War Movie Mondays: ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’

This week’s pick is the Tony Richardson 1968 remake of The Charge of the Light Brigade which tells the story of a British expeditionary force sent to the Crimean peninsula in 1854 to halt the spread of Russian dominance over the vastly deteriorating Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War (1853-56) was considered to be the first modern war of the Victorian age. It was also a war fought by those which represented Christendom throughout Eastern Europe and throughout the holy lands.

The film stars some of Britain’s most celebrated actors: Trevor Howard (Maj. Gen. James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan), Sir John Gielguld, (Field Marshal James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron of Raglan), Vanessa Redgrave (Clarissa), Harry Andrews, (Lt. Gen. The Earl of Lucan), and David Hemmings, (Capt. Louis Edward Nolan).

The film opens with beautiful illustration which shows the mighty Russian bear terrorizing a Turkey wearing a fez hat. The other nations of Europe such as Italy, and the French Eagle look towards England, the sleeping Lion which awakens, lets loose a tremendous roar, and puts on a policeman’s helmet as a show of force that England will flex its might in this international affair.

The opening sequence which is done entirely through animation shows how Britain represents progress, industry, might, and the where with all to conduct policy in the name of the queen. It is a fabulous opening sequence which helps to establish the film and to allow the viewer to witness this pivotal time in Victorian history.

The introduction of Lord Cardigan (Howard) inspecting his Cavalry troops establishes him as a royal and a man blinded by his own ambitions, and how his men are expected to fight and act under his command. Many men with prominent backgrounds purchase their commissions into military service as officers, which was a common practice in those days, to experience military service and are corrupted by false notions of war and adventure.

Most of the officers are incredibly incompetent and are not concerned in the practices of training or leading their men for the most part. Many of the officers have absurd notions of the conflict and are not well informed as to the reasons for going off to war.

One of my many favorite sequences in the film occurs when British forces are underway to sea and make their way towards the Crimea. Queen Victoria raises her petticoat to release a massive armada of warships which steam towards Gibraltar, entering the Mediterranean. A group of clouds on the horizon, signifying a French Eagle, joins the British armada. Caricatures of Raglan, Lucan, and Cardigan show the intense rivalry among the military men, especially Lucan and Cardigan who disliked each other intensely.

Cardigan follows the armada by way of his private yacht with some aristocratic friends in accompany to be spectators of the war. Lucan and Cardigan race alongside one another into Calamita Bay which is under siege by a terrible storm.

John Gielguld (Lord Raglan) is the man who is to command the expedition to the Crimean peninsula. Lord Raglan is a man who has served in the British Army for more than fifty years. He was severely wounded at the battle of Waterloo and lost the use of an arm. Gielguld plays a fantastic role as a feeble minded old General who has to constantly be reminded by his aide and military planners that they are fighting the Russians, and are not to attack their French allies.

During the scene where the British land ashore at Calamita Bay in the Crimea and march inland to the River Alma to engage the Russian army, Raglan deploys his forces along with his French counterpart, Gen. St. Arnaud. British infantry comprised mostly of the Scottish Highland brigades march up the heights to attack the Russians head on in a pointless and ill conceived execution. This first engagement of the war proves disaster for the British and for its troops who are cannon fodder for the false heroics of their commanders.

While in route, many soldiers begin to fall ill and die due to a cholera outbreak which has contaminated the water supplies the British and French have brought with them. In one scene one of Lucan’s adjutants tells him that eleven men have died from cholera while others are falling in their tracks while marching. Lucan barks that they “Aren’t here to drop in the vapors like girls.” He orders his men to get the sick on their feet and to proceed inland to establish their headquarters to conduct military operations in the region.

There are a few lull parts throughout the film but for the most part, it is a solid war period piece. The acting is top notch and the final half hour of the film shows the disastrous attack at Balaclava on October 25, 1854 where the Charge of the Light Brigade occurs, when the British Cavalry try to reclaim their stolen artillery from the Russians. The scenes of the battle are magnificent and show the horrific consequences that sacrificed one of Great Britain’s finest military units.

The Crimean War is a rather interesting war which kick started a new age for military technological advancement, and how strategy of the nineteenth century would change future wars. Box formations, frontal assaults, and disregard for men and materials would change due to the disastrous nature of how the war was conducted by Britain and its allies. Sadly, more men died from disease and lack of logistical support than they did of battle wounds. Some eighty nine thousand ally troops died from disease alone.

Richardson’s direction is flawless and wonderfully executed. The animation sequences, the historical research, and costuming is fantastic. The film itself seems as if it is a real military operation with Richardson commanding it. It is one of my top favorite British military movies which has an honored spot in my movie library.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is available on DVD disc from MGM/UA and can be rented through Netflix.

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