Sex, Lies & the Wrong Trousers:

The Duberlys & Louis at the Cinema and on TV...

1936 Film

1968 Film

June 2002 Documentary

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) 

This is swashbuckling hokum, best regarded as part of the 1930s Hollywood Kipling-esque cycle of Raj films which included Gunga Din and Wee Willie Winkie. It misdates the battle, throws in bits of the Indian Mutiny (the Kanpur Massacre) a few years too early, and has Indian rebels fighting in the Crimea. The fictional Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) who has served in India, and deliberately rewrites the order, may loosely allude to Louis (Yes. I know. Willing suspension of disbelief gets strained a bit here on æsthetic grounds... Lou's more Rathbone than Flynn, I think!), but neither he nor Fanny put in appearances as themselves. (No doubt sighs of relief all round...!)

They would not be so lucky 30 years later...

See David Kelsey's more detailed Review.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) 

Tony Richardson's film The Charge of the Light Brigade did not do well by our friends... It is an uneven mix of satirical black comedy, history and Vietnam-era anti-war polemic, adapted by Charles Wood from an earlier script by John Osborne. (Having heard Osborne's version on the radio, and seen Wood's filmed version, one would be hard-pressed to spot the differences: the script as filmed - in its characterisations, much of its dialogue, and its misogyny - remains strongly Osborne's.) While Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Reason Why is credited as the film's main source, it plays fast and loose with verifiable facts and characterisations, never mind the more debatable parts of the story! It's quite good fun in its way as entertainment, but a better title would be (with apologies to Wallace and Gromit) The Wrong Trousers, as the whole brigade is depicted in the cherry overalls of the 11th Hussars, thereby losing the point of their distinctiveness.

See my IMDb Review for more comments.

Jill Bennett and Peter Bowles as Fanny and Henry
Fanny and Henry were basically comic relief

Fanny gets the worst deal, being portrayed as an empty-headed trollop, whose sentences tend to begin with "Duberly says..." as if she hasn't a brain of her own. After a dinner scene and undressing in which Richardson was clearly deliberately harking back to his earlier success Tom Jones, she is depicted spending the night before Balaklava with Cardigan! John Osborne's stage directions in his original script, as broadcast on Radio 4, 13 June 2002, introduce her as "Lord Cardigan's mistress" even before the war, and imply, in describing her as "boyish" and having Cardigan all but drooling as he enthuses over the tight overalls of his "Cherry-bums", that he had gay/bisexual tendencies - which would be news to most commentators on his private life! This says far more about Osborne and Richardson's own preoccupations than about either Fanny or Cardigan.

But surely, if the film-makers wanted to demonstrate Cardigan's womanising, some fictional camp-follower could have been depicted? Rake as he was, old Jim the Bear respected Fanny and treated her chivalrously. Victorian morality differentiated between 'ladies' and other women whose virtue was less valued, and for all her unconventionality, adventurousness and trouser-wearing, which attracted hostility at the time, Fanny was still a 'lady'. I suspect Osborne got hold of some of the snide gossip about her and exaggerated it to absurdity, rather than referring to her own writings and her then-recent (1963) biography by E. E. P. Tisdall.

(Another possibility, given the film's tendency to elide characters, is that we are dealing with a thinly disguised portrait of the notorious wife of a well-known Crimean, erm, hero - a lady whom George Macdonald Fraser authoritatively records as having an affair with Lord Cardigan... ELSPETH FLASHMAN... <vbeg>)

Fanny and Cardigan kissing?!!

Fanny removing Cardigan's corset - and sending him off to battle with a kiss?!!!
Scenes which clearly owe more to the notorious Elspeth Flashman... ;-D

Fanny/Elspeth is played effectively enough by Jill Bennett. But I'm sure she could have made a splendid job of playing the real Fanny, an appealing character who wore a brave (some thought hardened) public face against adversity while venting her anger and compassion on paper, and who would have made an engaging proto-feminist heroine for modern audiences. Sadly, the script doesn't give her the chance to show her mettle. Her beloved and supportive, if comparatively rather staid, Henry is played as a comic-relief upper-class-twit cuckold by Peter Bowles. (Amusingly enough, he has since played Flashman in a documentary on George Macdonald Fraser!) In short, this likeable young couple are travestied to provide cheap, coarse laughs in a film which cannot decide how seriously to treat its characters.

