The Charge of the Light Brigade


‘…a politically astute look at failure and blame… deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests…’

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.


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  1. Funny, I haven’t seen either version of this film. Not this one, nor the 1936 version…the only DeHav/Flynn film I haven’t seen. I might bump both versions up the list a bit!

  2. Got this on my list though have my doubts about it. Seemed to be very one-sided from my memory of it, but of course it was a disaster before disaster movies were in vogue. In the US it was only released as a roadshow 70mm in an arthouse.

    • It’s much better than the cut and panned and scanned version the BBc used to show. And of it’s time, if not slightly ahead; it’s not a conventional war movie, and much more concerned with the folly.

  3. I didn’t go to see this in the cinema in 1968 and it has never held me on the small screen so I can’t make any comment on the narrative as a whole but some of your points do warrant a response I think.

    I was surprised by your ‘most expensive British production’ statement. IMDb gives an estimated budget of $8 million or around £3.4 million. I’m not sure about inflation at that point but some of Rank’s failures in the late 1940s were probably close to that figure when adjusted. Alexander Walker in his ‘Hollywood England’ book suggests that United Artists invested $6.5 million, so was it really a ‘British production’? Whatever, it was still a lot of money.

    The film was released in 70mm as well as 35mm as befitted an ‘epic’ in 1968. If it appeared on TV many times in the 1980s, the ‘Scope print would have been ‘panned and scanned’ and virtually unwatchable.

    One of the reasons I didn’t go looking for the film in 1968 was because I had read the Cecil Woodham-Smith popular history which the script draws on. I thought I knew the argument about the disaster that was due to military incompetence and snobbery and the charge itself had no appeal.

    • Oh yea, this was horribly panned and scanned in the 80’s, although from my recollection, the animated sequences were in the proper aspect ratio! I’m sure you are correct re the adjusted for inflation’, I was surprised to hear that this was such an expensive production; the arguments about what makes a British production continue to this day. It’s caviar to the general, perhaps, but looks far better now on streaming than it ever did on tv…

    • It’s not considered to be vintage J-Lo, but the directors cut focuses more on her creating a marketing campaign for soap and marrying Owen Wilson, and less on the Crimea.

    • A high-ranking officer seduces a subordinate’s wife willingly after a dinner.
      They are seen undressing each other and then he is seen to spank her. Sex is implied.

      J-Lo fantastic in this.

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