As you may have noticed, a major news story over the past two months has been the crisis in Crimea. But that strategic peninsula, with its vital warm water ports on the Black Sea, is no stranger to strife and controversy, and of all the disputes that have erupted there, the most deadly was a conflict in the 1850s between Russia and a European alliance led by Britain and France. It was called, appropriately enough, the Crimean War.
The specific issues that triggered that war have long since vanished into the mists of history. Instead, what has come down to us as a vivid and enduring picture of the struggle is a stirring poem written by the most celebrated English poet of that era — Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” was a memorial tribute to the English soldiers who were slaughtered in a suicidal attack during the Battle of Balaclava, and over the years it would become a staple in introductory poetry classes. Many students, in fact, would commit to memory the poem’s most famous stanza:
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
In the 20th century, two major motion pictures were made about the Crimean War and, in a stately bow to Tennyson, the title chosen for both of them was “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The first one, a 1936 swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn, had its entertaining moments, but it played very fast and loose with the historical facts. (The opening scenes, for some strange reason, took place in India.)
The second one came out in 1968 and, in addition to its more accurate history, it is a clearly superior work of art. And that’s the film Movies at the Library will be showing next Tuesday evening, April 1 at 7 p.m.
But be prepared: This is not your typical war film. It’s not even your typical anti-war film. On the one hand, the main thrust of the picture is a scathing indictment of Britain’s inept military leadership in Crimea. Yet it is also interspersed with scenes of broad humor that, at times, are downright cartoonish.
This quirky blend of moral outrage and raffish caricature was the brainchild of the movie’s director, Tony Richardson, who in 1968 was at the height of his creative powers.
He was, indeed, still basking in the afterglow of his greatest triumph — his 1963 comic masterpiece, “Tom Jones” — which received the Academy Award for Best Picture that year along with three other Oscars, including one for Richardson as Best Director.
Richardson’s inventive gift for comedy that was on display in “Tom Jones” carries over into “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” but in the latter film, the mood is darker and the satiric tone takes on a sharper edge.
The Crimean story unfolds through the eyes of a young officer (played by David Hemmings) who embodies the movie’s moral center — such as it is. But cast in the meaty roles of the aristocratic commanders — Lord Raglan, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan — were three of Britain’s most distinguished actors at that time: John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews.
The three lords were the blundering generals who were later blamed for the foolhardy decisions that led to the infamous charge “into the valley of Death.” Gielgud’s portrayal of the aging Raglan’s mental confusion as he slides toward senility is both hilarious and horrifying. As for the other two lords, they are essentially pompous bunglers, and Howard and Andrews play them with swagger and gusto.
To watch these three old pros strut their stuff in roles worthy of their impressive talents is a special pleasure that you won’t want to miss.
When “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was released in 1968, U.S. troops were “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” of Vietnam, and in both Britain and America, antiwar protests were gathering momentum. In that political climate, a film that depicted the folly of dispatching young soldiers to fight in a dubious war on battlefields far from home was bound to strike a responsive chord with many viewers — and it did.
Now, once again, the movie resonates with a timely political connection, though in a much different context than was the case in 1968. So join us next Tuesday in the library’s Community Room at 7 p.m. for a rousing look at some history of a region that has been so much in the news this winter and spring.