Nineteen sixty-eight was a banner year in cinema. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, If..., Night of the Living Dead. I didn’t see any of these. But while my classmates were wearing their hair like Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet, or trilling earworms from Oliver! during lunch break, my young imagination was gripped by the vision of a cartoon Russian bear roughing up a hapless Turkey as ominous music rumbled on the soundtrack.
Beguiled by the clip when it played on TV, I badgered my father into taking me to see the film in which it featured: Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. I knew it wasn’t all cartoon because it had David Hemmings in it and, though I was too young to have seen Blow-Up, the film that put him on the map, his picture was in all the magazines and I had a massive crush. Hemmings, sporting one of those dashing moustaches that were all the rage post-Sergeant Pepper, was playing Captain Nolan, and the poster showed him leading the charge.
The animated credit sequence (by the brilliant Richard Williams) proceeds to show the English lion letting out a mighty roar (a parody of the MGM studio ident) and putting on a policeman’s helmet, ready to restore order to the world, followed by an animated digest of the Industrial Revolution, with the British empire at its hub. Over the next two and a half hours, these Punch-inspired animations recur at intervals to provide ironic state-of-the-nation commentary (and fill in scenes too expensive to shoot as live action). The film takes a satirical scalpel to Victorian sociopolitical and military structures, fleshed out by a Who’s Who of Great British Acting led by Trevor Howard, at the top of his game as Lord Cardigan, John Gielgud as Lord Raglan, and Vanessa Redgrave, four inches taller than Hemmings, as Nolan’s love interest. It culminates, of course, in one of the most notorious military blunders in history.
I knew it would end in tears – I’d read Lord Tennyson’s poem – but confidently expected Nolan to emerge from the disaster, moustache slightly ruffled, to return to his beloved Clarissa. But oh no! For not only does Captain Nolan get hit by a piece of shrapnel before the charge has even properly begun – he is one of the reasons it all goes so horribly wrong! That heroic stance on the poster? It’s Nolan “screaming like a woman” (Lord Cardigan’s words) as he dies.
Tramautised yet thrilled by my first grown-up taste of things ending badly, I rushed out and read everything I could find about the Crimean war, including the screenplay’s source material, Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why. It sparked in me an appetite for military history and big battle movies that persists to this day. Wikipedia says the film’s reception was “generally positive” but I remember it as negative, exacerbated by the director’s refusal to screen it for the critics and a perception in conservative quarters that it cleaved to modish anti-war sentiments. Monthly Film Bulletin called it “a well-nigh intolerable mess”.
Yet none of Richardson’s other films ever quickened my pulse like this one, and only recently did it strike me that The Charge of the Light Brigade’s presiding genius was not its director but its writer: Charles Wood, the great but undervalued playwright and screenwriter who died in February. Wood gave John Osborne’s earlier draft a fleet-footed satirical makeover that renders the dialogue eccentric, hilarious, authentically Victorian-sounding and a constant delight to the ear. “No damn business of anyone what is what. I am Lord Cardigan. That is what.”
Over half a century later, the film looks better than ever. Part of its timelessness is due to the absence of the 1960s makeup and hairstyling that have so dated other epics of the era (though Nolan’s hussar jacket found its way on to Jimi Hendrix, and then Adam Ant). And The Charge of the Light Brigade’s themes couldn’t be more pertinent in a nation still hobbled by class differences, jingoistic nostalgia and predilection for glorious self-harm.