The Charge of the Light Brigade occurred on the 30th of November 1854 and the two different media treatments of this event which I will compare and contrast are: the poem – “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by the then poet laureate Lord Tennyson and the film regarding the same event by Tony Richardson.
Firstly, the poem begins with the words, ” Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred … ” First of all, Lord Tennyson immediately makes us feel engaged within the event itself and we are introduced to this dactylic rhythm. This rhythm mimics a horses gait and is continued throughout the entire poem. It seems quite peculiar that he is using the measurement of a “league,” because he could either be exaggerating the amount of land the horses had to cover, or he could be using it because it is a mythological measurement which could imply that the soldiers are involved in a heroic act by indeed ‘riding on’ into the “Valley of Death.”
Notice also that he uses the “Valley of Death” which is a biblical setting which could imply Christian hope or perhaps more likely, – the inevitability of death. Then, Tennyson writes to complete the first stanza, “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns, he said. Into the Valley of Death, rode the six hundred.” Here, there is an anonymous command telling them (the Light Brigade) to charge for their enemy. He then reiterates the fact that they (the six-hundred) are riding into the “Valley of Death.” As a result of the repetition, there is a certain emphasis on the number – six-hundred, and the fact that they are riding into the “Valley of Death.” This could make us feel that there exists this anxiety within the soldiers, and it backs up the point that I made earlier that there could be this feeling of inevitability amongst the soldiers.
Tennyson wants us to feel sorry for them because six-hundred soldiers are few in comparison to what the Russian Goliath has. At the beginning of the second stanza, it is repeated that somebody orders the Light Brigade forward, and he goes on to write, “Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldier knew, some one had blunder’d.” Again, there is an anonymous command at the beginning of the second stanza and there is a questioning of whether there was a soldier who was unhappy towards the command. Here, Tennyson is letting us interpret this for ourselves as it could mean that all the soldiers were indeed proud to be fighting for his country but it could alternatively be Tennyson telling us that the soldiers were proud on the surface but they were actually frightened internally.
Where he writes, ” Not tho’ the soldier knew, Some one had blunder’d,” he is making us feel that the soldiers were altogether innocent as they were heading for their death as there is a subtle statement that ‘someone’ had erred. Notice that the statement, ” Some one had blunder’d” is again anonymous as were the commands. Tennyson then goes on to write, ” Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die: Into the valley of Death, Rode the six hundred.” This again makes us pity the ‘poor’ soldiers for they had to do what they were told even though they knew that they were going to die. It implies that they knew that someone had made a mistake but even still, they had to ride on. Because of this, the second stanza ends on a sour note and there is a great emphasis on death, on togetherness and on the glorious soldiers. The fact that all three of those lines begin with the same word (their’s) and end with the same sound, contributes well to the rhythmic quality of that stanza.
The third stanza begins with, ” Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them,” This repetition adds to the feeling that there is no escaping the relentless assault on them . They all begin with the word “Cannon” and there is a hard and brutal sound that goes with that. Additionally, there is an emphasis on “them,” which suggests that they are united and together on their day of death. He then goes on to write, ” Volley’d and thunder’d; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell, Rode the Six hundred.”
Firstly, with “volley’d and thunder’d” he wants us to recognise the great level of noise present which suggests death. Then with, “Storm’d at with shot and shell,” he uses alliteration to emphasise the sound which also suggests death. He wrote that they still rode on “boldly” into the “jaws of Death” and into the “mouth of Hell,” and he uses imagery very effectively here as we picture them vividly riding to their deaths bravely and with acceptance. Here, the emphasis is very much on death and the courage of the men. The poem goes on to end with, “Noble six hundred!” which is a clear indication of what Tennyson wanted us remember about the men. He leaves this right at the end so that we remember it and so that we remember them as noble and brave.
Richardson’s film starts off with a row between Captain Nolan and Lord Lucan as there is tension between the people who are responsible for the men. Here, there is a wide-screen shot of the soldiers, and then a long distance shot of them which show them to be pawns of those standing on higher ground looking down on them. In the next scene, Lord Raglan is seen to be unsure of himself. There are traces of age catching up with him as he has to sit down. He is confused as he is shown changing his mind when giving out orders and also somewhat vague. When he is giving out these orders, he stutters indecisively and he has to be prompted by Captain Nolan.
In the scenes that follow, it is clear that there is a personal rivalry between Lucan and Cardigan who are seen to be much more interested in their personal squabble than the army they are supposed to be leading. Nolan was to deliver the message to “charge at the enemy…” which is extremely vague and unclear because there are two enemies present (the Russians and the Turkish) to Lucan and Cardigan and when he takes it he is seen to be rather impatient and overexcited with his youthful exuberance which contrasts well with Lucan, Cardigan and in particular Raglan, who is in no hurry/rush at all and who still treats war to be a gentleman’s game.
This was the first war with a press contingent and it becomes clear that they are distracting those who overlook the soldiers. Raglan then has a conversation with a woman, and he speaks “pretty”, ‘beautiful” language. Richardson included this so that women feel angry and bitter towards Raglan as it introduces sexism and makes him sound idiotic. Then, when Nolan delivers the message to Lucan and Cardigan, and when they question Nolan as to where the enemy is, Nolan points his finger extravagantly towards the valley without even looking at where he is pointing. Upon this, the camera moves to tell the audience that Nolan is pointing to the wrong place.
There are close-up’s of Lucan and Cardigan’s face when Nolan does this, and they look at each other with faces of horror. Even though they knew that Nolan was pointing at the wrong place, they had to execute Raglan’s order as pride was at stake. This was extremely foolish on Lucan and Cardigan’s part and it just shows how ranking and pride affected people. Then, there is a long-shot which makes the army look like ants and it makes it clear how distant they are, from those who are leading them. During this shot, there is a great silence and tranquility which contrasts with the noise present on lower ground. As the army is charging for the enemy, there are close-up’s of Nolan’s face when he realizes they are going the wrong way and as he panics and tries to inform the others, he is first to be shot.
The next scene is just an aerial view of the battle, and it is so silent that there is the sound of a bee buzzing in the background -which is juxtaposed with the roar of the charge. The next shot is of the Lord’s, and there is a dead silence again, with only the birds chirping. During this scene, they include a close-up of Raglan’s horror-struck face as he realizes what has happened. Later on, there are relentless shots of several body and flesh parts which convey the number of casualties as well as the manner in which they died. Then, there is a close-up of Raglan and his look of guilt and shame.
During the aftermath of the charge, there is a great quiet, and there is the image of a sole soldier riding. Richardson then superbly contrasts this with a shot of the ongoing picnic and of the women who are far from the death and violence present below them. The men’s regalia at the beginning is of the film is of a superb and glorious red while at the end, they are of a muddy brown. After all this, we see the Lord’s in a sequence of blaming – with Raglan eventually blaming his aide de camp with him claiming that the handwriting present on his message wasn’t his (which it obviously wasn’t because he had someone write his orders). The film ends with a shot of a rotting horse – with the buzzing of several flies.
Overall, I think that the poem and the film both have their strengths and witnesses. They are both undoubtedly biased and they were both made with the hope of conveying a certain message (the poem’s being to glorify the efforts of the soldiers, the film’s being to bring to attention the incapability of those who led the men).
The poem starts off in the middle of the charge whereas the film begins before the charge in order to show the weaknesses and foolishness of those ‘behind the scenes.’ The endings are both entirely different, with the poem ending with, “Noble six hundred!” and the film ending with the image of a rotting horse. It is clear that even if both these forms of media representation were about the same event; their messages completely differ from each other.