Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.
The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with the history of the ill-fated British cavalry charge, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The jocular, jingoistic mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vibrant images that say much about the vainglorious mind-set of the time.
It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Uk comedy legend Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on giving us a glimpse of his famous Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid tableaux which might created today.
A tv staple back in the 80’s, Richardson’s film was somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of providing a personal slant on an historical event; it’s certainly got some attitude, and a revisionist perspective that was something of a breath of fresh air in the wake of some rather stuffy British military films. Making historical films may be the preserve of the wealthy, but The Charge of the Light brigade takes a steely-eyed view of the yawning gap between the upper and lower classes.