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 EIGHTIES

So we come to the Eighties….I almost said alas.

But the best films were better than the decade deserved. This might be the last time I can say this…

1980 The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie) (A good year…but nothing else was close)

1981 Blow Out (Brian DePalma) (over Eye of the Needle and Southern Comfort)

1982 Diner (Barry Levinson) (over Blade Runner and Victor/Victoria)

1983 Baby It’s You (John Sayles)

1984 Secret Honor (Robert Altman) (over The Terminator and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

1985 Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston) (over The Purple rose of Cairo, Sweet Dreams and Desperately Seeking Susan…Good year for comedy. As I recall, we needed it.)

1986 Something Wild (Jonathan Demme) (over F/X and Peggy Sue Got Married)

1987 The Bedroom Window (Curtis Hanson) (over Hope and Glory, which I probably need to see again)

1988 Midnight Run (Martin Brest) (over Beetlejuice and Running on Empty)

1989 Glory (Edward Zwick) (over Dead Calm, Black Rain and Black Rainbow)

At the top, at least ,the eighties were a strong decade on film. With the possible exception of 1987, every one of these films would have been strong contenders in just about any year of the previous two decades, about whom few have been heard to complain. 1980 and 1983 were as good as it gets.

Who knows? Maybe the nineties won’t be so bad….

Okay. I won’t get my hopes up.

SAM SPADE AT THE MULTIPLEX (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, d. 1941)MALTESEFALCON1

Whenever classic films make it out to the hinterlands I make an effort to see them, partly in hopes that theaters will book more of them. I don’t know how much good it does. I paid double the usual matinee price for this one this week and saw it in the company of exactly one other patron.

But I’ll keep going anyway, if and when I can, because of the good it does me.

I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon well over a dozen times and read the book three or four times. This was even the third time I saw it on a big screen, (more than any Golden Age film except Gone With the Wind which I’ve seen four times in theaters). I can’t say I’ve always learned from it, though I’ve certainly always enjoyed it. But this time, it definitely stretched me, not entirely in pleasant ways.

One thing that’s always pleasant–and rewarding–is watching Humphrey Bogart’s face, and that’s probably the most important way the big screen enlarges the experience. Even the biggest televisions can’t offer the same opportunity for nuanced scrutiny of a performance like the one Bogart gave here, the one that truly shaped his lasting star persona. Remembering the masterful ways he deployed and varied that persona over the next decade and a half, in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The African Queen and even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where, to tell the truth, he went a tad self-conscious, though the overreach probably created the space where he found his take on Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place), it can become easy to forget the degree to which every bit of it–hence every shade of his celebrated modernity–was on display in The Maltese Falcon.

It’s not so easy to forget it when you’re watching the movie. Because it’s all there. The sardonic wit, the heroic (or, if you prefer, antiheroic) stoicism, the edge of pure sadism (including large doses of misogyny and homophobia which, were they anywhere near as prevalent in the iconic performances of, for instance, John Wayne, would surely be routinely excoriated by a left-leaning illuminati which has both insisted that the performance is the man and idolized Bogart for those very same qualities for half a century and counting), the assurance of the beast in the urban jungle who operates as a law unto himself, and the inability or unwillingness to separate any of these qualities from the rest, to regard any of them as less than absolutely essential.

Writing in the early seventies, Pauline Kael famously observed of Dirty Harry that “this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced.” But whether fascist is the right word for that potential (I’d argue not quite but that’s a long, interesting debate), there was no “finally” to it. The only meaningful distinctions between Sam Spade and Harry Callahan are the hare-vs-tortoise speeds at which their respective brains work and whatever dime-size wedge can be put between Spade’s sort of private eye serving the inept police and Callahan’s sort of policeman serving the even more inept public.

What Kael might have been getting at was that Clint Eastwood’s Callahan made it impossible to continue either missing or dismissing the above-and-beyond-the-law dynamic that Bogart’s Sam Spade had hardly concealed, though he at least made you swallow it with a smile.

It could all be very seductive.

Dorothy Parker, who I’d rate as an even sharper knife than Kael, may have started the whole “white knight” school of lit-crit that became so curiously bound up with the rise of the hard-boiled detective genre when, in her review of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for TMF, she declared that Spade had made her go spoony in the same way that Sir Lancelot had when she was a wee lass.

That’s a dangerous spell for any man to cast. Especially when he’s casting it while slapping around women and gardenia-scented queers on such a regular basis and insisting “you’ll take it and like it.”

It’s the liking it that marks the first step into the danger zone. You know: It’s not enough for me to slap you. It’s not even enough for you to accept it. What really matters is that you like it.

That certainly sounds like an idea waiting for a definition and fascism is certainly one that springs to mind.

