*** This review may contain spoilers ***
****Some spoilers, but only if you don't know the history**** Tony
Richardson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' made a strong impression
on me on TV in my adolescence, attached as I was to my 1854 volume of
'The Illustrated London News', and with an incipient h/c complex
regarding dashing young men in gold-lace. I still have a soft spot for
the film, despite its historical flaws and dated style.
'The Charge of the Light Brigade' filters the Crimean War through the sensibilities of the Vietnam era. While there is much that deserves satirising in the failings of Lords Raglan, Lucan, Cardigan, & co., the film takes a scattergun approach. Before the action moves to the Crimea, events are freely altered and distorted. The famous 'Black Bottle' incident of 1840, involving Captain John Reynolds, is dragged forward to c. 1853-4 to illuminate Cardigan's absurdity, and Louis Nolan is made the protagonist. In fact, Nolan never served in Cardigan's regiment, and had little, if any, contact with him before the Crimean War. In terms of establishing the relationships between the main characters, and their influence on the plot, this is a significant alteration. The narrative is also fragmented - a series of vignettes, linked by animated Punch cartoons, as if it is trying to be 'Monty Python's Crimean War'. The flashy, black-comedy approach shows its limitations in real-life stories of life-and-death: while taking pot-shots at the top brass is effective, genuine heroism gets lost in gimmickry, and the humour can seem heartless. The makers also decided to dress all the light cavalry in red overalls, thereby losing the point of the uniqueness of the 11th Hussars, as outfitted by Cardigan...
The one part of the film that really takes passionate wing is the charge itself. Here the fictionalisations are minimal. We see Nolan taking the fatal order from Raglan and Airey, down to Lucan; the altercation between them, the famous misunderstanding, "There is the enemy, there are your guns!"; Cardigan's fatalistic "Here goes the last of the Brudenells!"; Nolan's desperate attempt to overtake Cardigan; his death from chest-wounds (the bloody horror of which is toned down - pre-'Bonnie & Clyde', main characters were generally spared on-screen mutilation); the courage, the savagery, the failure to send in support... A stunning re-creation of Elizabeth Thompson Butler's famous painting of the return of the Brigade's broken remnants... The recriminations and bickering beginning while the dead are still warm. This is all so brilliantly and heart-breakingly realised that it is a pity the earlier parts of the film were not so powerful, losing their way in trying to be too funny and self-consciously trendy.
As to the cast: David Hemmings, then at the height of his popularity, works hard to play Captain Louis Edward Nolan, the nearest thing this deliberately anti-heroic film has to a hero. Unfortunately, he lacks the physical presence and maturity for the rôle. Louis was nearly 37, tall, lean, harsh-featured (more like the young Basil Rathbone); half-Irish, half-English, born in Canada, raised in Scotland and Italy; a gifted professional soldier and author on cavalry with some 20 years service in the Austrian and British armies behind him. One can understand such a man not suffering fools: a mature expert frustrated by the amateurism of his superiors. By contrast, Hemmings - about 10 years too young, slight, pretty, and boyish - comes across more as a rebellious 1960s student. Doubtless that is what 1968 audiences wanted to see, but it's not Lou Nolan. (I recommend Moyse-Bartlett's biography, 'Louis Edward Nolan & His Influence on the British Cavalry' to anyone interested in the real man.) Trevor Howard's Cardigan and Harry Andrews' Lucan, the brothers-in-law from Hell, are better cast in terms of appearance, and are closer to their historical counterparts in characterisation. It is difficult to exaggerate Cardigan - 'Jim the Bear' was a genuinely bizarre character, a martinet, playboy, and eccentric - and Howard scores on most of the salient features. Lucan is a less flamboyant figure, but was actually the more culpable and malign. Raglan (John Gielgud) is overdone: indecisive as he could be, he was less the senile ninny here depicted than simply a man out of his depth after too many years behind a desk.
The portrayal of Fanny Duberly (Jill Bennett) is frankly libellous. E. E. Tisdall's book 'Mrs. Duberly's Campaigns' (1963), based on her letters and diaries, was available when the film was made, but the scriptwriters apparently ignored it. If they wanted to demonstrate Cardigan's womanising, they should have invented a fictional doxy, not co-opted Fanny. Had she been depicted as she really was, with her protective attitude to her husband, her courage and vitality, she would have made an engagingly spirited female lead: but the characterisation we are given - an empty-headed Cardigan-groupie - is gratuitously offensive. The other main female character, Clarissa (the real Mrs Morris was named Amelia) seems to have been invented solely to give the director's ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave) a chance to flit around vapidly in a crinoline. Her affair with Louis is a two-dimensional fictitious sub-plot, which seems as if it has been inserted under the mistaken assumption that women won't watch a war film unless there's some 'romance' thrown in.
So, the film is pretty much a curate's egg. One could do worse than to read George Macdonald Fraser's 'Flashman at the Charge' for a more consistently witty (and well-researched) version of the same story. (The film's depiction of Fanny Duberly is much more like Elspeth Flashman!) But do watch the climactic battle!
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