The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968)
***There are plot spoilers, but this is a well-documented historical event***
This was not the first film to be made about the famous charge during the battle of Balaclava, in the Crimean War. But it is by far the best, and has held up incredibly well, over the decades since I first saw it at the cinema, then aged just sixteen. When I noticed last week that it was to be shown on TV, I happily sat down to watch it again, for the first time since that night forty-eight years ago.
Director Tony Richardson caught the mood of the sixties, using some of the acting darlings of the time, including Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings. He then added a crop of distinguished thespians, not only John Geilgud, but Alan Dobie, Harry Andrews, and Jill Bennett. The film also features the use of animated political cartoons, a nod to the contemporary satirical pieces often used in the newspapers during that war. Even the accurate clothing and uniforms shown in the film were popular during the 1960s, with trendy young men and women buying army red coats and cavalry jackets, at fashionable boutiques in London.
The bulk of the film deals with setting the scene just prior to the outbreak of the war. Idle cavalry officers sit around in the Officers’ Mess, drinking and playing cards. They engage in horse riding and drills, more concerned about the cut and fit of their uniforms than their military skills. By contrast, the poor working-class recruits are subjected to stern discipline, and long hours of hard work, preparing the horses, and cleaning the stables. They live in barracks with their wives and children, their only privacy a sheet hung over a length of rope.
The senior officers and High Command are portrayed as a bickering, vain gaggle of ageing men, most of whom had served under Wellington, and fought the French at Waterloo, almost forty years earlier. Geilgud is perfect as Lord Raglan, a man almost senile, who is later given overall command of the British forces in Russia. Likewise Trevor Howard, as the pompous and womanising Lord Cardigan, who pays for his cavalry brigade from his own funds, insisting on immaculate uniforms, and strict behaviour. Topping off this trio of bombastic generals is Lord Lucan, played by Harry Andrews, the man given command of all the cavalry, much to the annoyance of the outraged Cardigan.
Young Captain Nolan, played by David Hemmings, arrives at the regiment. He soon upsets the other officers, especially Lord Cardigan, by his unusual behaviour. He is kind to the horses, fair to the men he commands, and refuses to take part in the petty niceties and squabbles with his fellow officers in the mess. He is also in love with the wife of his best friend, Captain Morris (Mark Burns) who is an officer in the Lancers. Clarissa Morris, played to 19th century style perfectly by Vanessa Redgrave, returns Nolan’s affections, but they keep their affair a secret from her husband, as war approaches.
News that they are to go to war against Russia, supposedly in defence of Turkey, and that France will be their ally, rather than the enemy, throws the regiments into turmoil. Preparations get under way, and wives are allowed to travel with the officers, and some of those of the enlisted men too. After a long sea voyage in difficult conditions, the expedition finally lands in the Crimea, and heads for the Russian stronghold of Sevastopol. They show little regard for their Russian adversaries, and soon discover that they are unprepared for the harsh conditions in the region. Before they even get as far as a battle, many are soon dead or dying from all manner of maladies, especially typhoid.
One they stop to set up camp, the rivalries of the high-ranking officers become ridiculous in the extreme, with one telling the men to line up their tents in a certain fashion, then another coming along to make them move them all back to how they were in the first place. Camp life reflects the situation at home, with the High Command dining at fancy tables in evening dress, as the ordinary soldiers struggle to make the best of much worse conditions. As crazy as this must appear to the modern viewer, it is an accurate look at the life led during that time.
When they finally encounter the Russian Army at the battle of The Alma, Lord Raglan decides not to use the cavalry, who have to stand idly watching, as their officers continue to argue about who is actually in charge of them. Nolan becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of action, and the apparent reluctance of his superiors to make any decision. He is sent to act as a messenger, after once again upsetting Lord Cardigan, and considered to be in disgrace. As they proceed to Sevastopol, they again encounter the Russians, this time at Balaclava. When the enemy capture many of the British guns, the cavalry are sent into action, tasked with getting them back.
The Light Brigade is drawn up in formation, with the Lancers behind, and the Heavy Brigade in reserve. The valley is overlooked by the officers of the High Command, as well as some wives, reporters, and non-combatant officers. The atmosphere seems more like a picnic, than the command of men in a fierce battle. Unfortunately, neither Cardigan nor Lucan can see the enemy, so Nolan is sent with orders for them to attack. The hot-headed Nolan confronts these Lords, urging them to move forward. Looking along the valley, they can see two positions ahead of them. The Russians to the left are still escaping with the guns, but to the right, they are forming up on both sides, with many cannon, and hundreds of troops.
Still arguing among themselves, Lucan finally orders Cardigan to advance, much to the delight of the excited Nolan, who secretly intends to join in. But Cardigan takes the wrong path, and his six hundred cavalrymen go forward into a hail of shot and bullets. Nolan rushes up, trying to tell the stubborn commander to move to the left. But it is too late, and Nolan is one of the first to be killed by the Russian artillery. On the hill above, the confused Raglan is at a loss to understand the error, but is unable to recall the regiments.
The filming of the battle is second to none. Aerial views of the formed-up cavalry are beautiful to behold, and their advance is shown in a series of slow-motion and real-time scenes that chillingly convey the futile nature of the attack, as men armed only with swords or lances ride forward into the hell of modern warfare. Despite reaching the Russian positions, the remaining cavalry is unable to continue the attack, and has to return to the British lines, many without horses. As the full extent of the folly becomes apparent, the High Command is once again shown arguing, each blaming the other for the mistake. In the real battle, almost half of the six hundred men involved were either killed, wounded, or captured. It has gone down in history as a military blunder, and was immortalised in a poem by Tennyson, just a few weeks after the event.
This is an excellent historical epic, and one of the best made about the British during the 19th century. As well as the leading actors, there are memorable turns from Peter Bowles, as the paymaster, and Jill Bennett, as his flirtatious and unfaithful wife. Norman Rossington is convincing as the sergeant poorly treated by Cardigan, and Alan Dobie impresses as the useless officer, Mogg, who is ridiculed by both his colleagues, and the men he commands.
Here’s a clip.