Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Charge of the Light Brigade: Tony Richardson's 1968 Motion Picture

I make no secret of the fact that I remain a sincere fan of this movie and have remained so since I first saw it in the early 1970s. Director Tony Richardson captured the essence of Britain's Victorian military and civil society of the mid-nineteenth century in an often satirical portrayal of the events leading up to the famous, ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade.

A champion of the emerging Free Cinema movement of 1960's Britain, this move was Richardson's flagship project for his Woodfall Films production company. Thousands of original uniform costumes were created to make the film which was shot on location in London and Turkey. The DVD wide-screen format shows to full effect the sweeping cinematography of David Watkin, conveying a genuine sense of tactical geography as the battle of Balaclava unfolded to the final scene and subject of the film, the Charge itself.

Each Act of the final screen-play by Charles Wood is bridged with animated sequences by Richard Williams and his team, drawn from contemporary caricatures of the period (Punch magazine). Injecting the movie with satirical, often humorous political commentary, these sequences provide another level of historical background and a feel to events and is something which remains unique in cinema to this day.
Screen shot: Howard as Cardigan leading the 11th in the final charge
The battles of Alma and Balaclava are addressed, largely within their relationship to the Light Brigade and they look and sound superb. Technically well observed, replete with smoke obscured battlefields, accurate pyrotechnics and recoiling artillery, the visuals are dramatically spectacular. The battle sequences as with the scenes throughout are shot with each telling a story, drawing in peripheral aspects of the Crimean War as a whole. From the Russian habit of laying low on the lost field of battle to loot and shoot foraging 'allies' to the transposition of Captain Nolan for Reynolds in the Black Bottle Affair, Richardson manages to incorporate the most intriguing observations from his principle source; Cecil Woodham Smith's The Reason Why.

The film is supported through seminal performances from a stellar cast. Key characters and portrayals include Trevor Howard's ownership of the Lord Cardigan role in the same way that Keith Michelle owned the memory of Henry VIII and George C Scott the memory of General Patton. No less successful was the domineering delivery of Lord Lucan by Harry Andrews and the tragic, charismatic interpretation of Captain Nolan by David Hemmings. Lord Raglan is satirically yet sympathetically played by Sir John Gielgud and sound support is provided through Mark Burns (Captain Morris) and Vanessa Redgrave (Clarissa) both of whom have key but largely enabling roles within the context of this script. Seldom referenced with smaller, sometimes amusing and colourful supporting roles are Peter Bowles and Jill Bennet as Captain and Fanny Duberly and Roy Pattison as the fallen Regimental Sergeant Major of the 11th Hussars being the regiment through which Richardson looks at his subject.

If anyone has a real interest in the Charge of the Light Brigade and battle of Balaclava and has not done so, I cannot recommend more strongly that they read Cecil Woodham Smith's book The Reason Why just prior to viewing this movie for the first time. As a stand alone historical drama in it's own right, it is fine enough but with the benefit of perspective from familiarity of the subject matter upon which this movie is based, I trust you will find as I do that this movie is in fact a seminal work and the last cinematographic word on the matter.

Only one niggling and inexplicable technical flaw remains in the consistent cherry coloured breeches worn across all regiments in the Light Brigade - not just the 11th. In spite of this minor curiosity, this is a rare and intelligent movie which treats it's audience accordingly. It has for several decades remained in my personal top ten favourite movies of all time. The good news is that it is also readily available and has been in constant release on DVD for some years.


  1. I read that the trousers were all the same colour as the director wanted them that way to help his visual displays. There was a detailed two part article about the costume advisors part in the filming, way back in an old military history magazine, though I forget all the relevant details. Sorry.

  2. Thanks Joppy. I know this is a tall order but if you ever find that article, if there's any chance of scanning it I'll not hesitate to upload it onto this blog. Cheers.

  3. Excellent site. I feel ambivalent towards Charge of the Light Brigade. It's a fascinating story yet I think a flawed movie; the dissonance between the social satire and antiwar message doesn't really work for me, even though I admire the acting and technical aspects. Now that I've read several books on the Crimea I'm apt to pick historical nits, too. The animated scenes are my favorite part.

    John Addison's score is available on CD and worth tracking down. Besides the music itself, the liner notes have detailed info on the production. To build on Joppy's comment, Tony Richardson argued at length with his historical adviser Andrew Mollo over costumes. Richardson wanted infantry during the Alma scene wearing blue blazers for the aesthetic effect, which caused a major row. Mollo won that argument but not, apparently, over the cavalry uniforms.

    One minor error: I believe Norman Rossington of A Hard Day's Night is the Sergeant Major not Roy Pattison, unless we're thinking of different characters.