The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968. Filmed in 1968 at the height of the counterculture movement, as the escalation of the Cold War and a seemingly interminable Vietnam War pervaded the collective consciousness of the entire international community, Tony Richardson’s sumptuous, confrontational, and acutely rendered magnum opus, The Charge of the Light Brigade is a scathing indictment, not only of the arrogance and madness of war, but more importantly, of the myopic insularity of class and privilege intrinsic in the monolithic culture of the people behind the powerful institutions who wage these wars. A chronicle of the British involvement – or more appropriately, insinuation – into the Crimean War between Russia and the Ottoman Empire that led to the ill-fated uphill charge of the Light Brigade cavalry against a waiting, well-armed Russian artillery unit in the valley of Balaclava, the film follows the plights of the battle’s key historic figures in the lead up to the confrontation and its inevitable aftermath: Lord Raglan (John Gielgud), the elderly, muddle-headed, incompetent commander and field strategist whose career had been defined by his experience in Waterloo and continues to regard each enemy encounter as a form of indirect engagement against France (despite both countries being on the side of the Ottoman Empire in the war); Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), the bombastic, cocksure Major-General who commanded the Light Brigade under reluctant orders from his superior, and estranged brother-in-law, Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews); Captain Nolan (David Hemmings), the enigmatic, battle-anxious, cavalry officer who would personally deliver Lord Raglan’s fateful orders that would lead to the charge. Beyond the bracing contemporaneity implicit in Richardson’s provocative depiction of the mid nineteenth century war on 1960s British society – and, by extension, its worthy invitation for renewed, critical evaluation in the inextricable mire of post 9/11 global politics – what makes the film continually relevant is its uncompromising attack on entrenched, Victorian-era sensibilities of colonialism and political interference (wryly illustrated through woodcut animation sequences that prefigure Monty Python interstitial animation and Raoul Servais’ antiwar, social interrogation short film, To Speak or Not to Speak) under inflated, narcissistic ideals of a society’s moral role as the world’s police against tyranny and aggression, and its divine role as emissaries of (Christian) enlightenment. It is this delusive posture of self-anointed moral superiority and cultural imperialism that is inevitably shattered in the film’s ambiguous final sequence, as the architects of the battlefield deflect personal accountability over the tragic blunder against the sight of bloodied, surviving soldiers returning to camp ready to fight again – an image, not of human enlightenment, but of vainglorious, self-perpetuated folly.
Tom Jones, 1963. A silent film-inspired, quick edit, slapstick prologue punctuated by explicative intertitles and a sprightly harpsichord accompaniment sets the irreverent, whimsical tone for Tony Richardson’s freeverse adaptation of Henry Fielding’s beloved eighteenth century novel, Tom Jones, transforming the beloved comedy of manners satire as a giddy fusion of burlesque and Keystone Kops epic adventure. Unfolding as a broad, sweeping chronicle of the handsome and roguish Tom Jones’ (Albert Finney) remarkable journey from his humble origins as an abandoned infant of nebulous parentage at the home of the good-natured Squire Allworthy (George Devine) and his sister Bridget (Rachel Kempson), to his life of privilege as the ward of the unmarried country gentleman, to his youthful indiscretions with the women around town (as well as along the long and winding road to London), to his tortuous romantic pursuit of the beautiful Sophie (Susannah York), the virginal daughter of the boorish and opportunistic Squire Western (Hugh Griffith), and finally, to the coincidental pursuit of uncovering his true identity, the film eschews the conventional framework of a traditional period piece (or more precisely, a highbrow British production of one) to create a bawdy satire with innovative touches that have stretched the bounds (if not altogether redefined) the possibilities for modern adaptations of classical literature. By idiosyncratic framing Tom Jones’ picaresque adventure through an amalgam of traditional film comedy conventions, Richardson creates an inspired duality that paradoxically underscores the film’s conventionality even as it subverts it: from the breaking of fourth wall address (and symbolically, the distance to the spectator), to integrating innovative wipe cuts that consciously introduces an element of anachronism (and consequently, reinforces its contemporaneity), to sardonic, tongue in cheek narration (a strategy that anticipates John Hurt’s wry commentary in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), to self-referential parody (creating an underlying lightness and humor that Michael Winterbottom’s subsequently incorporates to good effect in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story).