While Louis is the nearest this self-consciously anti-heroic film has to a hero, his career is severely distorted for dramatic reasons. He never served in Cardigan's 11th Hussars (Cardigan was once in Louis' regiment, 15th Hussars, but before his time!). The 'Black Bottle' incident took place in 1840, involving another ex-Indian officer, Captain John Reynolds - not c. 1853 with Louis! So the film's history of antagonism between Louis and Cardigan is pure dramatic contrivance, and upstages the genuine tensions which existed between him and Lucan. Also, he did not sail East with the bulk of the army, as depicted, but was already out there on a horse-buying mission with his half-brother George Ruddach and Captain Thompson, and met up with everyone else at Varna.

The depiction of Louis having an affair with a highly fictionalised Mrs. Morris seems to spring from the fact that at Balaklava, his friend Captain William Morris gave him the letter to take to his wife in the event of his death. Louis in turn gave Morris a letter for his mother - which does not imply Morris was having an affair with Eliza Nolan (aged 75 and thrice-widowed). It was simply what men did before a battle, to make sure their next-of-kin received their last messages. Osborne's stage directions suggest the Mrs. Morris menage-à-trois is meant to convey the idea that Louis was inevitably drawn to "impossible situations" - but this is pure speculation, and not an impression one gains from his highly work-focussed real life. My suspicion is that this storyline was devised merely to create a part for the director's then recently divorced wife, Vanessa Redgrave, whose talents are wasted in a drippy and vapid rôle. (I'm not sure when exactly Jill Bennett was married to John Osborne, but there lingers a nasty suspicion about both the director and writer placing their wives or ex-s in thanklessly shallow or humiliating rôles.)

Ironically, in inventing the two fictional affairs - the 'serious' romance between Louis and Mrs. Morris and the 'comedy sex' one between Fanny and Cardigan - the film-makers ignored the tragic potential of the poignant (but platonic) friendship between Louis and Fanny. (Just ask Fred Dallas for gossip!) Perhaps it's just as well: such a story-line would have been sledge-hammered in a film of this style.

Don't try this with the real Louis, ladies...

Behaviour not recommended with the real Louis: his nose would take your eye out.
Lermontov in the British Army?!!
- That might explain a lot!

David Hemmings gives one of the best performances of his brief prime as a leading man of British cinema. But the characterisation as scripted is not persuasive, and he's simply the wrong physical type: small, boyish, cute, 27; while Louis was tall, lean, rather hatchet-profiled (he was described as "ugly"), and nearly 37. (Actually, Hemmings in hussar uniform looks far more like Misha Lermontov - see what I mean?!) The impression he conveys is closer to a bolshie '60s student - or indeed a Russian Romantic poet! - than to a fiercely intelligent professional soldier driven to near-distraction in frustration with his superiors. The rôle required someone more mature, with an air of authority instead of 'juvenile romantic lead' looks. But then, those qualities would not have made a popular film hero in 1968.

A less messy death than in reality...
A remarkably un-messy death: no open rib fractures or burnt and bloody gold-lace
(and the overalls should be dark blue!!!)

