FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Red Badge of Courage
Reviewed by Dan Georgakas

Produced by Gottfried Reinhardt; directed by John Huston; screenplay by John Huston, adapted by Albert Band from the novel by Stephen Crane; music by Bronislau Kaper; cinematography by Harold Rosson, edited by Ben Lewis; set decoration by Fred MacLean and Erwin Willis; starring Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, and Douglas Dick, DVD, B&W, 70 min., 1951, a Warner Archive Collection release,

The Red Badge of Courage is often cited as a film that could have been a masterpiece if the director’s vision had not been destroyed by studio executives. This line of thinking is mainly based on Lillian Ross’s account of the making of the film in Picture. Ross not only offers details on how the film was altered but also a discussion reflecting changes going on in the studio system at that time. Informative as Ross’s work is, evaluating a film that might have been by focusing mainly on the cuts and additions demanded by the studio is only half the story. Much of what director/coscriptwriter John Huston wanted remains on the screen. These reveal problems in the film’s basic conception, acting, and dialogue. There is little remaining evidence of a mangled film, as in the case of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

What is most striking to a contemporary viewer is that a film about the Civil War has no reference to slavery and depicts individual courage as fighting with near-suicidal bravado for an undefined cause. Some of these problems arise from the Stephen Crane novel of the same name, but Huston’s own sensibility seems to be in much the same mode. The red badge of the title refers to physical wounds suffered in battle, but also may be taken as a metaphor for the psychological wounds of war.

Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy), the main character, sometimes just referred to as the Youth, is a young Union soldier facing his first battle. Although he is terrified of being a coward and fleeing, none of his companions seem to share his anxiety. In fact, they state that they are eager to fight. Fleming will indeed panic at his first battle and run from the field. Much of the film follows him wandering behind the front lines, seeing wounded soldiers, and observing officers, until he is reunited with his unit in an almost accidental manner. In the next battle, although still frightened, his shame compels him to lead a counterattack in which the Union casualties are high. Fleming and his best friend Tom Wilson (Bill Mauldin), also known as the Loud Soldier, are subsequently honored as heroes who have turned a possible defeat into victory. Fleming learns only after the battle that Wilson also had run in the first conflict, as had many of their colleagues. Fleming and Wilson now feel confident of their manliness and the film ends with their looking forward to the next battle. In short, this is not the kind of film that would soon emerge about the Korean War, much less later films concerning Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The definition of courage offered is questionable and perhaps even juvenile, and that view stems from Huston rather than being imposed on him by the studio bosses.

Huston’s view of the Civil War is typical of most Hollywood films before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and of too many since. The emphasis is not on slavery, competing regional economies, or territorial expansion, but a tragedy in which the combatants are more alike than different and just happen to be fighting on different sides. Early in Red Badge, a Confederate soldier yells to Fleming, who is filling canteens in a stream, to get out of the moonlight. The reb shouts that they will fight tomorrow, but tonight he will not take an easy kill. At the end of the film’s main battle, Fleming holds the Union flag and looks sadly at a fallen reb with his flag spread on the ground. Being a “winner” or “loser” seems a matter of meaningless happenstance, just like being a “coward” or a “hero” in any given conflict. In another scene, a captured Confederate asks where his captors come from. The answer is Ohio and the reb replies that, “I never met no one from Ohio before.” The Union soldier responds that this is the first time he has ever met anyone from Tennessee. Viewers are left feeling that, under different circumstances, the two men would have been friends. What is missing in such scenes is the sensibility of Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote of the Confederates that no force ever fought more gallantly for such an unworthy cause.

A surprising disappointment is the quality of the dialogue between the men. Casual chatter that is meant to illuminate character and the reality of war is mainly contrived and unconvincing Hollywood Ruralspeak. When the Union soldiers talk with one another as they march, their comments come across as individual set-pieces rather than genuine exchanges. Such stilted dialogue appears throughout the film, rarely showing any humor or concern of who or why the men are fighting. The single memorable sequences involving dialogue occur when a Union general rides from company to company, preparing them for a charge, and promising each unit to come back and have dinner with them after the battle. The officer is not necessarily cynical, as the soldiers probably know he will not actually return to eat with them, and that he is simply expressing solidarity and admiration for their valor. Such ambiguity and complexity is absent from most of the film.

Huston believed his battle scenes would set new cinematic standards of authenticity. He is quite successful in setting up panoramic shots of two armies taking their positions. That credibility fades when the battle begins. Although the field is empty of soldiers, there are random picturesque explosions, as if the artillery had an endless store of ammunition. When the Confederates charge, there is no sense of momentum. The big open field with large distances to cover is not typical of Civil War encounters but does resemble Pickett’s disastrous charge at Gettysburg. The Union counterattack is no more credible. Huston’s extensive use of close-ups robs the viewers of the sense of an entire division advancing and there is little sense of the fierce resistance. Similar scenes in subsequent Civil War films, such as Glory (l989) and Gettysburg (1993), are far superior in capturing the tempo, sounds, and mayhem of such warfare. A bombastic score by Bronislau Kaper, which was imposed by the studio, virtually transforms the film into a patriotic operetta.

One of the risks taken by Huston was casting Audie Murphy, one of America’s most decorated soldiers of World War II, in the lead role. Murphy’s boyish looks are a welcome change from the typical macho man, such as that era’s John Wayne or a later era’s Sylvester Stallone. Murphy, however, has limited range as an actor. At some moments, he is totally credible as a terrified youth running from battle or even as a slightly crazed youth leading a charge. Mostly, however, Murphy fails to capture the complex emotions of his character, much less his transformation from fear to daring.

Bill Mauldin is credible as Murphy’s best friend, but not memorable. That he is a famed editorial cartoonist of World War II whose images were mainly of “grunts” is mostly important for the studio press releases. More gifted actors might have given the film the edge Huston desired. That said, a host of studio stalwarts such as Douglas Dick (the Lieutenant), Andy Devine (the Cheery Soldier), Royal Dano (the Tattered Man), and John Dierkes (the Tall Soldier), are not very convincing, either.

The major obvious studio intervention was the addition of a voice-over (by James Whitmore, a Marine in World War II) reading passages from Crane’s novel. This was added after indifferent preview screenings and was heartily opposed by Huston. Direct quotations from the novel amount to telling the audience that it can’t understand what is going on without a guidebook. Viewers of this DVD who turn off the soundtrack with the voice-overs will find them superfluous and distracting. Another extreme studio action was to cut twenty minutes from the film. The single longest cut was of a speech by one of the soldiers. Given the poor nature of most of the dialogue, that cut may have helped the film, which seems overly long even at seventy minutes.

Adapting a famous novel to the screen is always problematic. Huston and Albert Band (the adapter) can be credited for being faithful to the original. The problem with such an adaption is that the sensibilities of a nineteenth-century author writing about a recent war may not resonate with later audiences. The Huston who made The Red Badge of Courage seems to be looking backwards toward values associated with World War II and definitely not forward to the changes in traditional concepts of courage and manliness that would begin to emerge later in the decade.

Dan Georgakas is co-editor of The Encyclopedia of the American Left (Oxford University Press, 1999).

To purchase The Red Badge of Courage, click here.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1