The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, 1962. The film opens to the shot of an expressionless, lone runner named Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) traversing a long, wooded trail as he explains in inner monologue the thoughts and abstractions that occupy a runner’s mind on these vast, empty stretches of road – during these quiet, uninterrupted moments of solitude before the final sprint towards the finish line, far from the sight of the waiting, cheering crowds. A subsequent image of Colin being transported in a secured vehicle along with other high risk, troubled young men to a reformatory school called Ruxton Towers in the remote countryside frames his seemingly philosophical, contemplative observation within the more mundane reality of his court-mandated, borstal rehabilitation (note that compound’s forbidden structure reminiscent of both a prison and an impenetrable fortress that a fellow passenger appropriately likens to the sight of the Tower of London). In hindsight, the decontextualized opening image serves as an insightful prefiguration of Colin’s own indirection and foundering sense of purpose. Proceeding in flashback, the film chronicles Colin’s path towards this desolate country road, as the eldest son of a working class family in northern England who prematurely inherits the responsibilities of the man of the house following the long, lingering death of his terminally ill father (and whose eventual demise may have been hastened by his mother (Avis Bunnage)), as a reluctant witness to the petty squandering of his late father’s meager pension by his self-absorbed mother (and who also, in turn, indecorously installs her new beau into their already crowded household soon after her husband’s death), as a pining lover searching for stolen moments of intimacy away from the oppressive reminders of his uneventful life and limited opportunities beyond the standing offer to take over his father’s employment (and inevitably similar fate) in the mining town. Proving to be the Ruxton’s most able sprinter and long distance runner, Colin catches the attention of the school’s well-intentioned governor (Michael Redgrave) who is eager to showcase the young man’s talent at an upcoming exhibition games tournament against a prestigious prep school as a means of promoting the school’s excellence in reforming troubled young men. But as tournament day approaches and Colin becomes increasingly resentful of his newfound role as the obliging poster boy for borstal rehabilitation, his long and lonely trip to the finish line becomes a soul-searching journey into the reclamation of his own identity. A thoughtful and poignant, yet unsentimental adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 short story, the film is an incisive portrait of the personal struggle between conformity and identity that is inherent in the process of maturity, where youthful idealism and a sense of invulnerability collides with the travails of everyday survival and the realization of human frailty. It is this sobering dichotomy that is inevitably captured in the concluding extended shot of Colin disassembling gas masks at the borstal’s vocational recycling workshop – a metaphoric reflection of the implicit paradox of institutional rehabilitation, and more broadly, the world itself in its ritualistic image of salvage and cannibalization – evoking both the fleeting taste of freedom, and its protective suffocation.
A Taste of Honey, 1961.I n some ways, Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Shelagh Delaney debut play, A Taste of Honey anticipates the impassive, world-weary gamin of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette in the way it captures the awkward desperation and inarticulate longing of its foundering, working class heroes. In an early episode in the film, an overly made up, harried, middle-aged woman, Helen (Dora Bryan), having just returned home after spending a night out on the town, clandestinely scurries out of a basement apartment with her teen-aged daughter, Jo (Rita Tushingham), carrying only a handful of personal items after being unable to make payment on an overdue rent. The incisive image of the fractured family absconding, not only from responsibility, but from home itself inevitably proves to be a metaphoric reflection of the aimless and transitory nature of their empty existences as well. Leading a disaffected life of reluctant, mutual disregard towards her carping, self-absorbed, and absent mother (and who, in turn, criticizes Jo for her insolence, open hostility, and constant provocation over her fading looks and easy virtue), Jo finds comfort in the eager anticipation of her impending graduation, and in the arms of a lonely, gentle natured merchant seaman named Jimmy (Paul Danquah) passing through town. However, the momentary solace would prove fleeting, and when Jimmy’s ship sails away and Helen returns home with the unexpected news that she has made plans to head off for a holiday and marry her newly minted lover, Peter (Robert Stephens), Jo seizes the opportunity to escape her mother’s stifling resentment and emotional abandonment and set out on a life of her own. Set against the grimy, industrial town of Manchester in northern England, the film also channels the spirit of Michelangelo Antonioni’s metaphoric landscapes in its depiction of adrift, “grey souls” that have been dispirited by poverty, emotional abuse, and marginalization. But more importantly, the strength of the film lies in its sensitive portrayal of social outcasts, from Jo’s interracial relationship with Jimmy (a social exposition that also subsequently broaches the issue of racial identification in biracial children when Jo rejects a Caucasian training doll as a surrogate baby), to her unplanned pregnancy, and finally, to her profound friendship with a gay student named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin) who offers her (and perhaps, himself) a means of escaping social stigma by proposing marriage.
