The Charge of the Light Brigade and the satire of war

Charge of the Light Brigade movie poster

Last week, global brand consultancy FutureBrand named Japan as the world’s strongest country brand – the first time an Asian country has topped its annual Country Brand Index in its history. To compile the index, FutureBrand measures perceptions of countries around the world against guidelines similar to those that would be used to judge consumer brands. Clearly the appeal of Japan’s offbeat fast food menu items, distinctive fashion trends and cat café craze extends far beyond the shores of the rising sun. They might be gimmicky, but they all come together to create a strong image and understanding of ‘Brand Japan’ that can be identified the world over.

Of course, national and cultural identity and the external perceptions of a country are constantly in flux; a global popularity contest that is won and lost through representation and soft power politics that are impossible to control. The stereotypical image of Britain and the cultural construction of ‘Britishness’ include everything from stiff upper lips, strict generals, queuing systems, tea drinking and a bigoted class system. These traits are deeply entrenched into the global brain and, although they might not represent exactly how it is to live in the country today, continue to persist.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Film, the medium that allows the viewer to escape into and discover life through another’s eyes, has a lot to answer for. Many British-made films in the 50s and 60s cemented and perpetuated the ideas and – thanks to the excellence of many films from this period – continue to influence contemporary thinking. Take The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Tony Richardson’s sweeping war epic that depicts an infamous (and disastrous) battle during the Crimean war (1854-56) that was botched by inept commanders and arrogant aristocrats.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

It’s a surprising topic to make a film about. So neatly does the event link to aspects of British identity it’s become an expression of culture. In the aftermath, the blundering commanders were subtly recast as heroes by the national press – no doubt an effort to boost morale or maintain public support but the support also made both command and commanded increasingly wedded to gentlemanly codes. A celebration of disasters became a particular British pastime, a way to recover, no matter the outcome.

The Charge of the Light BrigadeBy the 60s, Britain must’ve been very aware of its baggage and its international reputation. Experiencing a decade of rapid change (from youth-led protests against the Vietnam War to the establishment of the Notting Hill carnival) this was a country that was trying to cling to out-dated ideals. In that sense, the sentiments expressed by Richardson in The Charge of the Light Brigade were as much a reflection of the current era as they were of the past. Broadly satirical, and playing upon the idea of an army that’s obsessed with the ideas of the Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852), Richardson depicts an army that’s governed by caricatured peers who leverage wealth and property for rank. The action is interspersed with 19th-century inspired political cartoons that simultaneously reinforce yet satirize ‘Britain’: Queen Victoria lifts her skirt to reveal hordes of brave armies, enemy landscapes are reconfigured to resemble the lion of England, a bear (representing Russia) is easily tamed.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) heads up the Light Brigade; Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) is the commander-in-chief who works (literally) in the shadow of Wellington. Despite his faults, Raglan is particularly stoic – one scene depicts his (anaesthetic free) on-field arm amputation – he barely murmurs. Cardigan and Raglan – by far the best characters in the film – show little empathy to their loyal troops, and demonstrate limited tactical ability. Unfortunately, it’s near impossible for the viewer to make a true assessment of their actions as Richardson neglects to explain or properly contextualise the Crimean War, clearly assuming a prior knowledge that audiences then (and now!) were likely not to have had.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade

In an attempt to introduce a human element – and to encourage a more empathetic reading of the event – the film opens with an unnecessary love story. The ‘dashing’ Captain Nolan (Davie Hemmings – the attribute is open to considerable debate) has a fairly pointless affair with the wife of his best friend. Those more tender scenes might juxtapose ‘war’ and ‘peace’ but they work purely on a superficial level and actually make one of the lead characters more unlikeable. After Nolan dies on the field during the charge of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan barks: “Did you hear the creature? Shrieking like some tight girl, like a woman fetching off, damn him. Damn all his kind.” Considering he’s just ridden over Nolan’s dead body it’s an unfeeling sentiment, but one the audience surely can’t help agreeing with.

A curious combination of liberalised 60s sexuality and 19th century bawd adds a frisson of ‘excitement’. Much is made of the homoeroticism of the soldiers’ uniforms and a particularly slow-witted officer’s wife lusts after Lord Cardigan – apparently her husband chastises her for her lusty stares, which suggest she is simply ‘waiting to be ridden by him’. The mounting is inevitable but, when it occurs, it’s offset with borderline slapstick humour, culminating in Cardigan’s inability to remove his own corset.

The Charge of the Light BrigadeThe parable behind The Charge of the Light Brigade isn’t hard to discern, but that doesn’t mean this is a film that challenges on multiple levels. Yes, Nolan represents the reactionary youth who fights against the old guard, and yes, Richardson effectively satirises a chain and style of command that was well past its peak, but by taking so long to get to the point and diverting attention away from the key themes he made it virtually impossible for a viewer to fully appreciate them. Attacking the class system and bigotry through ridicule and satire is an effective takedown of Britishness but it doesn’t really go far enough and only reinforces the ideas. Ultimately, The Charge of the Light Brigade never quite manages to live up to – or go beyond – its own ideas, they weigh it down and dramatise a historical event that ended, however you look at it, in tragedy.

This post is my contribution to the British Empire in Film blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires.

15 thoughts on “The Charge of the Light Brigade and the satire of war

  1. An excellent writeup — many thanks. I haven’t seen the movie since around the time it first came out, but I think the satire and the subversion may have seemed more poignant then; it could be that this aspect has dated.

    1. Thank you! Good point – I hadn’t really thought about how the satire must’ve dated, just in context to how it felt now. Not sure I can bear to re-watch it with that in mind though!

    1. Thanks Ruth! Yes – great cast, just a shame they had such poor material to work with. It’s an ok way to pass a cold afternoon if you like a historical film though…

  2. Excellent review. It has been a few years since I saw the film and I remember being bored senseless by the love affair, although I thought that Trevor Howard and John Gielgud captured the arrogant noble-born commanders perfectly. Mainly, I found the movie surprisingly slow, given that Tony Richardson had directed Tom Jones only a few years earlier.

    1. I expected something more ‘paced’ too. As a director Richardson was a bit all over the place during this period though – I quite like Mademoiselle, but have you seen Ned Kelly? A very mis-cast Jagger…!

  3. Sorry to be so late to reply…Very interesting post, lots of good writing and socio-political discussion. I’ve seen the 1936 version of the story but not this one…the ’68 version reviewed here sounds appropriately cynical and pessimistic. That cast is pretty impressive; even though you weren’t won over by the film, it sounds like it still needs to be seen for context of how two different eras viewed the historical events.

    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

  4. Girl, your introduction to this post was marvelous! I loved it!
    But I can’t say I loved The Charge of the Light Brigade… because I haven’t watched it yet. For sure I’ll look for it, because some of my favorite English people are in the movie (isn’t Trevor Howard underrated?).
    By the way, I’m glad you could find and watch The Rains Came. It’s a very nice movie. 🙂
    Thanks for the kind comments!

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