The Charge itself is well done, however, and is the main reason the film is worth seeing. The main events are all covered: Louis taking the order to Lucan; the heated altercation (although in reality Cardigan doesn't seem to have joined in it, and cannot in any way be held responsible) - "There is the enemy; there are the guns!"; Cardigan's resigned "Here goes the last of the Brudenells!"; the advance; Louis getting twitchy and riding forward, to Morris's perplexity and Cardigan's infuriation; the fatal shell-blast; the carnage that follows... The special effects people showed rare restraint in depicting Louis' death (unlike those of some of the extras): a pulmonary hæmorrhage, but no hint of the gaping wound that opened up his breast or of the burns that blackened the gold-lace...* But then it is a PG certificate, and it was a cinematic convention (first significantly breached in 1967 in US by Bonnie & Clyde) that while supporting characters could be used as cannon-fodder - here literally, main heroes and heroines were generally spared severe mutilation. Mind, the scene still did serious things to my hurt/comfort complex when I was about 13: watching it on TV with The Illustrated London News open at the right pages on the living-room floor before me, and the tune of Cork City (the exquisite Irish version of Young Man Cut Down in His Prime) running through my head... And the ending, with the generals debating whose fault it was, while the survivors stagger back in shots based on Elizabeth Thompson Butler's 1876 painting, and flies buzz around dead horses and men, still retains its powerful impact. It's just a pity that much of what preceded did not live up to it - a wasted opportunity.

*In fact, David Hemmings' jacket from the film was intact enough to be later worn by '80s pop singer Adam Ant!

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Secret History: The Charge of the Light Brigade
(broadcast 6 June 2002) 

This Channel 4 documentary was based primarily on Mark Adkin's 1996 book, The Charge. Adkin made several appearances, along with Saul David, John Sweetman, & co., and there were interviews with relatives of Cardigan and Raglan. (Louis' family is extinct, and there's an obvious problem re: Lucan's...!!!) There was effective use of computer graphics to show the topography and its influence on the controversy. I thought it was worth watching as at least a hypothesis, but it was by no means the radical, definitive answer that it purported to be.

Whether or not one agreed with the programme's main thesis (basically, "Nolan did it on purpose, but if Lucan had sent in the Heavies as back-up it could have worked"), the arguments were over-simplified. I should have liked to see some head-to-head, "blood on the carpet" debate among the historians. But TV history programmes these days have an aversion to academic conflict, and give a false impression of scholarly consensus. There is nothing cut-and-dried about this story, and it is misleading to suggest that there is a definitive, universally-agreed explanation and that the case is now closed.

There were some dramatised scenes, which didn't really add a great deal, though I noted with relief that, unlike in some drama-docs, they had cast actors who resembled their characters. Russell Levy was a refreshingly unglamourised Louis (an improvement on David Hemmings à la Lermontov), with the imperious, somewhat sour expression of the portraits. Indeed, from some angles it was like seeing the 1845 equestrian portrait, with the necessary added decade, come to life... and I certainly don't object to that! <vbeg> He didn't have the waxed moustache shown in the watercolour portrait and the Alken illustrations for The Training of Cavalry Remount Horses, but then we don't know if Louis still had it in the Crimea (it would have been a bit high-maintenance). As per the 1968 film, the gruesome chest wounds weren't depicted: some realities of war don't make for evening family viewing, even after the 9 p.m. watershed. But my h/c complex kicked in again...

The best on-screen likeness of Louis to date!

OK, not everyone's idea of Cavalry Crumpet,
but a much better likeness.
C4 publicised the programme as if it were expounding a completely new theory. Perhaps for some of the general public it was, if not for long-term Light Brigade buffs. Bob commented that he was:

somewhat amused that after all the 'Secret Mystery of the Unknown Hidden Charge...'hype of the trailers it seemed (to me at least) to be the old ''Twas Nolan to blame'. This is new?

Indeed, the allegation has been surfacing intermittently for nearly 150 years. The very reason for its convenience is one of the reasons I have reservations about it: it depends on making major assumptions about the motivation and actions of the one key participant unable to give his own account or defend himself. To detect a faint 'aroma of rodent' is not "Victorian sentimentality" (as one of the interviewees claimed) but a healthily cynical observation of realpolitik, combined with a concern for justice. Here in Scotland we have a verdict of "Not proven", which I think in this instance is the only just one. It isn't dramatic, and it solves nothing, I know, but here it's an honest admission that the vital evidence is irretrievable. One of the weaknesses of television history is that it dislikes ambiguity and inconclusiveness, and prefers tidy answers, which the facts don't always support.

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Komm her ins Kerzenlicht. Ich bin nicht bang,
die Toten anzuschauen.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Requiem for a Friend