The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) offers a violent and damning portrait of the British army during a time when it was commanded by bloated philanderers and racists who knew nothing or cared little about the winning tactics of war or, worse yet, the recruits sent to carry them out.

Set in 1854, the film chronicles Britain’s disastrous involvement in the Crimean War against Russia. Director Tony Richardson, through his production company Woodfall Films, assembled a mighty brigade of his own to capture the enormous level of authenticity required to fulfill his vision of the 600-man charge at Balaklava that resulted in the deaths of over 400 British soldiers. Having been refused permission to film at the actual locations where the battles were fought (the Russians citing their close proximity to a nearby missile base as the official reason), Richardson’s brigade charged at Ankara, Turkey with the full support of the Turkish government. The filmmakers rented a 750-acre valley at a cost of $33,000 and benefitted from the cooperation of the Turkish Presidential Guard, commanded by Lt. Col. Gunes, who provided 600 of his 900 horses for the production. In return, the film crew transformed the valley into a fully irrigated piece of agricultural land by laying underground pipe and bringing electricity to the village of Saraycik, their base of operations, all left behind for the villagers after production wrapped.

In the knowledge that most people knew what the charge of Balaklava was, due in no small part to Alfred Tennyson’s legendary poem, Richardson eschewed the standard dramatic conceits of filmmaking to shoot in a semi-documentary style, accentuating social customs and focusing on slight observations of individual officers and serfs. In this way, Richardson brought his historical figures to life in a uniquely visceral way. Sir John Gielgud is marvelously dim-witted as the one-armed Lord Raglan, who orders the charge, as are Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews as brothers-in-law Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan, respectively. David Hemmings is brilliantly understated as Nolan, the voice of reason in the mayhem, while his affair with Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave), wife of his best friend, William (Mark Burns), paints him as not entirely beyond reproach.

In Victorian England militarily inexperienced but wealthy men could buy commands in the British army. Both Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan commanded at the charge and Cardigan—who had bought himself the Lt. Colonelcy of the 11th Hussars at a cost of £40,000—led the Light Brigade at Balaklava. Cardigan’s ineptitude forms the backbone of Richardson’s not-so-lightly veiled attack on British politics of the time as he literally embodies all that was bloated and arrogant in that system.

In addition to a series of wickedly insulting war propaganda cartoons—courtesy of Richard Williams (The Pink Panther)—that serve as linking material, a key element in the artistic success of The Charge of the Light Brigade is the music of John Addison (1920–1998). The composer’s pompous, über-patriotic Victorian main title anthem enhances film’s portrayal of the British commanders as oblivious, bickering twits, while the theme for Nolan contrastingly creates an air of tragedy for the one featured soldier smart enough to be exasperated by the madness that surrounds him.

Addison had previously worked with Richardson on the director’s A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, as well as The Girl with the Green Eyes, which Richardson produced. The composer’s most important collaboration with Richardson, Tom Jones (1963) also became his most lucrative after the director rewarded him a healthy share of the film’s profits. Addison was a student at the Royal College of Music in London for a year before WWII broke out and he joined the 23rd Hussars tank regiment, taking part in the invasion of Europe in 1944. He returned to the RCM after the war and remained there as professor of theory and composition. He scored his first feature film in 1950, the Boulting Brothers’ Seven Days to Noon.

In the August 1978 issue of the RTS Music Gazette, Addison reminisced with Martyn Crosthwaite about his working relationship with Richardson, saying: “Tony Richardson would like me to be involved as early as the script stage. He would ask me to go on location too to absorb the general enthusiasm and atmosphere.” Speaking highly of his frequent collaborator he said, “[Tony] uses his script as a jumping-off point, and he improvises a lot and asks the actors to improvise, too.…We became personal friends, and we developed a kind of verbal shorthand when working together.”

That verbal shorthand led to Addison’s Light Brigade score winning repeated accolades from reviewers. Mandel Herbstman of Film and Television Daily called the score “excellent” and John Mahoney of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Crucial to the success of the satire is the score by John Addison, with its thundering Hail Britannia choruses, comic counterpoint to pompous action and pastoral settings which amplify the contrast between the lives of the aristocrat officers and the brutal disciplines inflicted upon the serf soldiers.”

United Artists Records’ soundtrack album for The Charge of the Light Brigade presented a generous helping of John Addison’s score, as performed by the Sinfonia of London under the composer’s direction. The first track is a contemporary song not found in the film; the balance of the album reordered the cues for listening purposes (the program commentary below discusses them in the order in which they appear in the film). Due to what must have been a clerical error, the LP packaging transposed the titles of tracks 6 and 7; for contractual reasons we have retained the original titles for this release, but the proper titles are indicated below (in italics).

