As someone who’s written one full-length screenplay (though I haven’t sold it yet) and that has also written about 30 pages or so of several other screenplays that I haven’t actually finished, I understand quite acutely the challenge of balancing attention-grabbing pacing with solid character development. It’s not an easy task and focusing too much on action or “plot spectacle” makes characters seem paper-thin and boring whereas a deficiency in action means the audience is going to fall asleep. You can’t ignore one for the other. And with 1968’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the first hour of this satire of the snobbery and incompetence of the British aristocracy had me bored nearly to tears and it wasn’t until the doomed heroes went off to fight the Crimean war that the movie began to find its bearings and the right mix of character and spectacle.
The titular charge of Britain’s light cavalry brigade during the Crimean war remains one of history’s most famous tactical military errors that resulted in the annihilation of virtually the entire brigade as they charged head-long into oncoming artillery fire (and anyone who’s ever played Empire: Total War knows that’s a dumb idea). And The Charge of the Light Brigade focuses on the forming of the soon to be doomed cavalry, their training, and their eventual excursion to Turkey to face off against the Russians simply because England felt the need to go to war for appearance’s sake. And from the opening moments of the film, the arrogance of men such as Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) and Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) let you know that even the noble intelligence of the few decent men such as Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) will be subsumed by impractical and ultimately fatal notions of honor and class standing.
I must admit that perhaps part of my struggles with the early portions of the film is that I found a healthy portion of the dialogue to be completely incomprehensible. The accents are thick enough that any non-native Brits would have trouble understanding certain characters (particularly Lord Cardigan) but when the period slang is thrown in for good measure, the film becomes far more dense than you would expect. And while I could applaud the film’s decision to spend such a large chunk of the movie focusing on the lives of the members of the Light Brigade before they are called off to war, most of the time spent in Britain feels repetitive and over-blown. While I recognize that the film is meant to be a darkly comic satire of class snobbery, those themes have been handled better by others (Gosford Park) and The Charge of the Light Brigade never generated any real emotional connection early on (except for perhaps moments with Captain Nolan). There was simply a cavalcade of characters and little reason to care for any of them.
And to add to the film’s overly theatrical nature from the first half of the movie, virtually all of the performances were totally ham-fisted. Trevor Morgan turned the incompetent and tyrannical Lord Cardigan into a cartoonish figure. There was no nuance or subtlety there. Although Captain Nolan is likely meant to be the film’s sole sympathetic figure (except for perhaps Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa), David Hemmings too turned his part into more of a caricature than a real human being. With his thousand mile stare, Nolan seemed like a warrior poet spouting off Shakespearean nonsense rather than a sensible man forced to follow insensible orders. The only performance with any real heart was Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa which is a shame because her character was so shallow and peripheral to the main parts of the film.
The film isn’t without its moments though. The animated interludes that begin the film and then occur periodically throughout are brilliant and really hit home on the idea that though the film serves as a satire of British class machinations, The Charge of the Light Brigade also shows historic parallels between the catastrophic decision to go to war against the Russians in the Crimean war and the calls during the 1960s for military action against the Soviet Union. In certain ways, this film is almost the anti-Alexander Nevvsky in that it uses a historical disaster to deflate current nationalism (rather than the other way around). And once they do finally get to Russia, the film brutalizes any notion of military honor or the glory of war by a graphic (for its time) depiction of the actual horrors of war and the price the British paid for such a foolish venture.
It is truly a shame that the film becomes a cross-section of an almost excruciatingly slow first half (though still with the great animated sequences) and then a truly brilliant and scathing denouement. One could make the argument that the last half wouldn’t carry the same weight without the first half, but there’s just no excuse for how dull and meandering the beginning of the film seemed. It took nearly twenty minutes before any character felt truly distinguished from the rest so even as it focused on character, the film showed no knack for crafting unique and engaging characters to attach yourself to. If you’re a fan of military epics, stick around for the final half but everybody else can probably find a better way to pass their evening.
Final Score: B-