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Film / The Charge of the Light Brigade

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"Their's not to reason why,
Their's not to make reply,
Their's but to do and die..."

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a 1968 film directed by Tony Richardson, loosely adapted from Cecil Woodham-Smith's 1953 nonfiction book The Reason Why: The True Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade. The cast includes Trevor Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings, Jill Bennett, John Gielgud, and Harry Andrews. It takes its title from the famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The movie depicts the circumstances surrounding the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (October 25th, 1854) during The Crimean War. Its protagonist is Captain Louis Nolan (Hemmings), a dashing young Cavalry Officer assigned to the 11th Hussars. He immediately clashes with Lord Cardigan (Howard), the regiment's arrogant Colonel, who fans a minor disagreement with Nolan into a national scandal (the "black bottle affair"). Nolan also carries on an affair with Clarissa (Redgrave), the wife of another officer. Both men serve in the war, where Cardigan leads the Light Brigade under division commander (and hated brother-in-law) Lord Lucan (Andrews). Nolan, now an aide to commander-in-chief Lord Raglan (Gielgud), grows disgusted with mismanagement of the war and helps initiate the titular charge.

Light Brigade is a vicious satire of both the British class structure and military incompetence. It mixes often comic scenes of Cardigan, Lucan and Raglan's ineptitude with violent battle scenes and anger at aristocratic bigotry. The movie is also noteworthy for animated sequences provided by Richard Williams. While the movie bombed in its original release, it's gained a strong critical reputation in subsequent decades.

Not to be confused with the 1936 film starring Errol Flynn, with which it only shares a title.

Contains examples of:

  • The Ace: Nolan. He's seen action in India, wrote a book on cavalry tactics and is shown to be infinitely smarter and more sensible than his superiors. Naturally Cardigan hates him.
  • The Alliance: Britain, France and Turkey against Russia.
  • Animal Motif/National Animal Stereotypes: Played for laughs with the animation sequences: the British lion (supported by a French cockerel) beating up the Russian bear and rescuing "Poor little Turkey!"
  • Animated Credits Opening: Several animated sequences by Richard Williams, illustrated in Punch-style engravings, which depict the background of the Crimean War. Can be viewed here.
  • Answer Cut: A junior officer interprets a signal flag as "Enemy advancing." Lucan, who evidently does not know how to read the signal flags of his own army, says "Are you quite sure?" This is immediately followed by a shell landing nearby, signifying the Russian attack.
  • Bad Boss: Cardigan
  • Badass Boast: Cardigan's opening monologue. The character may be a Jerkass but after hearing it you almost want to root for him (as well as being nigh incomprehensible without context).
    I do not propose to recount my life in any detail, what is what. No damn business of anyone, what is what. I am Lord Cardigan, that is what! Them Cherrybums, you see 'em tight, my Cherrybums, I keep 'em tight. Ten thousand a year out me own pocket I spend to clothe 'em. A master cutler sharps their swords, and I keep 'em tight-stitched, cut to a shadow. Good! If they can't fornicate, they can't fight, and if they donít fight hard, I'll flog their backs raw, for all their fine looks!
  • Battle Butler: Nolan's Indian servant.
  • Beleaguered Assistant: Raglan's secretary General Airey, who has to keep reminding his nincompoop boss that the French are England's allies this time, and has to stop his boss from nattering on about flowers and table linen as the Light Brigade is about to attack.
  • Billing Displacement: John Gielgud as Lord Raglan takes up nearly half the movie poster, and Trevor Howard as Lord Cardigan gets top billing. David Hemmings who plays Captain Nolan, the nominal protagonist with the most screen time of any character (possibly excepting Cardigan), is billed sixth.
  • Black Comedy
  • Blame Game: In a particularly grim example, Raglan, Cardigan and Lucan all argue over who's to blame for the charge, while the camera focuses on the dead and dying soldiers strewn across the battlefield.
  • Blood Knight: Nolan comes off as this at times, as he's extremely eager to prove the cavalry's mettle in action.
