In 1930, Lewis Milestone took the greatest war novel and made possibly the greatest war movie. In 1951, John Huston took the greatest American war novel and thought he had done the same. Huston decided to make a film based on The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. He felt that he had achieved his finest movie up till then, but then the studio intervened. Louis B. Mayer (the head of MGM) hated the production. He did not think a war film that questioned war would be successful during the Korean War. He did not think Audie Murphy was a big enough star. He did not like the fact that there were no women in the film. And the test screenings seemed to back him up. (He may have rigged them.) As a result of his belligerence and Huston being distracted by his next project which was “The African Queen”, the studio drastically cut the film down to 70 minutes (from an original two hours) and added a narrator. To pile on, the studio released the movie as a B-picture and it bombed. We’ll never know how good the movie could have been because the cut footage was lost in the 1967 MGM vault fire of 1967. What about the movie we are left with?
*** SPOILER ALERT: Because the story is so famous, I’m going to analyze the whole plot. (You’re welcome, high school students who do not want to read the book.) The movie starts off with James Whitmore (the narrator) telling us what we should be able to figure out for ourselves. Plus, we are dealing with a pretty famous novel. The pompous narration (some of which comes directly from the novel) puts us in Henry Fleming’s (Murphy) head. The Army of the Potomac is camped on the Rappahannock River in Sept., 1862. (That would coincide with the Battle of Antietam. The book is unclear about the battle, but is more likely the Battle of Chancellorsville.) The soldiers are sick of all the drilling and want to get into their first battle. Tom Wilson a/k/a the Loud Soldier (Bill Maudlin) hears a rumor that they are going to march up river and come in behind the Rebels. Everyone hopes this is true, but Henry Fleming is nervous about how he will respond to combat. He feels out his tentmate Jim (John Dierkes) who tells him he reckons he will stand and fight as long as everyone else does, but if everyone else runs, well… This does not really comfort Henry because he thinks he might lead the stampede. On sentry duty that night, a Reb warns him to avoid getting a “little red badge”.
Wilson takes a lot of ribbing about his prediction, but it turns out to be true and the 304th Regiment marches toward the sounds of battle. The men are enthusiastic, but sober up upon sight of the first corpses. They are positioned behind breastworks and a Yankee unit retreats through their position, but even Henry sticks round for the show. Through the smoke comes the Rebel Yell and the rebels yelling it. The opposing units exchange volleys for a while until the Johnnies retreat. Henry and his mates have "seen the elephant" and have acquitted themselves honorably. Now let’s go have a beer. Wait. Those pesky rebels haven’t learned their lesson and come again. This time Henry has his self-fulfilled prophecy and he runs. He runs like the dickens in a long tracking shot. He encounters a line of wounded soldiers and slides in. One of the wounded is Jim, who describes the battle as “law, what a circus, by jiminy”. Jim runs off to have one of the great death scenes in war movie history. Henry goes on to get his “red badge” when he is cold-cocked by a soldier doing what Henry had done. He is roused from unconsciousness by the Cheery Soldier (Andy Devine) who escorts him back to his unit while spouting homespun about the fog of war and accepting death. Henry lies to Tom about his wound and no one questions his bravery what with all the chaos of the battle. He wakes the next morning more blustery than contrite.
Surprisingly, he backs up the bluster by charging out in front of their line in their next battle. He is scolded by his lieutenant for taking on the hull durn Reb army. During a lull in the fighting, Henry and Tom overhear a general describing their regiment as a bunch of “mule drivers” who he is going to send in because he’s got nothing else. The men are excited about taking it to the Rebs for a change and Henry is incensed about the general’s aspersion. In the climactic charge, Henry grabs the flag and leads the unit to victory. The cherry on top is his capturing a Rebel flag. They march off abandoning the hard-won ground. One of the men opines: “After all the trouble we went to getting that wall, I’d like to set by it for a while.” A sentiment that Vietnam War veterans can relate to.
Considering the tortured back-story, you would expect to see what the test audiences apparently shit all over. In fact, the movie that opened for Esther Williams’ “Texas Carnival” is quite good. We can assume that Huston’s uncut version would have been better, but what we ended up with a classic anyway. It’s hard to imagine what was cut because the movie covers all the important scenes in the book and even adds some. We do know for sure that the scene after Jim’s death where Henry continues on with the Tattered Soldier (Royal Dano) ended up on the cutting room floor. Trust me, no big loss. Perhaps the combat scenes were fleshed out more, but they are already some of the best from a 1950s Civil War movie perspective. Huston uses plenty of smoke and lots of pyrotechnics. It’s not “Glory” or “Gettysburg”, but it’s pretty visceral. The actors load their muskets properly and the tactics are fine (although Huston is big on two-line volley firing). You feel the confusion and trepidation Henry faces. You can see why he runs. Unfortunately, the weakness of the movie is it’s hard to believe he completely changes overnight. But that’s the novel’s fault. (I’ll discuss the novel versus the movie in a later post.)
It’s hard to fathom what a 1951 audience would have found to loathe in this movie. The acting is not the problem unless you are requiring all-stars. Maudlin, Dierkes, and Dano were making their debuts. Maudlin is amazingly good for a cartoonist. He was a natural in the role as the “Loud Soldier”. He made only one more movie. The key is clearly Murphy’s performance. It was his first significant role and first non-Western. Most critics consider it his best performance. He got the role because Hedda Hopper pushed Huston to give him a chance. The role is difficult because the character in the novel goes through so many moods. He does as well as anyone could have (and much better than Richard Thomas from the 1974 version). The dialogue should not have been a problem. It’s less hokey than you would expect for 1951. A lot of it is from the novel and if you haven’t read the book, you might shake your head. There’s a lot of dialect, but it’s realistic for soldier banter. The very first line starts with “well, I reckon…” There are some memorable lines and some of them are quite witty. Normally in a war movie from the 1950s I might comment on how sanitized the language is compared to a modern script. Here is the rare exception. One of the soldiers tells the following joke: “A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree – the more you beat em’, the better they be.” (That line does not appear in the 1974 version.) The big caveat to the dialogue is the terrible narration. It may be mostly quotes from the novel, but it insults the audience.
Supposedly, Mayer sabotaged the test screenings by implying the movie was a comedy. That is hard to believe, but the movie is not without humor. After Wilson spreads his rumor, but before it comes to fruition, his mates rag him mercilessly in formation. In another scene, a general passes by several units boosting morale by promising to come by and eat “hard tack and sowbellies” with them. When he passes the 304th one of the men yells: “Having supper tonite with us, General?” He responds with “go to blazes, corporal!” That exchange wittily tells you a lot about command in the Civil War.
“The Red Badge of Courage” deserves a reassessment. It is not even out on DVD. You can see it on You Tube and I encourage American History teachers to show it in class. After all, it’s only 70 minutes long. Just check with the English teachers first. They may be assigning the book.