Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)

"If they can't fornicate, they can't fight!
"And if they don't fight hard, I'll flog their backs raw -
"For all their fine looks!"
To date, two major films have been produced about the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. The first, Michael Curtiz's 1936 effort with Errol Flynn, is an escapist imperial adventure without a shred of historical accuracy. Its simple story reduces the Crimean War's messy imperial politics into personal revenge, catching the glorious spirit of Tennyson's poem in exciting style.

Tony Richardson's 1968 film is much more accurate, but equally problematic. It's certainly impressive in scope and pageantry, and its damning indictment of military idiocy remains strong. But it also suffers from a disjointed tone, unsure if it wants to be a rollicking satire or a powerful anti-war statement.

In 1854, England and France edge towards war with Russia, whose ambitions in Eastern Europe menace the Ottoman Empire. As war fever intensifies, the 11th Hussars, under ruthless Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), recruits criminals, derelicts and assorted scum. Idealistic Captain Louis Nolan (David Hemmings) joins the regiment, but immediately clashes with Cardigan. Cardigan tries to cashier Nolan from the army over a trivial incident, but commander Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) sides with the junior officer. The clash of egos continues through the war, where the woefully unprepared British Army bumbles through a series of engagements with crack Russian troops, culminating in the titular Charge at Balaclava.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is largely a black comedy, a Doctor Strangelove for the 1850's. Drawing on Cecil Woodham-Smith's book The Reason Why, Richardson and writer Charles Wood attack the British Army's class-dominated officer corps. This inequitable system allowed officers to purchase commissions. Designed to prevent the rise of a powerful military caste as in Germany or France, it effectively populated the Army with rich dilettantes and dullards. Forty years removed from Waterloo, the Brits were in poor shape for a major war.

Richardson's portrait is broad but effective. Cardigan embodies the pompous aristocrat to a T, amoral, egotistical, vain and none-too-bright, expecting unconditional admiration. He loathes Nolan for his Indian service and ambition, and nurses hatred for brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), his division commander. The senile Raglan literally fights the last war, confusing the Russians with his French allies. Under such dismal leadership the army falls apart in the Crimea, inept tactics compounded by poor supplies and cholera. A disaster is inevitable.

Richardson provides solid direction, with near-perfect art direction and photography. The battle scenes are epic in scope, with the elite Turkish Presidential Cavalry expertly marshaled, and David Watkins' widescreen photography makes it clear how Raglan garbled his fateful order. The fighting itself is a bit underwhelming, however, Richardson going for the gritty details rather than grand scope. John Addison provides a marvelous score, mixing imperial bombast with mellow tragedy.

Special praise goes to Richard Williams' brilliant animation sequences. Based on Punch magazine's political cartoons, Williams delivers some creative imagery: an English lion pummeling a Russian bear, Great Britain collectively crying out "Poor little Turkey!", Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dancing an angelic victory waltz. These sequences are so stunning they nearly overshadow the live action.

Where Light Brigade falters is its story structure. The superfluous romance between Nolan and Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave) is ill-judged filler. Early scenes dote on the 11th's common troopers, especially the Sergeant Major (Norman Rossington) whose refusal to spy for Cardigan ruins his career. Once we arrive in the Crimea these angles are unceremoniously dropped, much to the film's detriment.

On another level, the opening hour's brutal satire gives way to an awkward tonal dissonance in the war scenes. We laugh at Raglan's nonsensical pronouncements and Cardigan's awkward tryst with Fanny Duberly (Jill Bennett), but the battle scenes and soldiers' suffering are played deadly serious. It just doesn't add up, and Light Brigade becomes unwieldy and uneven.

Trevor Howard gives a masterful turn; blustering and chewing scenery in inimitable fashion, this is one of Howard's best performances. Harry Andrews matches him rant for rant, while John Gielgud's droll underplaying provides welcome balance. David Hemmings gives a layered performance, dashing and indignant but arrogant in his own right. Vanessa Redgrave's token role is forgettable but Jill Bennett is hysterically randy. Norman Rossington gets a rare standout role, playing his part with boisterous gravitas. Other roles go to Howard Marion-Crawford, Alan Dobie, Corin Redgrave and Donald Wolfit.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a mixed bag. It's easy to laugh at the '36 version's anachronisms, but it's much more entertaining than Richardson's take. Nonetheless, its depiction of upper class arrogance and military bumbling is certainly worth watching.

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Florina said...

This movie was an insult to English history; that's why it flopped at the box office. Cardigan's regiment was not the motley collection of rascals, but one of the best in the army, and he was a very popular commander with the troopers (although hated by officers). Cardigan's dismission of "Indian officers" was documented in the early 40-s, when many of those who served the East Indian Company underwent poor training and rarely engaged in "proper" battles. In the middle 50-s such concepts were outdated and many former "Indians" served under Cardigan. Nolan never served under or conflicted with Cardigan, neither was he a proponent of "new model army" (having bought most of his commissions). Perhaps the most disgraceful part of the movie is its presentation of Fanny Duberly as a braindead whore, greedy for blood. Being the only depiction in colour of the Charge, this movie is preserved from the deserved oblivion by the very feeling its creators wished to destroy - memory of martial glory and the commitment to nation's history.

Groggy Dundee said...

Your first sentence assumes filmgoers are history buffs which I highly doubt.

The rest of your criticism are well-taken up to a point. After reading a few books on the Charge (Woodham-Smith's The Reason Why and Brighton's Hell Riders) I can say it's not especially accurate. Nolan was intended as a composite of all the officers Cardigan had trouble with, including John Reynolds. Fanny Duberly could easily have sued for libel had she been alive in 1968.

While I'm critical of the movie on many levels, however, I don't think it's fundamentally wrong in its depiction of the Crimean War: one of the worst-fought wars in English, if not world history. Raglan and his gang of incompetents made sure the army was poorly run and deficient in medical supplies and clothing, fought the battles as badly as possible and fluffed a chance to capture Sevastopol in fairly short orders. The Charge is just the apotheosis of this horrifying conflict, but a perfectly valid shorthand for it.