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.
[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.]