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Friday, September 17, 2010

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Crimean War was a conflict in the 1850s between England and Russia. The Russians had attacked Turkey, mostly to gain control of the Dardanelles. England and France responded, siding with the Muslim Turks against the Christian Russians, mostly because the Russians complicated their route to the Indian subcontinent. Today it is largely remembered for two things--Florence Nightengale, and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The charge took place at the Battle of Balaclava, on the Crimean peninsula, which is modern-day Ukraine. It was not a wise tactical decision. Richard Slotkin, in an essay in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, writes: "The order was vaguely worded, the staff officer who delivered it was angry and impatient, and the commanders of the cavalry (Lords Lucan and Cardigan) were so incompetent as to be unable to interpret it properly."

Six-hundred mounted soldiers rode straight into a valley, surrounded on three sides by Russian artillery. They were routed. After reading it about in the Times of London, Alfred Lord Tennyson quickly wrote a poem that would forever immortalize the battle. Some of the lines are familiar to almost everyone:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why
Their's but to do or die

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volley'd and thunder'd

Two films have been made about the incident, and they couldn't be more different, and are perfect snapshots of the attitudes about war of the time they were made. The Hollywood version of 1936, starring Errol Flynn, has almost no historical accuracy. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Lives of the Bengal Lancers. It seemed that any film about swashbuckling in India was popular. The little detail of the Crimea not being in India didn't stop them. Flynn plays a British captain stationed in India. He is friends with an Emir from "Suristan" (probably Afghanistan) and saves his life on trip. But, being from a darker race, the Emir turns out to be treacherous, and massacres the residents of a British fort, including women and children (one boy is played by Our Gang performer Scotty Beckett). Flynn escapes, along with his fiancee (Olivia DeHavilland).

Later Flynn is assigned to take part in the Crimean War, and we are led to believe that he defies orders and attacks the Russians because the Emir is with them. This attack will distract the Russians so that the British can capture the city of Sebastapol. So, instead of being a moment of colossal incompetence and arrogance, the whole thing was really one of selfless courage. As Bill Cosby used to say, "Riiiight!"

While watching the film I wondered whether I had the right movie, as the actors don't even make it to Crimea until the last fifteen minutes. Much of it concerned a romantic triangle, with Flynn and his brother, Patric Knowles, vying for DeHavilland's hand. Curtiz, normally a fine director, doesn't show any skill here, and the film is dull as it is unhistorical.

The other film is from 1968, directed by Tony Richardson, and is very typical of films of the era. There were all sorts of films, whether set in the Crimean War or the American West, that were thinly veiled condemnations of the Vietnam War. This one was also an attack on the British class system. The generals--Trevor Howard as Cardigan, Harry Andrews as Lucan, and John Gielgud as Lord Raglan--are depicted as the kind of twits mocked later in Monty Python sketches. It is pointed out that at that time, men could buy commissions as officers. Gielgud says at one point that he thinks if it will be a sad moment when the troops are officered by men who know what they are doing. "It smacks of murder," he says.

Howard's portrayal of Cardigan is vicious. In the film he is vain, obstinate, pompous and foolish. He is at odds with Captain Nolan (David Hemmings), who has served with distinction in India. Howard is so prejudiced that he calls Hemmings an Indian simply because he's been there. Nolan was the man who carried Raglan's order to Cardigan and Lucan, but here he is seen to be the only sane voice in the army, and he is the first to fall in the charge.

Richardson's direction is full of 1960s affectations, such as the dialogue from a scene starting before the previous scene has concluded, and some amusing animation, done in the style of Punch cartoons. I found the film, though dated, to be drolly amusing, and the final scene, where the generals look out at the devastation and argue about who should get the blame, to be timeless.

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