Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It’s rare that I watch an older movie twice over a relatively short period of time and it virtually never occurs that after seeing a DVD-sized version I am afforded the opportunity to see the picture in all its original glory on the big screen. But, courtesy of a Victorian-era strand of this year’s Bradford Widescreen Weekend. I was able to do so, and it was well worth the experience to clarify several aspects of the movie.

On second go-round what stood out most were the characters rather than the political commentary and that the military disaster portrayed was caused by simple human error, a miscommunication, rather than the result of a bunch of buffoons being in charge.

Certainly, the approach is unusual for a war movie, a lot less of the glory, courage and glamor of war, and much more, in fact more than ever before, of the details of mounting a campaign. Even a movie as detailed as Apocalypse Now (1979), which had more than its fair share of gung-ho cavalier buffoons at the helm, drew the line at showing the organisational calamity to which every military endeavor will at some time fall victim. War movies, like westerns, tend to stick to the knitting of action rather than consequence and reprisal.

The over-simplification of reasons for Britain going to war are more obviously over-simplified on reappraisal. The effect on Turkey and the extended Middle East of an unopposed Russian invasion would have scarcely borne thinking about, never mind complaining about who or why various countries sought to withstand the aggressor. While applauding the vigor of the animated sequences, their content, and the way director Tony Richardson tries to sway audience opinion, seems dubious.

It’s worth noting that at the time the infamous charge was reported as a debacle by The Times newspaper and the idea that there was anything glorious about it only occurred because a few days later Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote the famous poem that acted as an epitaph to courage. While no attempts are made to embroider the myth of war, and it’s clear the army is mostly made up of people with no other chance of employment (which would as true at any time in the previous millennium), nonetheless the  focus is on personality clashes at the highest level, as various commanders jostle for position and control. But I doubt if personal enmity actually affected decisions on this particular battlefield, although occasional incompetence is readily addressed.

As Lord Cardigan, Trevor Howard gives the greatest performance of the second half of his career when he had shifted away from the romantic hero of Brief Encounter (1945) to gruff characters with a tendency towards the choleric. His portrait of a soldier who bristles against his position in the chain of command even as he tries to impress the importance of hierarchy on his junior officers, is superb, especially as he is in turn puffed up and then torn down by public opinion, and for all he may appear an unsavory character still appears to be catnip to the ladies.

In my previous viewing I had followed the director’s line in taking as our conscience dashing cavalry officer Nolan (David Hemmings), even though he is not quite so principled that he refrains from an affair with the wife Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave) of his best friend. But although he played an integral role in the actual battle, he seems on reflection to be a sop to the film’s backers, a handsome leading man (and beautiful Redgrave) as the apparent audience focus rather than the other individuals who were altogether less attractive personalities.

Instead, what I responded to more was the depiction of the enclosed society of soldiers writ much larger on the big screen than on the small. And yes, this is class-ridden Britain (though when was it not so) at war in 1854, when military advancement was purchased rather than officers promoted for their leadership skills, and far removed from the idealized U.S. Cavalry as portrayed by John Ford when at dances  the officers mixed with the ordinary soldiers.

Errol Flynn in the previous version for which Balaclava was the code to an adventure that took place for the most part in India.

The lower-class recruits, lured by a wage and the promise of glory, are so ill-educated they don’t know their left foot from their right, something of a problem in obeying orders in the field. Where turning raw recruits into soldiers proved manna from heaven for the likes of Robert Aldrich in The Dirty Dozen (1967) or Andrew V. McLaglen in The Devil’s Brigade (1968), here no concessions are made to the sheer brutality of the job.

Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) engages in open warfare with brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews). 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. Commander-in-Chief Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) requires immense skills just to deal with the personalities under his control and comes across as more politically astute and more effectual than another officer who refuses to allow battle to take precedence over breakfast.

The effete Nolan, initially introduced as the good guy who stands up to Cardigan, is revealed as ineffectual, possibly more so than the superiors he so wantonly offends. But since his romance with Clarissa as clearly as opportunistic as Cardigan’s brief fling with the married Mrs Duberly (Jill Bennett) it clears the way for the picture to concentrate on how an army operates and goes to war, to touch upon, unlike most war or historical pictures, as much on what goes wrong as goes right. The splendor of cavalry on parade plays second fiddle to  dead horses, the Crimean heat and the scourge of cholera.

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 the 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) an early Stepford Wife, Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) brilliantly outrageous while John Gielgud (Sebastian, 1968) turns occasional 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, and despite his determination to show up the action as deplorable in fact he achieves the opposite effect, a sense of overwhelming sadness that one mistake can trigger terrible consequence. The action on the big screen is quite magnificent, the detail of costumes and the thundering of the horses bursts out of the screen.

Although it made box office sense to re-team David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave from Blow-Up (1966, from a narrative perspective this is not only misleading but they fail to match the sheer screen magic of the feuding Cardigan and Lucan.

While I would challenge aspects of Richardson’s approach it remains an engrossing watch.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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