“Well, we’re goin’ after ’em now, Henry, and by the eternal thunders, we’re goin’ to lick ’em good.”
“The Red Badge of Courage” was written by Stephen Crane in 1894. The book was a classic story of war and the young men who fight. In this case, the war was the American Civil War, which had been over almost 30 years, yet Crane himself was but 22 years old with no personal knowledge of what it was like. From that standpoint, Crane’s insights into the hopes and fears of young men never before faced with fighting and possibly dying were remarkable indeed.
It’s perhaps surprising that the book has not been filmed more often than it apparently has. There seem to have only been two versions, however. A made-for-TV movie in 1974 featured Richard Thomas as the story’s protagonist, Henry Fleming, but it is unavailable on home video. The more famous version is the 1951 theatrical film made by MGM, directed by John Huston, and starring Audie Murphy. A fair bit of notoriety surrounds this film due to extensive editing of the original cut by MGM as a result of a disastrous preview process. (The whole story was thoroughly documented in a book entitled “Picture” by Lillian Ross.) Despite this, the results are still impressive, as can be seen from WB’s recent DVD release.
Henry Fleming is a young man who is but one of many finding themselves going into battle for the first time. It is the spring of 1862 and a unit of Union soldiers is preparing for the fighting by endless drilling. Henry sees himself as being apart from the others, many of whom talk bravely of what they’ll do to the enemy. Henry is unable to match their bravado, however, for he is unsure of how he will react to actual battle.
When the battle is eventually joined, Henry reacts, as do some others, by fleeing from the battle into the trees. Despite this, the unit does manage to repulse the advancing rebel soldiers, leaving Henry feeling more demoralized than ever. He stumbles upon another group of Union soldiers engaged in battle and in the confusion, gets knocked out. He is found later that night by a sentry and returned to his unit where he claims to have been creased by a bullet and separated from the unit as a result. Given this further chance to prove himself, he takes an active part in the next day’s advance and when the unit’s standard bearer is shot, seizes the colors in hopes of rallying his fellow soldiers.
Aside from its intrinsic value, The Red Badge of Courage played an important role in the history of MGM. The film was a catalyst for the removal of studio boss Louis B. Mayer from his position of power at the studio. Impending signs of a reduced role for Mayer were already apparent, as Dore Schary had recently been installed as vice president in charge of production. Director John Huston, then halfway through a two-picture contract with MGM, proposed a film based on the Crane book and Schary liked the idea. Mayer, on the other hand, hated it. The final decision was left in the hands of Nicholas Schenck who worked in New York as the president of Loew’s Inc., the parent company of MGM. He sided with Schary, with the result that shortly after The Red Badge of Courage went into production, Mayer left the studio for good.
Ironic, then, that the film did not appeal to audiences of the time, as Mayer had predicted. It lost money despite the studio’s efforts to recut the film so as to overcome aspects of it that had caused preview audiences to reject Huston’s original version. With time, however, the film has come to be viewed differently and it is now regarding by many as an American classic. It’s a classic, however, that is also something of a curiosity with its voice-over narrative; its stylized dialogue; characters with evocative names like the “Loud” Soldier, the “Tall” Soldier, and the Tattered Man; nameless commanding officers; yet, with a protagonist in Henry Fleming who is as human as any depicted on film. The film’s real virtue is its ability to convey truthfully and without artifice Henry’s innermost feelings of uncertainty and fear. The choice of Audie Murphy to portray Henry has everything to do with this. Murphy had been the U.S.’s most highly decorated soldier during the Second World War and one presumes his experiences under fire allowed him to understand Henry at least as well as any actor might have been able to. Nor was Murphy a novice at acting either, as he already had half a dozen films under his belt including three in which he had had the lead role. The combination gave Murphy’s portrayal of Henry real sensitivity and believability when in other hands, it may have seemed merely quaint.
Aside from Audie Murphy, however, the film lacks any other major actor and that’s probably just as well. The other roles are nicely acted, but few familiar faces are allowed to detract from the focus on Murphy’s character. The “Loud” Soldier is well played by Bill Mauldin who had been the G.I. cartoonist during World War II. John Dierkes and Royal Dano are both effective as the “Tall” Soldier and Tattered Man respectively. Andy Devine and Arthur Hunnicutt are recognizable in other small parts.
At an abbreviated length of 69 minutes and with a few continuity errors in the latter parts of the film, it’s obvious that this isn’t the film that John Huston originally intended. Yet, one cannot fail to see several aspects typical of Huston films. One of his common subjects is the examination of a group of people faced with a quest that has the potential to end in death. Such Huston films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, WB), The Asphalt Jungle (1950, MGM), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975, MGM) are good examples, but The Red Badge of Courage is perhaps the best. He also frequently used shot compositions that focused as much on a listening or reacting character as one talking. That’s certainly often in evidence in this film’s Henry Fleming character and its interactions with the other soldiers. In his autobiography “An Open Book” published in 1980, John Huston seemed to retain no particular malice over the cutting of the film, choosing instead to emphasize the regard with which the film is now held compared to originally. He does note, however, that in 1975, he was asked by MGM if he had a print of the original cut of the film which could be used for a new release. He didn’t have one and one presumes that that version is now lost forever.
The version that remains has now been released on DVD by Warners in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This is a nice crisp transfer of black and white source material that’s in very good shape. Speckling and scratches are almost nonexistent. Other than in a few scenes which were intended to be partially obscured by the dust and heat of battle, everything is sharp-looking. Edge effects are not a concern.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono sound track is quite adequate. Its volume is perhaps set a little low, but slight amplification results in no age-related hiss or distortion. The sounds of battle have a reasonable presence, given the mono source. English, French, and Spanish subtitling is provided, but there is no French language track as stated on the package.
The supplements consist of the theatrical trailer and a cast and crew listing that contains no biographical or filmographic links.
There are similarities between John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Both were films whose original director’s cuts were much longer and were reacted to negatively by preview audiences. Both films’ directors were out of the country when the studios involved cut the films sharply. Since their original release, both films have grown in stature and their missing footages have been long sought, although they are generally presumed to be gone for good. At least we’ve got one of them on DVD now courtesy of WB, and if it’s a little shy on supplements, the transfer is at least first rate. Recommended.