WHAT OLD HOLLYWOOD COULDN’T DO…THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (And Then There Was Hollywood: Ninth Rumination)

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston

John Huston shot a two-hour version of Stephen Crane’s lean, mean novel of war that he went to his grave considering his masterpiece. Considering all Huston had done with the rest of his time was helm The Maltese Falcon,  The Asphalt Jungle, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Misfits, Fat City, Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead (just to hit a few high points), that’s saying something. Having just seen his Red Badge for the first time, I”m inclined to think he might not have just been woofin’.

My first thought when the film began, though, was “Oh, no.”

It has that Old Hollywood Narration that almost always meant ponderous with a capital “P.” This was no exception. More like Exhibit A.

It wasn’t the words (which were mostly straight from Crane), but the tone. It always said, You Are Now in the Presence of Art. Never louder than here.

The shame is that, my second impression–borne out by nearly every frame of the movie that followed–was that, if ever a movie didn’t need such claptrap, it was this one.

Huston fought furiously, with support from his star, an even more perfectly cast than you could imagine Audie Murphy, to keep the film intact, at or near its original two-hour running length. Instead, after a poor preview, the studio cut it to a truly crippling 69 minutes, turning it into a B-level feature on the level of Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle.

And adding the dread Narration.

The suits then proceeded to destroy the pruned footage. When they approached Huston decades later, in hopes of restoring it for a post-Viet Nam-So-The-World’s-Finally-Ready-For-It re-release, he had lost his personal print.

And you wonder why directors drank?

Absent a miraculous discovery of a surviving original print (unlikely but not impossible–Crane’s original novel had been censored as well, and has only been restored to its full length in recent decades), we have what we have.

Which is still well worth seeing.

What remains certainly catches the spirit of a novel that might well have been deemed unfilmable in any age. Despite its brevity and lack of pretension, The Red Badge of Courage pointed the way towards nearly everything that was good in literary modernism. Even in truncated form, the movie may well have done the same for the modern battle film. It seems likely that Daryl Zancuk, who made The Longest Day and Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg), were aware of it–though even they didn’t catch up to Red Badge‘s signature achievement, which is catching the tone of every aspect of battle. The lead up’s state of endless boredom crossed with an air of anticipation that amounts to an unscratched itch is matched by combat’s uncertainty and head-spinning anarchy of emotions–dread one minute, fear the next, then exhilaration and, finally, resignation, as the generals march the survivors off the ground they’ve risked all to take.

When our national epitaph is written by the keepers of some near or distant future, they’re sure to note that Huston’s film–likely turned into a pulled punch by studio interference in the name of commercial considerations which yielded no fruit**–was made at almost the exact instant when Americans lost their ability to imagine war as a matter of taking and holding ground. Every soldier who has fought one of our “holding actions” that began when Matthew Ridgway  (wisely) stopped at the 38th parallel in Korea during the very moments The Red Badge of Courage was being chopped up on the cutting floor, would nonetheless recognize the attitudes of the soldiers who march away at the end of the film, unsure of what exactly it was they fought for. No American solider since Red Badge was made and mutilated has been asked to hold any ground he took. Too much trouble for this strange sort of Empire we’ve built, which has all a traditional Empire’s burdens and moral compromises, and very few of its common rewards.

One needn’t be entirely existential, though, to appreciate this Red Badge on its considerable surviving merits.

In addition to Huston’s fine feel for every aspect of battle’s tedium, fatigue, excitement and even glamour (fully catching the spirit of Churchill’s old line about being shot at and missed as life’s most “exhilarating” experience)–not to mention the full-blooded ironies of fear of cowardice turning into the real thing as readily as fear of being thought a coward creating a false courage which also turns into the “real” thing, the very elements I would have thought impossible to catch without Crane’s language)–there is also the superb cast.

Here you can find the very best work of Arthur Hunnicut, Royal Dano, John Dierkes and Murphy himself, every one of them laid in the shade by WWII’s most famous cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, as the youngest, greenest recruit. I saw his name in the credits and then promptly forgot to look for him until the final credits, when he was revealed as “Wilson,” a part he embodied so fully it never occurred to me it might have been an amateur acting in his first film. He made another the same year and never acted again as anyone but himself. More’s the pity.

Perhaps he was playing himself here as well. God knows he had seen enough Up Front to have some idea of how first-timers behaved before, during and after their first combat. In any case, his performance here is the jewel in a substantial crown.

We will win no more wars. But The Red Badge of Courage, even in its present still-mutilated state, can hold its place on the small list of films which remind us–and the future–of what was required, back when victory was deemed something more than a luxury.

