilliant animated sequences drawn in the vintage style of the satirical magazine Punch - whips the public into a frenzy, Lord Raglan (John Gielgud), Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) and Lord Cardigan lead a gargantuan British force into the sweltering Turkish heat, squabbling every step of the way. Despite Nolan’s best efforts, a combination of poor judgement and sheer bloody-mindedness climaxes with Cardigan leading the Light Brigade right into disaster.
Hugely ambitious, The Charge of the Light Brigade paints a panoramic satire of an affluent, world-dominating society riding for a fall amidst a foolish, ill-managed war, and as such is certainly timely today. Tony Richardson, working from a screenplay written by Charles Wood (from a first draft penned by an uncredited John Osborne) lays the blame squarely on the aging, ego-inflated establishment embodied by Cardigan, Raglan and Lucan. The film is driven by a towering performance from Trevor Howard. He plays Cardigan as a pompous peacock, blithely ignorant all else besides his self-deluding ego, an indestructible imbecile who rides his horse over strewn corpses to a secure future while everyone sane and sensible gets blown to smithereens. John Gielgud is memorable as the half-deaf and semi-senile Lord Raglan, who has trouble remembering they’re fighting alongside and not against the French. These men treat war like a big game of toy soldiers and are still squabbling even while the blood-drenched survivors limp off the battlefield, passing guilt around like a hot potato until one nameless adjutant gets stuck with the blame.
Tony Richardson’s film failed to match the international success enjoyed by his similarly freewheeling Tom Jones (1963) and even today, opinion is divided between those who consider it a glorious failure and those for whom its broad satire and knockabout style comes too close Monty Python and risks making a mockery of an important subject. This claim is untrue, since the film is far too literate and though the romantic subplot amounts to little, its idealism is sincere and affecting. Although the screenplay comes close to portraying the historically haughty and impulsive Captain Nolan as a saint, David Hemmings conveys so much with his wounded eyes.
One oft-repeated criticism centres on the portrayal of Mrs. Fanny Dubberly (Jill Bennett), the wife of a lisping officer (Peter Bowles), who is portrayed as a twittering war groupie whom Cardigan coolly romps with in bed. Novelist George Macdonald Fraser is among those who have stressed there is no historical evidence to support such slander, but the scene is an aspect of the film’s overall indictment of Victorian hypocrisy and furthermore is a riotous bit of cracked comedy, well played by Bennett and Howard. Also, Mr. and Mrs. Dubberly’s subdued revulsion at the sight of the bedraggled cavalrymen is quietly powerful.
The musical animated sequences directed by Richard Williams - later behind the Oscar-winning A Christmas Carol (1969) and oft-underrated Raggedy Ann & Andy (1977) - are marvellous. Ranging from a ballet dancing Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, to a muscular British lion clad in the union jack punching the Russian bear on the nose, they are more than mere gimmickry and ably underline the film’s satirical intent. David Watkin’s photography ranks among the best of its era, going from the soft-focus idyll of rural England to the dust and heat of Gibraltar. Though still more celebrated for his kitchen sink dramas, Tony Richardson - whose daughter, the late Natasha Richardson made her debut in this movie at age four - brilliantly handles the battle scenes where things turn from farce to horror as all that foolish pomp and pageantry is cut down by Russian guns (ironically enough, stolen from the British side!).
And yet, history is such a nebulous thing. Revisionists now insist Lord Cardigan’s charge was neither foolhardy nor calamitous but a brave attempt to rescue the day. Which bizarrely implies the Errol Flynn movie got it right. See both versions and judge for yourself.