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Starring Trevor Howard
Remind Me

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)

The Charge of the Light Brigade

"It will be a sad day for England when her armies are officered by men who know too well what they are doing -- it smacks of murder."
John Gielgud in The Charge of the Light Brigade

By the late '60s, Tony Richardson was looking to re-capture the magic of his 1963 historical hit Tom Jones. In fact, some would claim he took on this debunking view of history's most famous failed military action in an effort to make lightning strike twice. Though The Charge of the Light Brigade was a disappointment in relation to its cost at the box office, it has developed a group of faithful fans who herald the iconoclastic epic as far ahead of its time politically and stylistically.

Richardson had been working on the idea for years with John Osborne, whose breakthrough play, Look Back in Anger, the director had brought to both stage and screen before the two had teamed for Tom Jones. Wanting a more honest treatment of the disastrous charge than had been depicted in Warner Bros.' 1936 version, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, they looked to Cecil Woodham-Smith's revisionist The Reason Why, but the book's screen rights had been tied up for years by various producers who could not get the project off the ground. At the time, actor Laurence Harvey, who hoped to star in his own version of the events, held them. So they hired a researcher to make sure that every historical reference in Osborne's script could be documented from sources in the public domain.

Despite the box office failures of such recent projects as The Loved One (1965) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), Richardson and Osborne's Woodfall films had arranged for United Artists, which had financed Tom Jones, to back them for the considerable budget of $8 million (which was a huge sum at the time). It was also the distribution company's major release for 1968.

As had happened on Tom Jones, Osborne turned in a script that, despite brilliant sections, was far from finished. So, Richardson brought in Charles Wood, a comic writer best known for his work on The Beatles' second film, Help! (1965). He became the sole credited screenwriter when Harvey got hold of a script draft and sued Osborne for plagiarism. At first, Richardson and United Artists planned to fight the suit, but when their legal team informed them that there were too many similarities between their script and Woodham-Smith's book, they settled. United Artists bought the rights to the book from Harvey, who agreed to drop charges in return for a cameo in the film. The only role that fit him was a Polish Prince who makes a desperate escape from the Russian Army. The part had been promised to Osborne, however, who took great offense at having to give it up. It triggered a breach between him and Richardson that ended their production company. The two would not speak for years afterwards.

The three main roles in the film were the British lords who pushed England's entry in the Crimean War and were at least partially responsible for the disastrous charge. Richardson had hoped to cast Rex Harrison as Lord Cardigan, and negotiations were going well until Harrison read a gossip column that stated Richardson had been talking to George C. Scott about the role. The part eventually went to Trevor Howard, with Harry Andrews as his brother-in-law and John Gielgud as the aging nobleman whose vague written command leads Howard to lead a charge against the wrong set of guns. Richardson made the film a family affair by casting his wife, Vanessa Redgrave, in one of the few major female roles. He also cast her mother, Rachel Kempson; her brother, Corin Redgrave; and their two daughters, Joely and Natasha Richardson, the latter in her film debut. The other major role, a minor officer's over-sexed wife, went to Osborne's wife, Jill Bennett. Critics would be divided over whether she or Gielgud stole the film.

To shoot the Battle of Balaclava, Richardson secured a location in Turkey that, though not the actual site of the original charge, looked almost exactly like it. The production company also secured the cooperation of the Turkish army, whose Calvary would double for Britain's military on-screen. Richardson clinched the deal by bringing the cavalry's chief officer to London, where they wined and dined him and even bought frilly black corsets and underwear for his mistress.

To guarantee that cast and crew would be rested for the climactic battle scenes, they scheduled them for the start of the shoot. With Richardson's perfectionism and attention to detail, he demanded that the period uniforms be properly distressed so the soldiers would look as though they had been on the field for weeks. When it was time to shoot the earlier scenes, however, the costumes were so worn they had to be replaced with fresh ones.

Throughout the location shoot, Richardson would feel as though he were in a state of siege himself. The valley in which they were filming belonged to two neighboring villages. Since they were shooting in the summer, they had to pay the villages not to farm the land, giving them three times the value of any crops they might have grown there. Nonetheless, the villagers tried to farm the land in secret every night, leaving the plowed land a danger to the production's horses and military extras. Richardson had gotten permission from the military high command to let the cavalrymen grow their hair and beards for the proper period look. But one day a general showed up and ordered all the men to shave and cut their hair. The production had to fly in hairdressers from Rome, Paris and London to create wigs and fake beards for the men.

Things did not improve when they moved to Istanbul to film the British landing. Unaccustomed to the rough seas of the Bosporus, most of the cast and extras became sea sick and collapsed out of camera range once their ships had sailed into position for the landing. A few days later, an earthquake struck and almost toppled their hotel. Suddenly the surrounding streets were filled with titled actors, many of them naked.

Despite all the problems, however, Richardson assembled a handsome looking film. Cinematographer David Watkin wanted to capture the look of 19th-century photography, so he combed Europe for the oldest lenses he could find and then adapted them for wide-screen photography. To provide the film's historical context, Richardson engaged Richard Williams to create a series of animated sequences modeled on 19th-century political cartoons. These would prove to be the film's high point, but they almost didn't make it into the production. Even with two years to work on the project, Williams was still finishing the animation on the day of the premiere.

The Charge of the Light Brigade opened to mixed reviews, particularly in the U.S. Although many critics appreciated Richardson's revisionist take on history, some, like Pauline Kael, argued that he focused so much on the shortcomings of the military leaders that he lost any sense of the heroism that also accompanied the events. The best reviews went to the cast and to Williams' animation. With its combination of anti-military attitudes, coinciding with protests against the Vietnam War in the U.S. and England, with the lavish re-creation of the past (Richardson even insisted on using 19th century slang throughout the script), the film may have been caught between two audiences: the counter-culture crowd who would make Easy Rider (1969) a hit the following year and older moviegoers drawn to historical spectacle. For contemporary audiences, however, the film seems timely and even ahead-of-its time with its political criticism and short, vaudeville-style scenes.

Producer: Neil Hartley
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Charles Wood
Cinematography: David Watkin
Art Direction: Edward Marshall
Music: John Addison
Cast: Trevor Howard (Lord Cardigan), Vanessa Redgrave (Mrs. Clarissa Morris), John Gielgud (Lord Raglan), Harry Andrews (Lord Lucan), Jill Bennett (Mrs. Fanny Duberly), David Hemmings (Capt. Louis Edward Nolan), Peter Bowles (Paymaster Capt. Henry Duberly), Mark Dignam (Gen. Airey), Alan Dobie (Riding Master Mogg), Rachel Kempson (Mrs. Codrington), T.P. McKenna (William Russel), Corin Redgrave (Capt. Feathersonhaugh), Norman Rossington (S.M. Corbett), Donald Wolfit (Macbeth), Laurence Harvey (Russian Prince), Joely Richardson (Extra), Natasha Richardson (Flower Girl).

by Frank Miller



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