Tony Richardson’s disapproving rendition of the infamously disastrous Crimean War cavalry charge in 1854 disappointed many upon its 1968 release, shorn as it was of the revisionist sabre-rattling that made the wholly inaccurate 1936 Errol Flynn version such fun.
The film chronicles the events that led to the British involvement in the Crimean War – fought against the Russians by a joint British, French, Ottoman and Sardinian force – notably the siege of Sebastopol and the Battle of Balaclava.
The film’s tone – a drawn-out retrospective raspberry blown at the complacency of the 19th-century officer class and the romantic myth of military glory – make it something of a companion piece to another contemporary anti-war film, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970).
The film’s passionate provocation draws much of its venom from Charles Wood’s barbed, witty screenplay, while Richard William’s animated sequences in the style of Punch cartoons add distancing interludes and a veritable parade of top brass thesps – Gielgud, Howard, Redgrave, Andrews – portray the major historical players.
John Gielgud plays Lord Raglan as a stiff-upper-lipped commander. In real life, his upper lip was stiffer yet. As is correctly shown in the movie, his arm had to be amputated when he was shot in the elbow with a musket ball at Waterloo.
While they sawed his arm off – without anaesthetic – Raglan remained stoically silent.
The only comment he made was when they threw his severed limb into a basket: “Hey, bring my arm back,” he said. “There’s a ring my wife gave me on the finger.” What a badass.
The first two-thirds of the film set the scene on the home-front where gung-ho militarism and jingoistic press coverage stoke up the oncoming slaughter on the Crimean fields portrayed with sweeping panache in the final third of the film.
The film squanders much time on a tedious subplot involving Captain Louis Nolan (David Hemmings) – who in real life was a complete pillock – having an affair with the wife of a brother officer. There’s plenty of simpering and skipping about in sunny fields. Presumably, this is supposed to endear Captain Nolan to the audience. It doesn’t.
Fortunately, super-villain Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) is on hand. Cardigan loathes Nolan, calling him “the Indian”. Though the real Nolan served in the second Sikh war, it’s a far cry to describe him as Indian. He was born in Milan and served in the 10th Hungarian Hussars before joining the British Army.
On the fateful day, Nolan delivers a garbled order from Raglan to Cardigan, prompting the disastrous charge itself. The film tries to let him off, half-heartedly shifting the blame for the faulty order to General Airey (Mark Dignam). Most historians blame Nolan for garbling the order.
It was then misinterpreted by the commander of the Heavy Brigade, Lord Lucan (no, not that one), and carried out by Cardigan. There is still some dispute over who was responsible for the disastrous charge, but the film is pretty sure it’s Cardigan.
At the beginning of the charge, riding out ahead, Nolan is shot.
Afterwards, Cardigan is furious again: “Did you hear the creature?” he barks. “Shrieking like some tight girl, like a woman fetching off, damn him. Damn all his kind.”
General Scarlett replies: “My lord, you have just ridden over his dead body.”
Theatrical though this exchange sounds, it comprises almost direct quotations, spiced up only slightly from Cardigan’s own memory of the conversation.
Mrs Clarissa Morris
Capt. Louis Edward Nolan
Capt. Fitz Maxse
Capt. Henry Duberly
Capt. William Morris
John J. Carney
Lt. Col. Douglas
Lt. Gen. Sir George Brown
Marshall St. Arnaud
Maj. Gen. Sir John Campbell
Sgt. Maj. Corbett
Sgt. Maj. Smith