  • The Brigadier: The Battle of the Alma depicts Sir Colin Campbell leading the Highland Brigade in a successful charge.
  • The Cameo: Laurence Harvey appears for a split second as an officer in the Light Brigade. See What Could Have Been.
  • Cavalry Officer
  • Central Theme: War is a confused mess run by inept Upper Class Twits and blustery Glory Seekers, and nobody gains anything at the end.
  • Composite Character: Nolan conflates several officers who served under Cardigan, notably Captain John Reynolds, the protagonist of the "black bottle" affair, and the real Captain Nolan, the one who brought the order to make the charge and was promptly killed just as the charge was gathering steam.
  • Control Freak: Cardigan is a martinet of the worst sort, demanding from his officers the most rigid discipline and unthinking loyalty.
  • Costume Porn: Lots of beautiful period costumes on display, not least the 11th Hussars in their "Cherrybum" rigs: blue and gold-laced tunics with scarlet trousers.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: The aged, borderline senile Lord Raglan. Consider his constant referring to the Russian enemy as "the French," in reference to a long-ago war. Or his soliloquy on how Fanny Duberly should concern herself with pretty things, like babies and "certain kinds of table linen."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lord Lucan in his calmer moments. Upon receiving Raglan's incomprehensible order, he tells Nolan:
    "If you look before you, you will see neither enemy nor guns. The usefulness of such an order eludes me!"
  • Death Cry Echo: "VEEEEEEEEEEEEEER RIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!" With suitably disturbing sound effects.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film is soaked in this. In one scene anti-war protesters note, perfectly correctly, that Britain has no real reason to go to war in the Crimea—then they point out that it's silly for "Christian Britain" to make common cause with "infidel Turkey".
  • Demoted to Extra: The French played a substantial role in the Crimean War, contributing more troops than the British and taking part in all of the war's major battles. You wouldn't know it from this film, where they're barely mentioned, although this is justifiable by the movie being a satire of deliberately over-the-top British propaganda.
  • Description Cut: After the Allied victory at the Alma, the British press reports the fall of Sebastopol and hence, the end of the war. Then we cut to British troops being killed by Russian shellfire in the trenches.
  • Dissonant Serenity: The Sergeant Major has a perfectly calm conversation after he's been flogged so badly his back is covered in blood, and he's unable to stand.
  • Double Don't Know: Raglan, shocked as he sees the Light Brigade being destroyed, can only respond with this.
    Raglan: I don't know. I don't know. It isn't done.
  • Dramatic Sit-Down: Raglan sits down heavily on the ground in despair as he watches the Light Brigade being butchered.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: Cardigan's detailed protest to Lucan, after being ordered to initiate the titular charge. Lucan acknowledges this, but cannot countermand a direct order.
  • Elmuh Fudd Syndwome: Several of Cardigan's officers affect a bizarre accent where they pronounce R's as W's (for instance, noting that "Wussians wear gwey" instead of "grey"). Unfortunately, this is Truth in Television, as cavalry regiments considered it "fashionable" to speak this way.
  • The Empire: Russia is depicted this way, though Britain and France certainly qualify.
  • Epic Movie: A deconstruction.
  • Evil Counterpart: Cardigan and Fanny Duberly to Nolan and Clarissa.
  • A Father to His Men: Cardigan boasts about how much he spends to clothe and equip his men, but one gets the impression he cares about them the same way he cares about his horses. He doesn't care for them per se but, as their commander, them looking good makes him look good.
  • The Film of the Book: The movie is largely an adaptation of Cecil Woodham-Smith's nonfiction book The Reason Why. The book was a merciless expose of the idiocy and incompetence of the British Army officer corps of the day, and the film takes the same tone.
  • Foil: Captain Morris to Nolan.
  • General Failure: The film's raison d'etre.
  • Glory Days: Raglan thinks he's reliving The Napoleonic Wars of his youth, when France was an enemy rather than an ally. Even his War Office maps show preparations for war with France.