Bill Mauldin and Audie Murphy: The Red Bade of Courage

[NOTE: **The movie bombed anyway–testimony to a kind of cowardice beyond the ken of even this, the most famous American study on the subject.]

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE NINETIES

Are we having fun yet?…Actually, this decade was better than I thought…at least at the top.

At least if you don’t bring none of them boring old morals into it.

Still dreading the post-millennium.

1990 The Grifters (Stephen Frears) (and what a way to open a Decade of Decline!…over Bad Influence, Metropolitan and Pump Up the Volume)

1991 The Doors (Oliver Stone) (over Robin Hood (Patrick Bergin version), JFK (Oliver Stone’s one good year!) and Point Break (still Kathryn Bigelow’s best)

1992 The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson) (over One False Move and The Player)

 

1993 Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell) (over Schindler’s List, The Fugitive, Groundhog Day, Matinee and The Wrong Man)

1994 Fresh (Boaz Yakin) (over Barcelona and Ed Wood (Tim Burton’s best…by miles))

1995 To Die For (Gus Van Sant) (over Mighty Aphrodite, Sense and Sensibility and Toy Story)

1996 Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders) (over Freeway, Jerry McGuire and That Thing You Do)

1997 Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson) (over Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown and The Peacemaker)

1998 A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis) (over Shakespeare in Love, Croupier and The Mask of Zorro)

1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) (over Ride With the Devil and, by the thinnest of margins, Dick…if only because “the nineties” was not a decade that deserved to die laughing)

Next, the new millennium…feel my heart go pitter-patter.

HISTORY AND MYSTERY (Monthly Book Report: 9/16 and 10/16)

I’m still trying to get back to full speed on my reading. Maybe next month! In the meantime, after a blank September, I did manage to finish a couple in October. First up is Mark Perry’s superb history Conceived In Liberty, a look at nineteenth-century America through the prism of dual biographies of the opposing commanders at Little Round Top. Next is Josephine Tey’s first mystery novel The Man in the Queue, a well-made whodunit that points the way towards a brilliant, unconventional career in crime fiction.

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Conceived In Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War
(Mark Perry, 1997)

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (b. September, 1828) was a Bowdoin College professor of classics, fluent in ten languages and destined to become the school’s president. William Oates (b. November, 1835) was an Alabama roustabout who left a farm-boy life to adventure in the west before coming home and turning to the law and local politics. Both men were destined to become governors of their home states. Like hundreds of other volunteer officers in the Civil War, each fought and commanded honorably and well for their respective sides. Lacking West Point credentials, each man had limits placed on his military advancement and might have reasonably expected to be forgotten by history except for a twist of fate which found them faced off against each other in the most famous engagement of the most famous battle in American history.

On July 2, 1863, the men of Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, forming the extreme left of the Union line established the day before, fought the men of Oates’s 15th Alabama on a rock-strewn forest floor near the summit of a hill called Little Round Top.

The Maine men, under a “no retreat” order, were aware that the ground they stood on had to be defended at all costs. The Alabama men were equally aware that the ground had to be taken at all costs. Their respective positions prohibited any chance of reinforcements for either side.

The result was some of the fiercest close-order combat ever fought, with the two lines exchanging volley after volley of single shot musket fire at the distance of a couple of first downs and finally engaging in desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Oates tried a series of straightforward assaults mingled with repeated attempts to flank the hill. Chamberlain countered accordingly, with each side’s manpower and ammunition dwindling through the long afternoon.

When the smoke finally cleared, Chamberlain’s men held. In all likelihood, they saved the Union army at Gettysburg and, with it, the American Experiment.

The fight itself has been memorably depicted in numerous other historical accounts, in Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel, The Killer Angels, and in Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film, Gettysburg.

There’s a good description of it here, too. But Perry is after a larger narrative, one that weaves the lives of his two protagonists in and around the forward march of the nineteenth century America Chamberlain and Oates both so ably and memorably represented.

It’s a tall task and Perry is up to it.

He merges his biographies and battle accounts with not just useful histories of abolitionism and Reconstruction but the other burning issues of the century: women’s rights, temperance, the death penalty, the meaning of citizenship for freed slaves and much more. The writing is fluid and organic, enabling Perry to build a narrative that captures the romance of our bloodiest conflict–the one that had to be fought before any other issue could be fully confronted or the direction of our Experiment determined–without selling the tragedy and terror short.

Even more admirably, Perry takes a layered approach which never lets the reader forget that, then, as now, the world did not run in a straight line.

