THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE ran head-on into heavy resistance from ordinary moviegoers in 1968, taking crippling losses at the box-office. Safely removed from the fray, the self-appointed aristocracy of critics fired volleys of praise or blame on those responsible. Lavishly produced, with some wicked performances, it’s leagues ahead of the classic, fiction-fancying 1936 version in terms of accuracy and attitude, design and detail. As directed by Tony Richardson, this blunder-blistering epic takes a scythe not to noble horses and gallant riders but to martial vainglory, national pomp and class cruelty. If the cake in war movies is their exciting battle recreations, this one gives you a few slices while rubbing your face in the less-tasty ingredients. *
In the mid 1850s, international politics and outsized egos did one of their dependable periodic nosedives into needless catastrophe when England and France decided to help Turkey fight Russia. Score four for Empires, three for incompetent leaders, two for religious persecution used as motive, zero for common sense (allow one post-game point to Florence Nightingale). The Crimean War was a 29-month disaster of battlefield butchery and rampant disease. Instead of slogging into the whole confusing mess, which would further bum-out a Vietnam War-soured crowd, Richardson and screenwriter Charles Wood chase-cut. They start the ball with a brilliant satiric animated title segment from Richard Williams, then use this device later for montage exposition, moving the narrative and players to the emblematic focus event: the Oct.25,1854 British cavalry attack of the title. **
Ginned up for glory in their training, a brigade of cavalry has spirit to spare, evinced by the likes of fiery Captain Nolan (David Hemmings), but the commander, Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), is a pompous bully, and his superiors, Lord’s Raglan (John Gielgud) and Lucan (Harry Andrews) are such bumbling incompetents that, were they not part of the ruling elite, couldn’t put their pants on without a map. A subplot of an affair between Nolan and his best friends wife (Vanessa Redgrave) doesn’t generate much heat, and to not undercut their fools-parade theme, the direction, writing and editing leave out material that wouldn’t serve their point. Things are a bit choppy, the blunt finale is too on-the-nose, and the actual charge, its heroic aspects played down, ends up somewhat anti-climatic. The prior action scene, the Battle of the Alma, has more impact.
The actors give it their all; Howard, Gielgud and Andrews especially rip into it. Hemmings is properly vigorous, but his then-voguish brand of elan lacks the element of charm that would make you care much about the fellow he’s playing. After superb portrayals in Sons and Lovers and Mutiny On The Bounty, most of Howard’s work in the 60s was in cut-to-fit officer roles, but he was given full rein here to relish the bluster, lust and venom of the wretched Cardigan. Primarily a stage creature, Gielgud’s screen credits in the decade were limited to prestige cameos (Becket), but he’s thankfully given more to do here, etching Raglan as a fuddy-duddy dolt. Andrews was busiest of the lot in the 60s, with 32 feature film roles, a third of them conveying authority in soldier garb (most memorably in The Hill). The trouble-plagued location shoot in Turkey, with thousands of extras provided by their army, is very impressive. John Addison delivers a sturdy score. Costing around $8,000,000 to mount, it did reasonably well in Britain, but flopped in the States, 99th place for the year with a gross of just $2,900,000. ***
With Jill Bennett (giddily tackling her unfairly written real-life character, adventuress Fanny Duberly), the much-missed Norman Rossington (excellent as a loyal, long-serving sergeant cruelly treated by Cardigan), Mark Burns, Peter Bowles, T.P. McKenna, Rachel Kempson, Natasha Richardson and, in a disguised cameo, Donald Wolfit. 131 minutes, cut from an original 145.
* Canonizing to the left of them—-like the original tally-ho, the 1936 version was a glorious mess; glorious due to a dashing new star in Errol Flynn, and the thrilling action scenes ending with a victorious “huzzah!”; a mess because of its wholesale fabrication of history and postmortem verdict of animal abuse. Immortalizing the charge in verse and film fixed the idea that Britain was the big bulldog when in fact France sent twice as many men and suffered double the casualties. They just didn’t have Tennyson, Warner Brothers and Errol Flynn to cover their folie de la guerre.
** “Theirs not to reason why“—–Laurence Harvey bought the rights to author Cecil Woodham-Smith’s classic 1953 book on the subject, “The Reason Why”, and John Osborne (who’d done the screenplay for Richardson’s Tom Jones) wrote the first draft. When legal issues arising over the production settled in Richardson’s favor, Harvey was placated by a small role in the film. Richardson cut it out of the final print. Osborne left the project in a huff and Charles Wood took over the writing. Wood, beyond writing the screenplays for Help! and How I Won The War, was noted for much work on things military, “pro-soldier and anti-war”, backed by his own service, five years as a commando/paratrooper in the 1950s incarnation of the 17th Lancers, the outfit that rode “into The valley of Death” back in 1854.
*** Wounded in action—-after Blow-Up and Camelot, flamboyant 26-year-old David Hemmings seemed bound for glory. In ’68, along with ‘Charge‘ he was part of the psychedelic silliness of Barbarella as well as the forgotten heist comedy Only When I Larf and another anti-war picture—WW2 this time—The Long Day’s Dying: critics panned it, but the barely available item has a fervent fan base. After the failure of ‘Charge‘ and the epic Alfred The Great the following year, he spiraled into a decade-long run of dreadful, obscure duds that quashed his leading man career. Choice middle-aged character parts eventually showed up—Islands In The Stream, Murder By Decree, Gladiator, Last Orders.