The charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War is probably the most famous military disaster in history.
On the 25th October 1854, an ambiguously worded order caused five regiments of British light cavalry – 660 men led by Lord Cardigan – to charge down a valley headlong into massed Russian artillery. When the survivors returned to their lines they had left 245 cavalrymen and over 400 horses dead and wounded strewn across the floor of the valley. Was it a monstrous blunder, officer incompetence, plain stupidity, or all of those? Military historians still argue over “the reason why?” to this very day.
Director Tony Richardson’s flawed epic The Charge of the Light Brigade – when released in 1968 – was equally as controversial as the event it depicted. Today, it still remains one of the most misunderstood British films of all time.
In 1936, Warner Bros. production of The Charge of the Light Brigade featured a plotline that was historically ludicrous even by Hollywood standards. Some thirty years later, Tony Richardson decided it was time for a more truthful onscreen depiction of the charge.
Richardson and his scriptwriter, John Osborne, were major anti-establishment figures who had made their names during the British new wave theatre and cinema in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Their anti-authoritarian politics were vividly expressed in their films Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960) and the social satire Tom Jones (1963).
The bawdy comedy romp Tom Jones, financed by United Artists, had been a huge success in the US, winning four Academy Awards including Best Film and Best Director. Following the film’s critical and commercial triumph, Hollywood studios fell over themselves, offering Richardson finance to develop and make whatever films he liked. He chose United Artists again, who now backed his Crimean epic to the tune of $6.5 million ($47.5 million in today’s money) – one of the highest ever budgets for a British film at that time.
Osborne based his script on Mrs. Cecil Woodham-Smith’s scathing expose of the Balaclava fiasco, The Reason Why. It would also reflect the strong opposition to the ongoing Vietnam war which was staunchly supported by Osborne, Richardson and their peers. Meanwhile, Richardson had put together a stellar cast of British actors. John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews were cast in the major roles of, respectively, Lord Raglan, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan. He balanced these renowned elder actors by casting a few of the young “1960s Swinging London” acting set, such as David Hemmings and Mark Burns.
Location filming in Turkey began in May 1967 using 4,000 Turkish soldiers as extras, and then it was back to England to complete the earlier scenes of the film.
Osborne’s original screenplay, later revamped by Charles Wood, firmly depicted that the gross mismanagement of the Crimean War stemmed from the absurdities of the Victorian British class system. In particular the senior commanding officers, who had purchased their commands rather than earning them through experience and merit.
This basically led to inept amateurs leading professional soldiers into battle. The campaign is led by the woefully ineffectual, 65-year-old one-armed Waterloo veteran Lord Raglan – a superb performance from Gielgud. His decision to place Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade under the command of Lord Lucan is pivotal to the disastrous and doomed charge. The insufferable martinet Cardigan and his brother-in-law, the equally petulant Lucan, hate each other with a vengeance. As well as being detestable upper-class fools, they are also both depicted as totally incompetent commanders.
Into this mix enters Captain Louis Nolan (played by Hemmings), who has joined Lord Cardigan’s regiment in England after serving in India.
Cardigan takes an instant dislike to the professional cavalryman whom he calls “That damn Indian”, and has him arrested on a trumped-up charge of ungentlemanly behaviour at dinner in the officer’s mess. To Cardigan’s surprise and fury, Nolan demands a court-martial, threatening to expose Cardigan as the blithering idiot he is. Nolan is swiftly transferred to Raglan’s staff.
The film now proceeds to the Crimea, depicting the dreadful march inland, a cholera outbreak, and the British victory at the Battle of Alma. A month later at Balaclava, the Russians, who have regrouped around the sea-port of Sevastopol, are seen capturing British guns that have been positioned in a Y shaped valley. Raglan dictates a written order to his brigade of cavalry to “Ride into the valley and restore the guns to their rightful owners”. Nolan requests that he personally delivers Raglan’s order to Lords Lucan and Cardigan.
The south valley with the captured guns is visible from Raglan’s higher ground perspective but not Lucan and Cardigan’s, who can only see the well defended north valley. When Lucan receives Raglan’s order from Nolan he asks, “What guns?” An indignant Nolan vaguely waving his arm shouts, “There, my Lord, is the enemy, there are your guns”. Lucan turns to Cardigan, now both sensing the forthcoming disaster, and states, “You have your orders”. Nolan, seeking glory, requests that he be allowed to accompany the 17th Lancers and the Light Brigade begin their advance at a trot. However, now at ground level, Nolan suddenly realises the confusing nature of the geography and that the brigade is advancing down the wrong valley. In panic he wheels his horse and attempts to gain the attention of Cardigan, but a shell explodes above him and his shout turns into a dying scream. The Light Brigade, now at a gallop, continue their heroic charge into the valley of death.
When the film opened in the UK, the media reviews were mixed and not helped by Richardson refusing to allow a London press preview. Most of the critics praised the superb acting, the stunning cinematography, costume design, and Richard Williams’ animated sequences that bridged some of the narrative gaps. However, the general view was a flawed epic that fell well short of its expected greatness.
But in America, both the movie and its director were verbally crucified in the media as the production totally failed to impress critics and audiences alike. They found it muddled and confusing – was it a historical drama or a comedy satire? One critic called it “pacifist propaganda”. Another stated that one would require subtitles to be able to understand what was going on. No doubt on reflection, the film’s dandified Victorian vernacular – with lines such as “Who sir? “You sir” “Me sir?” and “Lucan, you’re a stew-stick”. “And you sir, are not fit to command a troop of knackered tailors on stubbed donkeys” – was far too British and in fact practically alien for US audiences to comprehend. The result was a financial disaster with the film only recouping one million dollars from its $6.5million budget.
Richardson’s directing career would never fully recover from this loss-making epic that was never quite the film it should have been.