Chamberlain was much more the romantic, Oates the hard-headed realist, though neither was easily pigeon-holed.

Oates, a strict segregationist was nonetheless the first Confederate officer to argue forcefully and publicly for slaves to be given emancipation if they would agree to fight for the South, insisting, “If we don’t free them, the Union will.” Chamberlain, an ardent abolitionist and pre-war intimate of Harriet Beecher Stowe, nonetheless argued against full citizenship for freedmen after his war heroism elevated him to the governorship of Maine. Perry does a commendable job of placing both men in the full context of their times, stressing their contradictions without obscuring their very real (and, in Chamberlain’s case, history-altering) merits.

Highly recommended in any event, but especially urgent and poignant in this year when the cracks in our foundation are once more staring us in the face.

The Man In the Queue
(Josephine Tey, 1929)

themaninthequeue2“Josephine Tey” was the nom de plume Elizabeth MacKintosh adopted for her crime novels after she dropped “Gordon Daviot.”

Irrespective of name or genre, she was one of the twentieth century’s most interesting novelists.

After revisiting her devastating Miss Pym Disposes a few months back, I’ve decided to start re-reading her in order (there are only six more).

The Man in the Queue is, for her, atypical. It’s the only one of her novels that hues anywhere close to formula, having her Scotland Yard detective, Alan Grant, chase clues to the murder of an unidentified man, committed in theater queue.

Even here, Tey isn’t quite satisfied with the conventions. Among other devices, she narrates in gender neutral first person, from the perspective of an unnamed friend of Inspector Grant’s, who disappears for such long intervals that his/her occasional reassertion of “I” amounts to what, in theater or film, would be called breaking the fourth wall.

If it’s formula–nothing is done with the plot that Agatha Christie couldn’t have delivered at least as well– it’s satisfying formula. And more or less adhering to it leaves Tey room for side-trips into interesting places. The Scottish moors and London streets have been rendered many times, before and since (though never better), but who else has got so far inside the broken field running bound to dominate the mind of a Yard man who is no Sherlock Holmes but merely a dogged detective, prone to a flash of inspiration now and again, who knows his job?

Why had the man hidden his identity? Was it perhaps mere accident? Nothing but the tailor’s name had been obliterated from his clothes, and the maker’s name had been left on the tie–surely a most obvious place if one had been deliberately eliminating identification marks. But if it were a mere accident that eliminated the tailor’s name, how account for the scantiness of the man’s belongings? Small change, a handkerchief and a revolver. Not even a watch. It spoke loudly of intended suicide. Perhaps the man was broke. He didn’t look it, but that was no criterion. Grant had known many paupers who looked like millionaires, and beggars with large bank balances. Had the man, at the end of his resources, decided to end it rather than sink slowly into the gutter? Had the visit to the theatre with his last few shillings been merely a snapping of fingers in the face of the gods who had defeated him? Was it merely the final irony that the dagger had anticipated  his own revolver by an hour or two? But if he were broke, why had he not gone to the friend for money?–the friend who was so free with his bank-notes? Or had he? and the friend had refused it? Was it conscience, after all, that had prompted that anonymous twenty-five pounds? If he decided to accept the presence of the revolver and the absence of clues as evidence of attempted suicide, then the murder resolved itself into the outcome of a quarrel–probably between two members of a race gang. Perhaps the Levantine had shared in the dead man’s downfall and had held the dead man responsible. That was the most reasonable explanation. And it fitted all the circumstances. The man was interested in racing–probably a bookmaker–he was found without watch or money and evidently prepared for suicide; the Levantine was heard to demand something which the dead man either could not or would not give, and the Levantine had stabbed him. The friend who had refused him help in life–probably tired of pulling him out of tight places–had been seized with such a fit of remorse on learning of the man’s end that he had provided lavishly, if anonymously, for his burial. Pure theory but it fitted–almost!

There’s more, but it’s that “almost”–a standard device used here to punctuate a very non-standard stream of consciousness (which, in turn, is too diffuse to be the norm for the usual detective fiction, too linear–too much like a keen mind navigating a sea of confusion and too much a replication of the conscious mind at the expense of the subconscious–to impress the literati, who really do believe such things are simple)–that keeps us on our toes.

Combine that with a writer who could capture, in stark outline, an entire milieu of cultural, familial and psychological assumptions with a swift aside…

“I’m so glad you didn’t wait Agnes,” Mr. Logan said, in a tone which clearly said, I think you might have waited. 

…and it becomes obvious, even as early as a first novel written in 1929, that the web of convention she so ably replicated here, could never have held her.