March 5, 2006
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: David Hemmings, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud

What it's about. Ambitious Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) joins the Light Brigade, one of England's foremost cavalry units, circa 1854. The brigade is headed by Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), who in turn is commanded by Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), who reports to aging Lord Raglan (John Gielgud). Cardigan and Lucan despise each other, and Raglan is so confused he often thinks the Crimean war is to be fought against former enemy (but current ally) France.

Within this regrettably humorous military incompetence (a subplot concerns the placement of an awkward statue of the Duke of Wellington) resides Captain Nolan, a brilliant but insubordinate officer. Nolan dispatches the order from Raglan to Lucan that launches The Charge of the Light Brigade, later immortalized by poet Tennyson as a sterling example of military heroism.

How others will see it. Classic film fans may recognize some of the names involved in the production: Gielgud, of course, and Vanessa Redgrave, who plays a soldier's wife. Hemmings, of Blowup and Barbarella fame, provides another familiar face. Behind the camera was Tony Richardson, one of the great forgotten English directors, and the husband (at the time) of female lead Redgrave.

Since the film smacks of quailty, its major problem is that its intended audience is well-educated Britons. Those on the opposite side of the Atlantic may struggle with the British dialogue, and are unlikely to understand the larger picture of the Crimean War any better than John Gielgud, who keeps forgetting that the enemy is Russia and not France.

Women viewers may be disappointed that Vanessa Redgrave's role is so minor. She barely registers in the film's second half. The only other consequential female role is that of Mrs. Duberly (Jill Bennett), a headstrong and rather stupid woman.

How I felt about it. The Charge of the Light Brigade is exemplary in terms of dialogue, direction, acting, and costumes, with the exception that comic relief is overdone. Officers are human and make mistakes, but they (hopefully) are not fools.

Although the movie is a period piece, to a degree it reflects its 1968 era, when it was fashionable to challenge authority. It is implied that the English military would have been better off if brash Captain Nolan had been allowed to run things, top to bottom. As it turns out, England won the Crimean War after Nolan's contribution was relegated to a historical footnote.

As an event, the lesson of the Charge of the Light Brigade is that unclear orders, rash heroism, and limited military intelligence provide a recipe for disaster. As a movie, the lesson is that a specialized historical drama can succeed as a film, but fail as a marketable cultural commodity.

The Victorian-era British army is instead identified by films such as Gunga Din (1939) and The Man Who Would be King (1975), which are Hollywood productions with name stars and mainstream themes (England is great, glory is fleeting, exotic cultures are backward). Adventure, bounty, the might of England, and the courage of soldiers affirm our Victorian stereotypes, while showing the petty bickering, arrogance, and cluelessness of noblemen officers instead challenges our beliefs.