I.B. Tauris’s British Film Guides seem partly to be a response to Truffaut’s oft-quoted criticism that the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘cinema’ were a contradiction in terms. In some ways this is ironic – we first saw Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade in a packed auditorium at the Pompidou Centre in Paris where the response of the predominantly French audience could not have been more positive. In its native country it is an all-but-forgotten film, a monumental flop (at the time it was the largest budgeted film in British history) whose only release on video was through the British Film Institute’s (arguably elitist or specialist) Connoisseur Video range. The timing of this new book re-evaluating Richardson’s film could not be more appropriate, as Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers is currently flopping in cinemas throughout the land. It’s a film whose tone is more in tune with Richardson’s work than the more famous celebration of British courage filmed by Korda in the late 1930’s.
Mark Connelly’s book is split neatly into three sections. The first covers the background to the film, both in terms of the historical events and the film’s placing as part of a defining Sixties aesthetic. This covers a lot of ground, from the Free Cinema movement that saw the emergence of a new "Britishness" in the late Fifties/early Sixties, to the slackening of censorship and the sexual revolution. This all goes towards explaining why, despite being a period piece, this version of Charge of the Light Brigade could only have been a product of a very tightly defined time and place. The scale of the production is also discussed; from the original four hour cut favoured by editor/film-maker/film historian Kevin Brownlow to a multitude of issues regarding the screenplay ("I don’t think we can have Queen Victoria fucked by a bear, not even a very funny Russian bear, do you?").
Part two discusses the film itself, specifically its themes and characters. Connelly wisely notes the film’s use of contemporary language (to the events) to create a sense of time; indeed much of the film’s enjoyment comes from the decoding of archaic jargon and language. It also allowed the screenwriter to get away with far more explicit and vulgar wordplay than would have been allowed if they used common 1960’s vernacular. Being a British film, Charge of the Light Brigade is naturally pre-occupied with class, breeding and status. The picture painted is one infused with the common attitudes still prevalent from the slaughter of World War 1 mixed with the British love of heroic defeat or Pyrrhic victory. Ultimately Richardson’s film is resolutely left field in its attitudes; the patriotic flag-waving and the extraordinary animations based on contemporaneous sketches are clearly satirical and probably the source of the film’s ultimate downfall.
Part three examines the aftermath of the production and the critical and public reaction to it. It clearly did not find its audience. Critics seemed bemused and sought refuge in the detailed animated sections. Satire, even in the late 60’s, was not an easy thing to sell. In the US the almost total cultural alienation that the film imposed on its audience stifled the box office. Connelly charts the film’s critical apathy but tries to claim that finally The Charge of the Light Brigade has earned its rightful place in the bastion of great British films. It would be nice to think he’s right but current apathy (in the UK) does not seem to support this view. Hopefully his book will help redress this imbalance.
Although pitched primarily as an academic work, Mark Connelly’s book is a joy to read because of his unbridled affection for his subject. He makes no apologies about being enraptured by the film from childhood, but is careful to explore the areas where the film is less than successful. The result is an eminently readable blend of fact, opinion, anecdote and criticism; an ideal companion to an unfairly overlooked classic British film.