  • Heroic BSoD: Nolan after the Alma. Disgusted by the bloodshed resulting from his superiors' incompetence, he grows increasingly reckless and insubordinate afterwards.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Nolan, in reality a rather arrogant and hotheaded young officer who some historians blame for the Charge, by either accidentally or deliberately conveying Raglan's order to Lucan incorrectly. This is largely achieved by conflating Nolan with various officers who actually served under Cardigan, making his actions at Balaclava more sympathetic.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Fanny Duberly, in reality a tough-minded, adventurous woman who was endlessly faithful to her husband, is depicted as a featherbrained slut who spends most of the film trying to bed Cardigan.
    • It's also highly debatable whether Raglan was the air-headed incompetent portrayed in the movie.
  • Historical Domain Character: Almost all of them, although Nolan, who's actually an amalgamation of several characters, might be considered an exception.
  • Hollywood History: Reasonably accurate, though questionable in character interpretations and conflating/telescoping events.
  • Honor Before Reason: Raglan ignoring a Russian deserter who brings news of the impending attack on Balaclava.
  • In Name Only: It doesn't remotely resemble the same-titled 1936 Errol Flynn vehicle beyond featuring the Charge of the Light Brigade. This is because the plot of the 1936 film was entirely fictional and focused on a love-triangle and revenge story of made-up characters, while the 1968 version is much more faithful to historical reality.
  • Insane Troll Logic:
    • Raglan's reason for disliking Nolan. To wit:
    It will be a sad day for England when her armies are officered by men who know too well what they are doing. It smacks of murder.
    • Cardigan believes Nolan is drinking beer at a champagne only dinner, because he has a black bottle, and begins yelling at him, ignoring any attempt Nolan makes to correct him.
  • Interservice Rivalry: There is no love lost between the British infantry and cavalry. General Brown, the infantry commander, openly gloats to Lucan that his troops will be leading the attack at the Alma.
  • Intrepid Reporter: William Howard Russell.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: From an animated sequence celebrating the fall of Sebastopol to British soldiers dying in the trenches.
  • Irrational Hatred: Cardigan hates "Indian" officers like Nolan. It's possible he's jealous of their combat experience, their "inferior" breeding or it's possible he's just a Jerkass.
  • Kick the Dog: Cardigan throughout the whole film really, but his treatment of the Sergeant Major, who's spent his whole life climbing up from Private, then is "broken" for refusing to spy on Nolan, takes the cake.
    • Nolan himself, when he's confronted by a wounded British soldier who insults the cavalry for "looking on" during the Battle of the Alma. Nolan unthinkingly strikes him, before noticing how badly he's hurt.
  • Large Ham: Trevor Howard as Cardigan, to a T. Harry Andrews as Lucan chews plenty of scenery himself.
  • Lecture as Exposition: Fanny Duberly's "What is to happen" question to Raglan, sets up Raglan explaining to her and the audience that he meant for the Light Brigade to attack to the right along the Russian flank to retake the guns, and not to the left into the valley where they'd be surrounded. This allows the audience to understand the mistake that's about to be made.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Nolan, arguably.
  • Love Triangle: Of sorts, between Nolan, Clarissa and Captain Morris.
  • Mad Brass: Obviously.
  • Make an Example of Them: Cardigan's motivation for punishing Nolan, and later the Sergeant Major.
  • Mood Whiplash: Part of the movie is a broad satire of Victorian England and especially its military class structure. Part of it is a dark anti-war movie. This is especially true in the second half, as when Cardigan's bedroom antics or triumphant animation sequences are contrasted with bloody Crimean battlefields and troops dying of cholera.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Nolan during the final charge.
  • Never My Fault: Cardigan's first words to the Charge's survivors? "It was a mad, harebrained trick but no fault of mine!" And yes, he said this in real life.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Nolan conveying a garbled message to Lucan, then goading the latter into attacking the wrong position, leading to the Charge. He tries to rectify his error at the last moment, but gets killed first.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Cardigan and Lucan are brothers-in-law and hate each other. The movie doesn't explore this, but historically their personal enmity stems from Lucan mistreating Cardigan's sister.
