Monday, June 29, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Charge of the Light Brigade"

"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is about the arrogance of the aristocracy and military stupidity, a combination that inevitably spells tragic results.

In 1854 during the Crimean War, the light brigade under the command of Lord Cardigan foolishly charged an entrenched army of Russian artillary, and were cut to pieces. Cardigan was a bully and a brute, and an incompetent officer to boot, but because he was also an earl, such behavior was tolerated.

With only a couple of hundred dead, it would have been forgotten as yet another in a long line of military blunders, except for one thing: Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about it which immediately vaulted the incident into the legion of brave-but-disastrous battles that the British so love to enshrine. Indeed, the poem was written and distributed so quickly that troops in Turkey got to read it, no doubt wondering how it possibly related to the bloody massacre they'd barely survived.

Trevor Howard gives a great performance as Lord Cardigan. The character is mercilessly mocked and shown to be an intolerant tyrant, and yet Howard plays him deadly serious. That's the right move, since if we caught him winking to the audience or playing for laughs, the film would play almost like a comedy rather than a tragedy.

John Gielgud plays Lord Raglan, Britain's top military commander, who is so senile and confused that he thinks they're still fighting their old enemies the French. When some French soldiers, who are allied in this war against Russia, ride up to his post one day he thinks they're under attack until his aide reminds him the French are on their side.

The other major part is David Hemmings as Captain Louis Nolan. Unlike the aristocracy who rule the military as their own private fiefdoms, Nolan is a career officer who wants to see the army become a professional endeavour rather than the vanity-soaked plaything of the rich. This quickly makes him a target of the upper-crust bumblers.

Even Lord Raglan, who takes Captain Nolan onto his staff, states that he doesn't like Nolan because "he rides too well" and has a great deal of knowledge about soldiering. "It will be a sad day when England is officered by men who know too well what they are doing. It smacks of murder."

There was another version of "Charge" made in 1936 starring Errol Flynn that was historically a sham. (There were also several silent-film era versions.) The 1968 take is much more accurate, although it still plays around with timelines and characters.

For example, the famous "Black Bottle" scandal is rearranged. In this incident, Lord Cardigan objected to Captain Nolan bringing a black bottle, which he presumed to be porter beer, to the officers' dining table. This was the drink of choice for cavalry officers in the day, but Cardigan considered it common and forbade it from his table. It was actually white wine that just happened to come in a dark bottle, but it turned into a row.

Cardigan demands Nolan apologize, and Nolan refuses, and the issue escalates until he is relieved of duty and arrested. The newspapers get ahold of it, and it becomes a major embarrassment for the British military command. Cardigan is even booed when he goes out in public.

In actuality, the black bottle incident involved another officer, and happened years before the Crimean War.

I don't mind the filmmakers rejiggering the timeline, since the episode further illustrates what a pig-headed blowhard Lord Cardigan was. And they take it even further. Incensed over his humiliation, Cardigan orders a sergeant-major to spy on Nolan. The senior NCO refuses such a dishonorable order, is stripped of the rank it took him 20 years to obtain, and later is flogged and driven from the regiment.

I'm not sure how I feel about the several animated sequences that interrupt the action to provide exposition about the ongoing political climate. They're drawn in the style of political cartoons of the day (especially "Punch" magazine) with England represented as a regal lion and Russia as a menacing bear. They are interesting in that they show the way propaganda was used to whip up the masses. But frankly, every time they came onscreen they reminded me of similar animation from the Monty Python movies.

Made in 1968, "Charge" was a conscious attempt at a more brutal and graphic depiction of violence than war films up to that point. There's one scene where soldiers are playing cricket and otherwise horsing around, while a few steps away at the field hospital a trooper is having his arm sawed off while he's still conscious.

Overall the movie is a fine anti-war drama, but it kind of spreads itself too thin in some places and too thick in others. The stuff showing the incompetence of Lord Cardigan and his ilk is high satire. But the Nolan character is never really fleshed out, other than a subplot about him having an affair with the wife (Vanessa Redgrave) of his best friend, which is both historically dubious and stops the film in its tracks.

On a final note, I should say that in real life Lord Cardigan was very successful at avoiding blame for the disastrous charge. In fact, he was hailed as the hero of the battle for leading a suicidal attack. He even was promoted to Inspector-General of the Cavalry, and the queen bestowed on him the Order of the Bath, one of England's highest honors. Only later did questions arise about his actions. It wasn't until a highly critical 1953 book titled "The Reason Why," upon which this film is partially based, that Cardigan got his comeuppance.

Let us not forget that the Tennyson poem, while undeniably tragic, is actually an exaltation of those who follow the orders of their superiors, even when those giving the orders are fools -- typified by the most famous line: "Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die." By 1968, such pomposity was ripe for skewering.

3 stars

1 comment:

  1. Good critical review, agree with all. Google Lord Cardigan and be surprised by the outrageous priveliges, including an aquital for murder, bribing voters with large cash sums, etc etc.