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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
Stark anti-war film which does not quite bring its ideas to fruition
Tony Richards was an ideas man, in some loose sense a lot like his contemporary 60s director Richard Lester. The two of them were mavericks, often eschewing traditional and reliable modes of film making in preference to trying out unchartered techniques - born out of nothing else but their own imaginations. Lester did this to achieve an original knockabout and racy product, and Richardson did it to achieve a more stark and poignant effect for the supposed thinking-man's 'swinging' audience of the time. However, not all these ideas worked well in practice. The Charge of the Light Brigade is an example of one of these misfires.
The film is a classic piece of late sixties film making; both in the bizarre arty techniques used, and in the bold anti-war message. The idea of the film is to shamelessly point out the blind arrogance that lies behind the decisions made by those at the top to go to war. Arrogance, the film conveys very clearly, which is based purely upon blissful ignorance. The audience is invited to feast upon the bumbling Lord Raglan (John Gielgud), who nonchalantly sits at his desk in the war office and calls the shots based only on his devotion to England's great past, rather than on any rational thought. We meet, and are disgusted with, Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) whose arrogance is the driving force behind all he does. He believes that he is always right no matter what, simply because as the captain he is in charge. He's more concerned with what his men drink out of in the mess, and punishing them for their wrongdoings, rather than on running a well oiled military machine. To him, he is the most important part of that machine.
In contrast to these men is Nolan (David Hemmings), an idealistic military man with 'principles'. He believes in good sound leadership and decision making, and as such is constantly at odds with the stuffy and arrogant attitudes of his superiors - they are always right and he should speak when he's spoken to, even if he has a valid idea. Note Lord Raglan's line: "It is a sad day for Britain when her officers know too much what they are doing." Nolan is the man trying to fight vainly against the ignorance-entrenched system.
All this happens to the backdrop of Britain choosing to join in on a foreign war - to save Turkey from Russia. It is a war Engalnd should not have been involved in, but the arrogant big wigs made the decision to go. In true 60s anti-war style, the arrogance of those in charge of the war machine brings about its own destruction. Nolan was right, Raglan and Cardigan were wrong and didn't care to accept that, the light brigade was lost, and a blaming game ensues. While riding over the corpse of Nolan, Cardigan threw the blame on Lord Lucan, Lucan in turn threw the hot potato to Raglan, and Raglan laid the blame on the poor innocent man who wrote the order that Raglan himself dictated to him. As such, the pointlessness of war, and the destructive capability of blind ignorance based on an arrogance derived solely from power was brought forth clearly.
However, the directing techniques to bring this powerfully stark message to life were not up to the task. Too many dreamy sequences were used which just distract the audience; the script was at times just downright boring; and too often, in the director's eagerness to achieve an arty effect, the powerful meaning of an entire scene was lost. It is one of those films that you really have to pay attention to and concentrate on the whole way through; and this isn't just because The Charge of the Light Brigade is a thinking-man's film, it is because the meaning of many of the scenes is hidden, shrouded behind quite a bit of self-indulgent (or imaginative) imagery. Too often Tony Richardson's 'ideas' simply confuse the audience.
However, as I have said, the film does have a point to make, and this point is evident to all at the end of the film, no matter how many scenes were a little too cryptic. Therefore the film was successful. In addition, there were many great scenes, such as the one where Lord Raglan rides straight through a peaceful anti-war demonstration on his horse, destroying banners and calling the demonstrators traitors. The scene where the British soldiers were seen dying of heatstroke on the plains before even reaching Sebastopol was done well, especially when the scene cut straight to London, where it was reported in the newspapers, untruthfully, that Sebastopol had already fallen. This scene went straight for the jugular in its anti-propaganda and anti-government stance. And of course there is the brilliant period animation showing England as the saviour of the world, and the encourager of world industry and prosperity. These animations contrasted beautifully with the scenes of petty bickering and war-mongering in Lord Raglan's corridors of power.
A great cast and a stark and powerful idea make The Charge of the Light Brigade an interesting film, and at least a good production. The film still rings through in todays international and political climate, and especially shows how not so far we have come, and how many mistakes we have not learned from since the 1960s, and even since the 1850s. However, a sharper script and clearer direction would have helped immeasurably, and would have probably transformed this film into a classic powerhouse, rather than the languishing near miss it is. 6/10
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