Sitting in a quiet movie theater all these decades later and marveling at the glory of it all–the perfection in casting, direction, lighting, mood, dialogue woven into an indestructible plot–it’s still easy to miss the road to hell at the center of both Spade’s troubled conception and Bogart’s thrilling execution.

You can learn a lot about a society by studying its heroes. I’m not sure Hammett quite intended for us to take Spade into our national mythology in such an uncomplicated manner. Whether the lethal mix of bravery, hubris and cruelty generated by Bogart and John Huston struck so deep because it carries a touch of naivete that Hammett, having been both a Pinkerton and a commie, surely did not possess, I don’t know.

All I know, all I was reminded of this week, in between the news-channel marathons that are carrying on blithely, cluelessly, while the country that once produced all these things so imminently worthy of devotion circles the drain, was what a dangerous man this Humphrey Bogart still is.

maltesefalcom2

I hope he’s also still on our side.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Pet Peeve Fulfillment!)

No maxim–just an excuse to rub my hands and cackle with life-affirming glee!

I guess it’s one of human nature’s moderately perverse traits: The satisfaction to be had from finding a perfect example of a pet peeve. (My just-found example of this one can be read here, if you have sufficient patience.)

One of my very major pet peeves happens to be book reviewers who insert their own opinions about the subject of a book in place of what they are presumably being paid for, which is their opinion of the book itself. (This happens a lot with biographies in particular: i.e., “I’m a huge fan of Olivier (or Churchill, or whoever) and here’s what I know and love about him. Oh, by the way, so-and-so has just written a book on the subject, which makes me very happy because it gives me a chance to share with you what I, myself, happen to think about the eminent significance of this very book-worthy subject.”)

One of my other very major pet peeves is book reviewers who simply recite information they have gleaned from the book itself as filler in place of actual analysis concerning the general value of this information or the manner in which it has been presented by the author of the book in question.

Now, Philip French’s recent review of Mark Harris’ Five Came Back (which I found while I was scouring the net for general opinion after my own review was published at Broadway World) may not be a truly “perfect” example of these two peeves: He does mention Harris’ name three times in a 1,000 word review and I suppose real perfection would involve reaching a point where absolutely no mention of the author is deemed necessary at all. This name-dropping (in a review of an author’s own book) is no doubt a sacrifice for French’s sort. After all, there are at least three words here he could have used putting forth his own views of the whole affair had he not felt obligated to mention the book’s mere author a time or three.

Still, I think it’s likely as close to this kind of peeve-fulfillment as one can hope to get. (Just for comparison’s sake, incidentally, I counted up my own stats and found I mentioned Harris sixteen times in 2,300 words, which I think means I can, at least this once–and laying aside my pet peeve concerning those who investigate themselves!–absolve myself of blatant hypocrisy….Okay, I better move on. I suddenly feel like a government agency.)

However, French has gone the usual nonsense one better.

He turned up yet another major pet peeve–one which I didn’t even know I had because I had not previously run across such a glaring example of it.

This involves inserting one’s own opinions on the book’s subject by supplying a quote which is not actually in the book and pretending that it is–and doing so to make a false point.

To wit:

“None, however, made a real success as an independent producer, and this excellent book is ultimately a tale of disappointment and disillusionment. But there is a heartening moment in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, as vindictive rightwing investigators descended on Hollywood. The deeply conservative Cecil B DeMille and his reactionary cronies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals attempted to depose the liberal Joseph L Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Writers Guild and impose a loyalty oath on all members. Wyler, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Capra came together in a grand reunion to oppose the move and they carried the day. This was the famous meeting at which Ford stood up and began by identifying himself: ‘My name is John Ford and I make westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B DeMille–and he certainly knows how to give it to them… But I don’t like you, CB, I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.’

“None made a more direct and subtle statement about the prospects before them.”

[NOTE: I’ll refrain from twisting my fragile mind and spirit in knots trying to suss out the possibilities of a single statement being both direct (which Ford’s statement certainly was) and subtle (which it certainly was not). There’s a lot of that sort of evil genius at work in this review, but I’ve got more important fish to fry just now. So….]

To put it bluntly, the Ford quote–quite famous in its own right–is not in Harris’ book.

Maybe it should have been. French certainly seems to think so. But to pretend that it is, so that one can also pretend that the five directors Harris wrote about, in his “excellent book” concerning their war experiences, came back to lead lives of “disappointment and disillusionment,” in which the only really memorable event was not any of the numerous Oscars they subsequently won or classic, era-defining films they subsequently made, but a single political meeting which Harris mentions only in passing and does not quote from at all (as French clearly implies), or attach any singular importance to (as French also implies), is, well….

Perfect!