1. The Charge of the Light Brigade
A haunting, contemporary song (not used in the film) opens the album, with lyrics taken from Tennyson’s poem. Performed by Manfred Mann and his British pop band of the same name, the somber tone is in stark contrast to the message of Richardson’s film, making it the perfect mirror for the British media’s misrepresentation of the conflict back home. (It remains unclear whether John Addison or Manfred Mann wrote the song, which is musically unrelated to the balance of Addison’s score.)
2. Main Title
Richard Williams’s magnificently conceived main title animation depicts England in all its glory and empire building. Addison follows the changes in scene adroitly, opening with a fateful aura as the great Russian bear attacks a sick Turkey, awakening the sleeping lion of England; the cue turns regal with a beaming, Victorian anthem for orchestra with lyrics for mixed chorus as the animation proceeds to depict Britain’s high society flaunting its wealth and expensive clothing while the lower classes sweat it out in the coal mines and steel factories.
12. Lady Scarlett’s Ball
Addison contributes proper Victorian dance music for the cavalry officers mingling at a party, firing off sarcastic insults during “witty” conversation. The main characters are introduced during this sequence—most importantly Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) as the pompous ass who cares little about anybody, the younger Nolan (David Hemmings), who cares too much, and Fanny (Jill Bennett), who lusts after Cardigan and his authority.
4. Nolan’s Theme
Nolan tours the barracks, talking with stablehands and fellow officers, relating to each on a level of which Lord Cardigan would not waste his time. Addison introduces Nolan’s theme, a contemplative melody for woodwinds and strings, punctuated by tentative trumpet fanfares; the material, reprised at several junctures throughout the film, effectively distances Nolan from the other soldiers.
7. Sebastopol [Go Gently]
While the British army trains in a park, Nolan’s friend Captain Morris (Mark Burns) is thrown to the ground by an unruly horse; Nolan arrives on the scene and, after scolding a jeering officer, tames the horse. This cue’s exclamatory opening (for the horse’s antics) does not appear in the film, but the subsequent rendition of Nolan’s theme is dialed in once he takes control of the beast and helps Morris back onto his saddle.
11. Nolan and Clarissa (The First Kiss)
Nolan and Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave), the wife of Captain Morris, take a walk into the woodlands and share a kiss of betrayal—to her husband and his friend. An unnerving, contrapuntal development of Nolan’s material plays through the uncomfortable buildup to the kiss; once Nolan and Clarissa give in to their desires, a romantic, oboe-driven setting of the captain’s music sounds but is partially dialed out of the film.
15. Anger and Reflection
Nolan’s material boils as the captain confronts Cardigan, requesting a court-martial and accusing him (justifiably) of ordering other officers to spy on him. Finding solace in the stables, Nolan reflects on the direction of the British army, accompanied by a more relaxed setting of his material, and promises himself that he will fight for a more noble military structure.
8. War Fever
An animated bit of propaganda depicts England’s declaration of war: the country’s building fervor is expressed with a rallying call to arms against “The Russians!” followed by a hysterical exclamation of “Poor Little Turkey!” Threatening, exotic material underscores the Russian bear abusing Turkey; as the British lion and French rooster storm across Europe to defeat the bear, the score responds with heroic renditions of the main theme and “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. Punishing brass closes the cue as the courts and citizens of England continue to clamor for war.
9. Across the Seas
The bombast of “Rule Britannia” gives way to an equally enthusiastic rendition of Addison’s main theme during an animated sequence in which the British fleet sails out to war. Balletic material segues into “La Marseillaise” as the French fleet joins their British allies on the way to Constantinople. A comical arrangement of a traditional British tune plays as cartoon likenesses of Lord Cardigan and his brother-in-law, Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), bicker with one another. The cue ceases once the fleet sails into a terrible storm that kills many of the cavalry’s horses.
13. March on the Alma
The Brigade marches toward Balaklava. Addison dryly develops Nolan’s theme as officer after dutiful officer succumbs to the effects of cholera with most left to perish under the searing sun. This devastates Nolan, who is frightened to let a dying man drink from his canteen. The pure rendition of Nolan’s theme that closes the cue is dialed out of the film.
14. After the Battle
Nuanced, scornful readings of Nolan’s theme play as the captain surveys a corpse-strewn battlefield, the aftermath of England’s first encounter with the Russians. After he guns down a surviving enemy, Nolan confides in Morris about his belief that the cavalry should proceed to take Sebastopol; the cue ends with a hopeful statement of Nolan’s theme as both men become distracted thinking of Clarissa.
6. Go Gently [Sebastopol]
The British press reports a victory in Sebastopol—a grave extrapolation of the truth as the army continues to struggle, making little or no dent in the Russian lines. Another animated sequence depicts this fictional victory with suitably overblown patriotism; Addison matches the balletic visuals of Britain celebrating and humiliating a defeated Russia with dreamy, impressionistic writing for orchestra and choir, culminating in a majestic reprisal of the main title anthem.
5. Waiting for the Charge
It is just before the Light Brigade’s final suicidal charge: When enemy Russian soldiers drag away the British army’s guns, the cavalry stands idly by, awaiting orders. At the insistence of Nolan, Raglan (Sir John Gielgud) orders the cavalry to stop the enemy from stealing their weapons in a terribly conceived plan sending them helpless and defenseless into the open valley of death. Addison’s accompanying cue features Nolan’s theme for the officer’s frustrated interaction with Raglan and suspenseful militaristic material consisting of bumbling muted trumpet fanfares and bouncing timpani for the incompetent British trying to decide how to deal with the thieving Russians. The opening, lush rendition of Nolan’s theme is dialed out of the film, as are the cue’s aggressive closing bars.
3. The Six Hundred
At the climax of the film, Nolan (David Hemmings) rides out to the cavalry, carrying Lord Raglan’s ill-conceived orders that send the Light Brigade to certain death. Nolan’s theme unfolds in its most heroic, brassy statement, dialed out early in the finished picture.
10. Valley of Death
This cue was intended to accompany the film’s concluding cavalry charge into the valley but was ultimately dropped by Richardson in favor of the simple sounds of war. Addison’s pummeling cue incorporates massive brass variants of Nolan’s theme, a final suggestion of outrage on behalf of the captain—he dies while trying stop the charge.
16. End Titles
After the Light Brigade makes its fateful charge, the incompetent British officers quarrel among themselves, each blaming the other for their catastrophic failure, none of them concerned with the devastating loss of life. Missing from Richardson’s finished film is Addison’s reprisal of his main title music in this short cue for the end credits. The obliviously proud, optimistic theme might have made for a powerful statement over the film’s closing illustration of a gruesomely decapitated horse. —