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A truly great film on a disappointing DVD
on 23 July 2006
"They will not fight unless they are flogged to it. Would you ask that of them? Would you ask they fight like fiends of Hell for money? Or h'ideas? That would be unchristian."
The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of those films that disappointed me on a first viewing (like many, I was expecting an epic adventure film) but which I love more each time I see it.
Charles Wood's delicious use of language makes the dialog a joy to listen to, and for the most part the performances do it justice - not just the likes of Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews and John Gielgud's delightfully vague Lord Raglan, but also the smaller roles like Norman Rossington's broken Sergeant and Alan Dobie's impoverished officer Mogg, who makes up in jovial and ignorant arrogance what he lacks in wit. It's an astonishingly ambitious film, and for the most part succeeds, painting a portrait not just of a time and place but a whole state of mind - it's not just the bungles of the Crimean War and the casual cruelty of the army in Richardson's sights but the blind stupidity of Britain's entire Victorian class system.
The film is even brave enough to have its nominal hero, David Hemmings' Captain Nolan, be as inadvertently unsympathetic as the superiors he rails against - he might seem more enlightened, but he'll still thoughtlessly finish off his men's breakfast (in one of several scenes cut for this DVD) or push away a wounded soldier. As careless with his men as Raglan is, you can see his point when he dreads the day when professional soldiers like Nolan will run a modern army - "It will be a sad day for England when her armies are led by men who know too well what they are doing- it smacks of murder."
Perhaps it's that lack of someone to root for that helped kill the film at the box-office (along with Richardson's refusal to have press screenings because he felt critics were not intelligent enough to appreciate the film), but I'd still love to see the four-hour rough cut footage emerge from its prison in the BFI's vaults some day. Several stills exist of deleted scenes (such as Cardigan's encounter with Russian troops on his return from the charge: they let him go in respect of his rank in reality) and although his part as a Russian Prince was otherwise completely cut, Laurence Harvey can still be briefly glimpsed in the theatre scene (along with Donald Wolfit playing MacBeth).
What gaps were left by the cuts and budget restrictions (not that the film isn't genuinely spectacular) are admirably filled in by Richard Williams stunningly imaginative and witty animation - old woodcut prints come to life as the British lion puts on his policeman's helmet to stop Russia assaulting Turkey - and John Addison's magnificent score. Amazingly, the pity of it all is not lost under the wit, with the starkest of endings as the generals argue over whose fault it is while flies buzz around dead horses. A truly great film.
Sadly, this has not a great DVD release anywhere.
The transfer on MGM/UA's Region 1 NTSC DVD is for the most part fine, but the animation sequences and the all but unreadable credits do suffer. What really disappoints is the fact that, like the previous laserdisc issue, this is a heavily cut version missing some 6-7 minutes. The ommission of Vanessa Redgrave's horrendous singing may be a merciful release, but the ommission of a reel from the Crimea scenes (including the flogging scene of a sentry who inadvertently shot at Raglan and Cardigan subsequently rewarding the flogged man for his bravery) are definitely not. The only extra is a trailer.
Sadly, despite releasing a video of the longer version (minus a few seconds of vicious horsefalls), the BFI's R2 PAL DVD is the same cut version, albeit with slightly better extras (an interview with Richard Williams, original trailer and a silent version of the Charge). Even more sadly, Optimum's UK DVD is probably the worst transfer to date. Yet again, like the previous laserdisc issue and all previous DVD releases, this is a heavily cut version - but without the 1912 silent version and interview with Richard Williams from the BFI's issue. And, just to round out a very disappointing history, the German and Australian Blu-rays are very poor copies of exactly the same cut version. Very disappointing.