  • Oh, Crap!: Captain Nolan when he realizes the brigade is heading down the wrong valley. He rushes forward to tell Cardigan, but is instantly killed before he can explain, leaving the brigade to advance on to its doom (this actually happened historically).
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Demonstrates the weird dynamic between William, William's wife Clarissa, and Nolan, when all three of them go boating together. Soon Nolan and Clarissa are having an affair.
  • Only Sane Man: Nolan. Clarissa plays this role earlier in the film as the only character leery of war breaking out.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan hate each other's guts, but when they are ordered to charge the Russian guns at Balaclava, and realize the orders are suicidal but they have no choice but to obey, they suddenly speak very calmly and respectfully to each other.
  • The Plague: The British troops are beset with cholera almost immediately after landing in the Crimea.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Raglan. Not evil, merely incompetent and promoted beyond his ability.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The whole reason for the Charge. Raglan gives a vague, poorly-written order to Nolan. Nolan, who loathes having to even speak to his superior Cardigan, rather carelessly gestures when pointing where the attack should go, which results in the Light Brigade heading in the wrong direction.
  • Russian Bear: The animated segments depict Imperial Russia as a bear menacing Turkey (which is depicted as a turkey, then as a beautiful damsel). The English lion defeats it by siccing bulldogs at it. A later segment shows John Bull taming the Russian bear and making it dance.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Wondering how "Lord Look-On" (Lucan's nickname after Alma) and "The Noble Yachtsman" (the troops' nickname for Cardigan after the siege began, as he lived on his personal yacht in the harbor, not in camp) rose to such high rank? They bought their ranks (and promotions). One contemporary commented that if they had enlisted as privates they would never have made corporal. The sheer incompetence displayed in the Crimea was instrumental in getting rid of the purchase system.
  • Serious Business: "You are drinking beer, sir! Porter beer!"
  • Shown Their Work: Much of the dialogue and situations are taken directly from historical accounts. Notably the exchange between Cardigan, Lucan and Nolan just before the Charge.
  • The Snack Is More Interesting: General Sir George Brown. He can't be bothered to organize his division for battle until he's finished breakfast.
  • Spiritual Successor: To the film Tom Jones, Tony Richardson's similarly satirical take on Georgian England.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Played with. Raglan seems nonchalant about pretty much everything, even the death of French General St. Arnaud, but it's implied to be part of his senility rather than fortitude. In contrast, Nolan, Lucan and Cardigan have little compunction about showing their emotion.
  • This Means War!: Said verbatim by Lord Raglan.
  • Token Romance: Nolan and Clarissa. It doesn't effect the overall plot, and Clarissa disappears from the story after the war begins.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Raglan definitely. Cardigan doesn't seem intellectually gifted, either. Many of the other officers also display this, viewing war and killing as a jolly old game.
    • Lord Cardigan has one of his officers arrested for having a black bottle on the dinner table (beer at an officers' dinner? Unthinkable!) This leads to Cardigan being mocked in the street, with people shouting "Black bottle!" at him. Lord Raglan's reaction is to be offended that commoners would shout such "vulgar things" at a gentleman.
    • Sir George Brown refuses to move his division, even as the Russians are attacking, until he's had his breakfast.
  • War Is Glorious: Believed avidly by Nolan and most other characters early on. They quickly discover...
  • War Is Hell
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Given how poorly most of the British high command get along with each other, the film's ending is hardly surprising.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Colin Campbell and his Highland Brigade and James Scarlett of the Heavy Brigade get prominent establishing scenes early in the film. Yet the Balaclava scenes completely ignore their role in said battle. Deleted Scenes may account for this.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Cardigan to the Sergeant Major. He doesn't literally kill him, but politely suggests the RSM put a ball in his brain.
  • Zerg Rush: The blundering incompetence of commanders on the battlefield ends up with the Light Brigade making a disorganized charge down a valley, where they are surrounded by artillery on three sides. It doesn't go well.