The Entertainer, 1960. On the surface, The Entertainer is something of a cross between Charles Chaplin’s late period film, Limelight in its evocation of an aging, down and out vaudevillian performer seeking to recapture the glory days of his professional career by putting on one last career-defining show, and a prefiguration of Xavier Giannoli’s understatedly rendered The Singer in its nuanced portrait of a struggling, yet uncompromising artist who continues to persevere in his dying, old-fashioned vocation in an age of karaoke and discotheques. But beyond creating a complex character study of aging and obsolescence, filmmaker Tony Richardson and writer (and Woodfall Film Production co-founder) John Osborne present a bracing, uncompromising, and provocative portrait of contemporary British society through the unlikely, archetypal struggling entertainer, Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) – a self-absorbed, second rate performer, consummate self-promoter, and erstwhile television and radio personality (a dubious billing that several passersby are quick to question at the beginning of the film) whose monomaniacal (and perhaps, quixotic) quest to perform an ambitious production at the largest theater in the seaside town of Morecombe plays out against a disintegrating family life that has been wracked by numerous infidelities, a deteriorating marriage, a son, Mick’s (Albert Finney) dangerous deployment to Egypt at a time of increasing crisis in the Middle East, and a daughter, Jean’s (Joan Plowright) unexpected return home to consider an emotionally conflicted proposal of marriage (whose acceptance would entail moving away from the family and immigrating to Africa to seek their fortune). The middle-aged son of a highly regarded, retired musical hall entertainer, Billy Rice (Roger Livesey), Archie has forged an entire career by capitalizing on his father’s beloved name to obtain financial backing and secure theatrical contract extensions, despite a series of unprofitable productions and ill-advised ventures. Inevitably, when a chance meeting with a supportive, love struck beauty queen (Shirley Anne Field) introduces the possibility of her influential parents’ financial support for his latest envisioned project, Archie’s extended absences from home soon places Jean in the awkward role of protector and reluctant conspirator, as she attempts to conceal her father’s latest infidelity from her increasingly insecure and emotionally fragile stepmother. As in Look Back in Anger, the film serves as a pointed allegory for contemporary British society as a fading, and increasingly irrelevant, empire – a sense of encroaching obsolescence where fortunes (and reputations) are no longer found within the insularity of its own borders, passed from generation to generation, but are to be made elsewhere (note Archie’s standing offer to work in Canada that echoes Jean’s fiancé’s search for opportunities abroad). Framed against a peripheral, yet profoundly transformative international crisis, the metaphoric intersection between Archie’s personal life and a country’s collective consciousness becomes a reflection of the nation’s gradual emergence from the delusion of its distorted self-image – the performance of the familiar, hollow spectacle from a usurped stage before a silent, adoring, imaginary audience.
Look Back in Anger, 1958. Based on playwright John Osborne’s groundbreaking 1956 play that re-energized London theater with its gritty, unsentimental portrait of the working class and ushered a politically charged, socially conscious literary movement that the critics would collectively dub the “Angry Young Men”, Tony Richardson’s film bears all the ugliness and unflinching brutality of a rootless generation struggling to find its identity and sense of place in a profoundly transformed postwar society at the dawn of a receded, British empire. At the heart of this cultural evisceration is Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton), a volatile, underemployed university graduate and struggling jazz musician who makes a living selling candy at an open market stall. Lashing out at his limited opportunity and unrealized ambition through displaced acts of aggression, often directed at his devoted and long suffering wife, Alison (Mary Ure) and his enabling best friend and boarder, Cliff (Gary Raymond) who provides a tempering influence for his escalating abuse but, nevertheless, feel helpless in deflecting his inflicted violence, Jimmy is soon brought to the brink when Alison invites her headstrong friend, an actress named Helena Charles (Claire Bloom) to stay during her appearance at a local theater – an implicit act of defiance that will lead Alison closer to regaining her own identity and self-esteem, even as Helena begins to be seduced by Jimmy’s reckless, mercurial charm. Perhaps the most emblematic of the film’s integral connection between the turmoil of a fading postwar – and more importantly, post-colonial – British society and its manifestation on the younger generation is illustrated in the market community’s blatantly racist treatment of the clothing merchant and recent immigrant, Kapoor (S.P. Kapoor) who, having undersold his competitors (and unfairly denounced by a dissatisfied customer who is unable to identify her actual vendor but insists that he make reparations on behalf of other vendors of his ethnicity), is forced out of business by other merchants who force the revocation of his vending license. Kapoor’s racially motivated eviction serves as a metaphor for a class-entrenched British society’s uneasy path towards postwar recovery and eroding international status, where deep seated notions of inheritance and entitlement often contradict with the economic realities of decolonization, equal rights, and free market opportunity. It is this symptomatic social disorientation that inevitably aligns Jimmy’s impotent rage, not with Kapoor’s resigned fate, but with the arbitrary cruelty of the accusers whom Jimmy ironically reproaches – a paradoxical struggle between the ideals of egalitarianism and the frustrated expectation of untenable privilege.
Acquarello, 2007 [reprinted]