Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Charge of the Light Brigade


(La Charge de la Brigade Claire …) wait a minute. This isn’t a French film … I don’t speak French … Ah, yes, it’s an English film, in English, about a war against Russia in the Crimea to free the Turks, and the French are our allies …

The commander of the British forces, Lord Raglan (John Gielgud), is a senile old poop who keeps forgetting that the damn frogs are his allies this time round, not his enemies. Luckily, he has aides around him who can remind him of his error. Not everyone is so lucky. Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan (the magnificent actors Harry Andrews and Trevor Howard) are so consumed with their mutual antipathy that they send a lot of cavalry into a valley surrounded on all sides by cannons in the infamous cock-up immortalized by Tennyson in the tedious poem we all had to read in high school.

War, to the Victorians, was a jolly good show. Until they actually got into it personally, when it became a bit of a rum business. This movie, by the great Tony Richardson, is about the rum business of having incompetent officers. I don’t know if they were actually the total bumblers as portrayed here (with a healthy helping satire), and one review I read flatly didn’t believe it. I have no trouble believing it, especially when you realize how these officers got their commissions in the first place. They did it the old fashioned way: They bought them with inherited money. When your position in the chain of command is obtained by means of your old man’s wealth and influence, the degree of incompetence knows no bounds. Just look at George W Bush. Anyway, how good at generalship could Cardigan and Raglan be, when history remembers one for a sweater and the other for a type of sleeve invented to fit over his missing arm, shot off at Waterloo? (A rum business, that. But we won! Jolly good show!)

The film is very, very good at atmosphere, at recreating the look of an era, and at pointing out the stupidity of the British class system and the horrors of war. It is enhanced by some awesome and funny animated bits. But there is something missing, and I guess it’s a heart. Military history buffs should love it, and I was greatly impressed the first time I saw it, when it was new, less so this time. A big screen might have helped; watching the grand movements of ten thousand Turkish Army soldiers dressed up as British troops needs a larger canvas than a 25-inch screen.