It’s worth remembering that Britain, led by roughly the same type of commander lampooned here, won the Crimean War and that initially this particular engagement, despite the deaths, was celebrated for its valour by poet Lord Tennyson, in much the same way as famous defeats like Dunkirk and The Alamo somehow managed to achieve the status of some kind of victory in the public perception. It’s also worth noting that the documentary-style realisation of Dunkirk, (2017) and to that extent Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) owe much to Tony Richardson’s approach, both films more interested in the bigger picture than individual acts of heroism.
And our conscience here, dashing cavalry officer Nolan (David Hemmings), is not quite saintly, engaged in an affair with the wife Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave) of a friend. Despite the director’s rush to judgement, his approach displays a refreshing change to a genre where acts of selfless courage were the norm. Setting aside the occasional self-reverential artistic lapse, it’s an excellent depiction of class-ridden Britain at war in 1854, an era when military advancement was purchased without any consideration to the leadership skills such high-ranking officers required. I’m never sure if John Ford invented the camaraderie of his Cavalry in westerns, where at dances the officers mixed with the ordinary soldiers, but here the two classes are kept apart.
And while Richardson clearly wants to blame the class system for the military calamity, the outcome is a no-holds-barred ultra-realistic portrayal of war in in all its sordid glory. At its heart are the machinations of senior commanders jostling for position and control and, much as with Field Marshal Montgomery and General Patton in World War Two, allowing personal enmity to affect decisions.
The two biggest culprits are Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) and brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) in charge of the ill-fated charge who openly spout bile at each other, remain deliberately obtuse, and are, nonetheless, a joy to watch. Cardigan is irascible to the point of apoplexy, incredibly brave, vainglorious, a vindictive sex-mad peacock, with an odd selection of principles (refuses to deal with spies, for example). Nothing can beat a quite marvellous spat between the pair over how to pitch tents. Both, however, are a vast improvement on the ineffectual commander-in-chief Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) whose idea of tactics is to “form the infantry nicely” and another commander who refuses to let the simple matter of being under attack ruin his breakfast.
At the other end of the scale are the poor recruits, drawn from the lower classes, so ill-educated they don’t know their left foot from their right (something of a necessity in obeying orders in the field), lured by the promise of glory and a job, and find themselves turned into horsemen in the most brutal fashion.
In the middle is the effete Nolan, initially introduced as the good guy, who believes horses should be treated with kindness and stands up to Cardigan. His romance with Clarissa is a masterpiece of nuance, all furtive glances, hardly a word spoken. And he has a pivotal role in sending the cavalry in the wrong direction at the Battle of Balaclava, causing the fatal charge.
It’s episodic in structure, characters bobbing in and out, some for comedic purposes, and without the battle it’s doubtful the picture would have been made for, excepting the high-level squabbling, there’s little inherently dramatic. And possibly that’s to the movie’s benefit for it clears the way to concentrate on how an army operates and goes to war, the focus, unlike most war or historical pictures, being as much on what goes wrong as goes right. So the horses dying during the voyage and callously dumped overboard and the men marching through Crimean heat and afflicted by cholera take centre stage rather than lavish sequences of soldiers on splendid parade.
On the downside, you have to accept the director’s version of the war’s causes, British imperialism don’t you know, rather than Russian aggression as a result of religious conflict in the Middle East. And there’s narrative indecision, various characters permitted interior monologue for no particular reason except artistic impulse. Mrs Duberley (Jill Bennett) wife of the paymaster (Peter Bowles) is permitted to accompany the expedition for the sole purpose it would appear of being shagged by Cardigan.
The detail of what exactly went wrong on the battlefield is obscured by the fact that Nolan, who hand-delivered the famous order to attack, itself unclear, died in battle, so it’s like one of those Netflix documentaries about unsolved murders, fascinating but ultimately annoying. If incompetence is measured in casualties, apart from this one charge the British came out better than the other participants, 40,000 dead compared to three times as many among their French allies and more than ten times as many among the Russian enemy.
The acting is of a very high quality, David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1968) as good as I’ve ever seen him, Vanessa Redgrave (Blow-Up, 1966), except for her deception a Stepford Wife Victorian-style, Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) brilliantly outrageous and John Gielgud (Sebastian, 1968) who turns befuddlement into a high art.
Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, 1963) makes some bold choices, not least in what is included and what is left out, the battle of the tents, fake news (from The Times!), soldiers facing the lash, the dashing charge and its terrible aftermath, the animated sequences, and his revolutionary soundtrack. Sergio Leone might have claimed the artistic high ground with the buzzing fly at the start of Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) but there’s little in film music of the time – beyond Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score – to compare with the sound of a fly playing over the end credits or its inclusion during the march when men are literally dropping like flies. This is a very different kind of curate’s egg, absolutely brilliant in parts, and never dull.
Unfortunately, there’s a topical parallel, Crimea having been invaded several years back by Russia and now the whole region aflame.
This was the first home-grown excursion into the all-star-cast business – other British movies in that ilk, originating from these shores, previously headlined by a Hollywood star like Gregory Peck (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), Kirk Douglas (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) or George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966). And I can see why the new box office stars David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, repeating their Blow-Up (1966) teaming, would have, in the narrative sense, occupied center stage. But given nobody knew for certain what caused the disastrous charge and that it would taken place anyway in the picture, the far more entertaining approach would be to concentrate entirely on the likes of the feuding Cardigan and Lucan, two characters who leapt off the screen. Outside of the battle itself, Nolan’s sole purpose, it would seem, was to point out that the army treated its horses badly, a point the audience would have easily picked up without Nolan’s display of alternative horsemanship. Still, all told, at the risk of repeating myself, an excellent watch.