Viewers expecting the traditional heroics of the 1936 Errol Flynn picture are in for a shock with Tony Richardson’s The Charge of Light Brigade (1968). There’s little in the ways of heroics here — mostly victims and fools. What we have is Richardson at his most counter-culture — not to mention his most confrontational. (And anyone who knows Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), knows that Richardson wasn’t one to leave any sacred cow unskinned.) Of course, The Charge is an anti-war film (when the movie was released, the U.S. was deep into Vietnam and the point was not lost on viewers) and it’s a bold one—one that gets to the whole issue of the disconnect between those in charge and those actually doing the fighting. If Richardson wanted to anger a lot of the viewing public, he succeeded with a vengeance here.
The problem with the film was pretty simple and fundamental: Nobody wanted to see it. As a general rule, that’s bad news for a movie. It’s even more news for an expensive movie with a big name cast, and it certainly did Richardson’s career no favors (not that Richardson was in the habit of doing his career any favors, apart from Tom Jones in 1963). It was — and is — a harsh movie, but at least today it’s a film that’s possible to be viewed within the context of its era. Much like Richard Lester’s How I Won the War the previous year (also a flop, despite the presence of John Lennon and a flippantly comedic tone), it reflected the growing political consciousness of many filmmakers. It also reflected the mood of the day, but viewers frankly didn’t want to be reminded of that — at least not in their movies.
As filmmaking, The Charge of the Light Brigade now seems brilliant and to the point. The animated political cartoons that bothered or baffled audiences 42 years ago come across as perfectly judged. Today, the tone is almost a given, and if anything it’s the only Errol Flynn movie that seems jarring in its “theirs not to reason why” jingoism. Richardson’s whole point lies more in the previous line of Tennyson’s poem — “Someone had blunder’d”— and his film is determined to uncover the “reason why.”