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A chronicle of events that led to the British involvement in the Crimean War against Russia and which led to the siege of Sevastopol and the fierce Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854 which climaxed with the heroic, but near-disastrous cavalry charge made by the British Light Brigade against a Russian artillery battery in a small valley which resulted in the near-destruction of the brigade due to error of judgment and rash planning on part by the inept British commanders. Written by
These three stooges thoroughly deserve the censure of history.
First, it should be noted that Tony Richardson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) is not a remake of the Errol Flynn classic adventure film of 1936; rather it is based on the Cecil Woodham-Smith work of military history, "The Reason Why". Both book and film are a debunking of the Tennyson poem. And hard as it is to believe, Richardson's film actually tones down the absurdities of the three principle figures responsible for the debacle at Balaclava. And these three stooges thoroughly deserve the censure of history, for never were the lives of six hundred brave men thrown away more senselessly than with the charge of the Light Brigade.
Richardson depicts the insanity of the Crimean War and Victorian society's glorification of militarism with a death's head sense of humor which makes the horrors of the conflict all the more potent. And he is unsparing in his condemnation of the culture that could glorify so unmitigated a disaster as Balaclava. The film was made at the height of America's involvement in the Vietnam War and it is an implicit critique of that conflict and war in general in that all countries regardless of time and place indulge in the pastime of National Lying. The greater the calamity, the greater the need to lie or glorify, for always the dead must count for something. In that sense the film is universal as well as timeless.
Using animation in the style of the Victorian newspaper caricaturists, during the opening credits, the film quickly details the events that led up to the war. This is also one of the few films to hold the media, in this case the English newspapers of the time, accountable for their actions. Instead of calling for deliberations and a halt to the madness that must inevitably lead to war, the press is shown whipping the British nation into war frenzy. These animated sequences which appear throughout the film to forward the exposition are both wonderfully inventive and wickedly delicious.
Throughout the film which is satiric and misanthropic in tone, the lower classes are shown to be stupid, ugly, and easily led, while the upper classes are shown to be stupid, beautiful, and utterly incapable of leading. Indeed the only decent individuals portrayed are either destroyed or trampled under foot by events and/or the arrogant stupidity of their superiors. Yet Richardson is never judgmental; rather he takes a Kubrickian detached point of view, allowing the viewers to observe the era and its foibles/morals and judge for themselves. And England of the mid-nineteenth century is beautifully recreated here. Hairstyles and uniforms and sets are rendered in exquisite detail. It takes its rightful place along side "Barry Lyndon" and "The Duelists" as among the most successful period recreations.
The film also uses a lot of period colloquialisms such as, "My cherry-bums!" and "All this swish-n-tits has made me randified!" and "You tell that stew-stick of a brother-in-law, that Brudenell to fetch off!" Wonderful, though some first time viewers may have difficulty understanding exactly what has just been expressed. And what a cast! Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews and especially John Gielgud give career topping performances. Gielgud as Lord Raglan, the slightly befuddled commander-in-chief, steals every scene he is in. Aging, tired in mind and body, missing one arm, continuously mistaking the French, ("Our allies, My Lord...") for the enemy, never quite grasping the situation whether in his office or on the field of battle, ("England is pretty, babies are pretty, some table linen is very pretty!") Its a delightful comic turn. And who wouldn't feel sorry for anyone unfortunate enough to be caught between Trevor Howard as the choleric Lord Cardigan, ("The melancholy truth was that his golden head had nothing in it.") and Harry Andrews as the equally bilious Lord Lucan? From the moment we see his saturnine countenance striding up the marble steps of the War Office we know this is a humorless, flint-hearted martinet. Both Lords had a long running personal feud which they quickly placed on an official level as well with unfortunate consequences for the Light Brigade.
David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave are the young romantic leads. Hemmings is Captain Lewis Nolan, a forward thinking career officer with very definite ideas how war should be conducted. He has returned to England after service in India to join Cardigan's regiment, and quickly runs afoul of the Lord in the affair of the "Black Bottle". In reality it involved another officer, who Cardigan placed under arrest for serving porter, (it was actually Moselle) when he had given strict orders that only champagne be served at the mess. Nolan the professional is unstinting in his criticisms or the three amateur Lords conduct of the war, and yet he too will play an unwitting part in the final destruction of the Brigade. A man of honor, whose honor however does not prelude having an affair with his best friends wife. Redgrave as the wife is as always, luminescent. The supporting cast sparkles as well. Mark Dignam as General Airey, Raglan's Chief of Staff, ("Speak up Nolan, he's a bit hard of hearing, and that statue doesn't help!") Howard Marion-Crawford as Lt. General Sir George Brown, Peter Bowles as Captain Henry Duberly, Norman Rossington as Sergeant Major Corbett, ("Right foot, straw foot!") and especially Jill Bennett as a lascivious Fanny Duberly all are very effective. This was also one of the last appearances of the great English classical actor, Sir Donald Wolfit, who would die later that year.
Finally enough cannot be said of Charles Wood's wonderful screenplay. With its exquisite use of the period vernacular it does a superb job of combining characters while paring history down to the essential to reconstruct the chain of events that led up to the destruction of the Light Brigade.
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