This has to be my favorite movie about the Crimean War! While the film attempts a half-hearted explanation of the events that take us into the Crimean War through its periodic (and somewhat snarky) animation segments (it was 1968 so you’ve got to expect a little pretentious artiness and social commentary), I didn’t get much more out of it than identifying the countries through the cartoon animals that represented them: Russia was a bear, Britain a lion and Turkey was a turkey wearing a fez. France was of course a chicken.
The war started because of a fight between Russian and French religious types over issues relating to the Holy Land. Somehow this necessitated that the Russians invade part of the Ottoman Empire. And somehow that action necessitated the British sticking their ugly noses and bad teeth into things.
Though this was taking place in the Balkans and the Brits and French managed to kick the Russians out of there in a few months, they then decided they needed to also take over the Russian port city of Sevastopol. That’s where the Crimean War really takes off.
Captain Nolan is in the Light Cavalry headed up by Lord Cardigan. Nolan is a professional soldier through and through and thus is disliked by Cardigan.
Nolan doesn’t really help himself out any though pulling stunts like having his Indian servant help him out with the horses, being nice to the horses, and drinking beer from a black bottle in the mess when Lord Cardigan specifically ordered that champagne would be the only drink served that night.
Nolan is such a professional soldier that he argues with Cardigan about this and ends up getting himself arrested over the matter. The papers pick this up and it results in Cardigan having “black bottle” shouted at him wherever he goes.
Nolan meanwhile is demanding a court martial from Lord Raglan, who is above Cardigan, so that Nolan can have his say on this whole black bottle scandal in particular and on Cardigan’s questionable leadership skills in general.
Raglan though is consumed with where the new statue of the Duke of Wellington is going to go because at the present time, it’s sitting right outside his window and is interfering with his ability to do paperwork. This war can’t start soon enough, can it?
Finally, it does start. Nolan is there, apparently under Raglan’s command due to his falling out with Cardigan. Cardigan is there leading his Light Cavalry, but he is underneath Lord Lucan, his hated brother-in-law. Raglan is in charge of everyone, but half the time he thinks he’s fighting the French instead of being allies with them.
No one seems terribly concerned that they’re going off to a foreign land to possibly lose their lives and the attitude is probably best expressed early on in the film by a guy who says that there’s no point in doing anything heroic unless someone is there to see it. In this case, there are some wives along for the ride along with a reporter for the Times and they act as if they’re out to see a polo match or something.
The movie shows us an army whose superior officers are out of touch with both reality and one another. The petty jealousies and squabbling between Cardigan and Lucan and the deluded leadership of Raglan all coalesce on one fateful day that sees Cardigan’s Light Cavalry march straight into the Russian army all by themselves.
It all starts when the Russians take over British guns left in the field and Raglan seems slow to do anything about it. By the time he sends orders down to the cavalry to have them stop the Russians, the only Russians that the cavalry can see is the main army, not the small group of guys stealing the artillery pieces.
The way the geography was laid out, Raglan and the rest of the leadership were up on a hill and could see everything around them. The cavalry was down in among the valleys and only had a limited view of what was happening around them.
When Nolan delivers the message to Lucan and Cardigan, everyone looks around and Nolan points at the only Russians anyone can see which turns out to be about a billion of them. There’s a little concern that they are being ordered to ride straight at that large a group, but an order is an order so…CHARGE!
Lots of carnage follows and you get a good ten minutes of action with lots of guys dying, horses falling down, cannons going off, and dust flying everywhere. Needless to say, Cardigan’s Light Cavalry is annihilated.
The movie concludes with Lucan, Raglan, and Cardigan all seeking to put the blame on anyone but themselves, again evidencing the abysmal lack of leadership that caused all this in the first place.
Maybe this movie had some extra cachet when it came out in 1968 because of the Vietnam War and therefore was seen as something of a commentary on the stupidity of the old guard that loved to get everyone into wars, but watching it now, it doesn’t really play much beyond its historical story.
The satire that’s present in this is rather restrained and quite minimal. There are a few moments that are funny or ironic, but much of the movie is played as a straight drama, complete with the almost affair between David Hemmings (Deep Red) and Vanessa Redgrave.
The entire first part of the movie doesn’t actually lead to anything going on in the second part of the movie, other than show that Cardigan was a jerk and that Raglan was a boob. They were dopes, but the disaster that befell the Light Brigade didn’t necessarily follow from that since it was more along the lines of a gigantic misunderstanding.
In fact, I fail to see how this culture of “war as glamorous endeavor fought by gentleman” played much of a part in the ill-fated charge. Poor lines of communication just so happened to coincide with some bad positioning and the next thing you know you’re the subject of a Tennyson poem!
Still, the battle scenes were well done with lots of extras and impressive looking panoramic shots and gory scenes of violence. A decent historical drama that seems far too interested in making a political point that isn’t really there for the making. And they don’t even bother to tell you that Britain eventually won the war (more or less).
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