The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was published in 1895. It is considered by many to be the best American war novel. The novel is about a soldier in the Civil War named Henry Fleming. He is nervous going into his first battle and rightly so as he ends up going through a gamut of emotions that run from cowardice to heroism. The book is lauded for its vibrant prose which is rife with symbolism. Crane described his take on war as “a psychological portrayal of fear”. It is also acclaimed for its realism, including its depiction of combat. It comes as a surprise to many that Crane did not fight in the war and in fact, was not even born at the time. He researched the war through the “Battles and Leaders” series. Although the book is not specific, it is apparently based on the Battle of Chancellorsville. Crane got his feel for combat partly by listening to the stories of veterans of the 124th New York Regiment. It first saw action at Chancellorsville. He was aided by an article from “Battles and Leaders” entitled “Recollections of a Private” by Warren Lee Goss. I recently read Goss’ recollections and can see where some feel it was the genesis of the novel. Goss was a reluctant enlistee. He complains about all the drilling. He does a lot of thinking about what battle will be like (although he is not really pondering how he will perform). His first experience is similar to Henry’s except it was a “friend” who ran. (Yeah, right – a friend, wink, wink). Here is his description of the first time he “saw the elephant”:
How does the novel compare to the 1951 John Huston movie? The movie covers most of the iconic scenes from the book. And it borrows extensively from the dialogue. It has the same main characters and their personalities are the same as in the book. The movie does omit some scenes, but this may be due to the extensive cutting the studio did on Huston’s finished cut. Notably, Huston decided to make some minor changes in details. The changes included:
- Henry writes a letter to his father saying he will attempt to make him proud. In the book, Henry’s father is deceased. There is a flashback where his mother counsels him to behave himself against the temptations of soldiering. Huston’s letter idea does a better job of conveying Henry’s fears of how he will perform in battle.
- Tom Wilson learns the rumor of the unit moving forward from another soldier. In the book, Jim Conklin comes running into camp to proclaim the news. The movie does a better job of conveying how rumors get spread in the army.
- The foraging soldier is trying to steal a pig, not a horse. His mates make amusing remarks at his expense as the woman fights to get her property back. The book plays the scene for more physical humor. Huston adds some typical soldier humor with the change.
- Tom gives Henry a watch, not letters like in the book.
- The Cheery Soldier’s monologue is shortened and given the themes that war is confusing and death has to be accepted as God’s will.
- Henry captures the Rebel flag, not Tom.
Most significantly, Huston added some scenes for entertainment purposes. The more important ones were:
1. Huston introduces the concept of a battle wound being referred to as a “red badge of courage” by way of a conversation Henry has with a Rebel sentry.
2. After Wilson spreads the rumor that they are about to march off to battle, but before the orders come, his mates toss jibes at him while in formation.
3. Before battle, a general rides down the line motivating his troops and promising each unit that he will have supper with them that night.
Those last two added some nice humor to the humorless novel. And Huston added the line “After all the trouble we went to getting that wall, I’d like to set by it a while.” This serves as the last word on their battle experience and adds a note of irony to the conclusion.
I strongly belief that movies should be better than the books they are based on. Notice I used the word “should”. Just because some directors and screenwriters are incompetent does not refute my theory. Unless the book is perfect, it can be improved upon. A good screenwriter and director may not be able to make the story more literate, but they should be able to make it more entertaining. “The Red Badge of Courage” is a difficult case study. First, it is considered to be one of the great American novels, so it would be tough to beat. Second, we don’t know what Huston’s uncut movie would have looked like. We only have his word that he considered it his best film up until then. Even with 50 minutes cut, the movie is still a classic. An underappreciated classic. The additions and changes Huston made did result in a more entertaining film than if he had adhered more closely to the book. (If you don’t agree with that assessment, watch the 1974 version which is very close to the book and sucks.)