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Even after boasting at training camp of becoming a hero in battle, Henry Fleming, a Union soldier played by Audie Murphy in The Red Badge of Courage (1951), soon panics from the explosions of both friendly and enemy fire in his first conflict and runs frantically towards the rear as others fall wounded and dying around him. The legendary director, John Huston, inspired by the realism of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs, utilizes truck shots, camera pans and dollies as Henry wanders away from “the field of honor” and into disgrace, earning his so-called blood stain or red badge of courage not in the heat of battle but by being hit by a frightened soldier on the run, knocking him unconscious. Finally, bolstered by a sense of shame and anger he finds his old unit again, this time with a chance for redemption, straddling that fine line between cowardice and bravery.
How The Red Badge of Courage got made has become a well known battle of its own. Well documented in Lillian Ross’s book of collected New Yorker articles on the making of the movie, entitled Picture, Huston found himself trapped in the midst of a takeover of MGM’s management (under the rule of Louis B. Mayer) by studio executive Dore Schary and his rebellious followers. While Huston liked what Stephan Crane’s classic 1893 novel The Red Badge of Courage had to say about war, the futility of it all and the coming of age through crisis, the two executive combatants saw it only as a chance to fight over valuable turf, with Mayer hating the new trend towards realism (including Huston’s earlier heist thriller, The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) and Schary giving the go ahead to this relatively small, but suddenly important film that now pitted one side against the other.
All John Huston wanted to do, aside from being faithful to Crane’s original story, was, according to Lillian Ross, “to direct a picture on horseback.” However, this was a short lived fantasy that only lasted a day because the horse couldn’t take the constant activity. But direct he did, getting the most from his actors and extras (some of them selected from nearby bars and poolrooms for that drawn and war-like look). Even though Huston had so many distractions, both from the studio side and of a personal nature during the making of this film (including his getting married, having a child and losing his father, the great actor, Walter Huston, who died unexpectedly), he still felt as though the film may have been the best he’d ever done. That is, until he was pulled away in post production to film The African Queen (1951) and Schary, wanting to control more and more of the filmmaking process, went ahead and made severe cuts in the film anyway. Schary’s headstrong, often impulsive behavior emerged later as well; actor James Mason witnessed the mogul belting William Saroyan after the writer refused to stop talking at Schary’s screening of The Red Badge of Courage. As for Schary’s version of the film, we now see Audie Murphy leading a charge with a bandanna wrapped about his head, then rushing forward without a bandanna and then firing his rifle with the bandanna once more around his head. Yet, even after adding James Whitmore as a narrator for “clarity” and shortening the movie to a mere 69 minutes, The Red Badge of Courage remains a minor classic, notable for its sensitive depiction of a young man’s struggle to come to terms with his own identity. Although we do have the existing 69 minute print, Huston’s original cut was lost, which made the director insist in all future contracts that he be granted a copy of the first cut of any film he made.
Seen today, The Red Badge of Courage is particularly interesting for its ensemble acting, performances that were shaped by Huston. Among the cast members are first timer political cartoonist Bill Mauldin as “The Loud Soldier,” John Dierkes as “The Tall Soldier” and Royal Dano as “The Tattered Soldier.” But it is Audie Murphy who pulls this film together in arguably his finest role. As the review in Commonweal put it, “Audie Murphy plays the Youth as if he were living every moment of the role, suffering every step as he advances against the enemy, wondering if he will stay to fight like a man or if he will run in cowardice.” A hero of the second World War Murphy was not a fan of war movies because as he said in his biography No Name on the Bullet by Don Graham, he felt most of those films were, “glamorized too darn much!” and the humor in them was, “phony.” Yet, he liked the Crane novel because of its essential truth, “Psychologically, wars don’t change, you’re all alone in a battle.” And even though it was the time of the Korean War and many felt the subtleties of Huston’s version of The Red Badge of Courage did not meet the public’s demand for clear cut definitions of war and victory, Audie decided to take on the role anyway, because, as Graham explains it, “if the film could capture the honesty of the book, it would be a fine piece of work.” Convinced that Huston was the man to accomplish this, Audie signed up for the role, lending it and the film a sense of authenticity and compassion.
However, not all were convinced that he could do the job. The producers wanted someone like Montgomery Clift or Van Johnson, who had starred in Schary’s earlier war film, Battleground (1949). So, staunch patriot and powerful gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, a strong supporter of Murphy, went to bat for him. As she said in Murphy’s biography, “I called Dore and said it would be nice seeing a real soldier playing the part of a screen soldier for a change. With so many of our young men going to Korea, putting Audie in the picture would aid in boosting their morale. Audie got the part.”
As with most men trained to kill in war, it was difficult for Murphy to adjust to civilian life, even though he became a successful actor and businessman. Still, he constantly struggled with anger and violence and eventually his film career and business dealings suffered setbacks in the late sixties. In 1968 he was declared bankrupt and in 1970 he was cleared of attempted murder after beating up a man in a barroom brawl. He was killed the following year along with five others in a small plane crash. Having experienced the peaks and valleys of Hollywood, with reviews that ran from the nearly vitriolic to high praise, The Red Badge of Courage was certainly his brightest moment, one that is thankfully preserved for all of us to see.
Producer: Gottfried Reinhardt
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Albert Band, John Huston, based on the novel by Stephen Crane
Production Design: Lee Katz Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Original Music: Bronistau Kaper
Principal Cast: Audie Murphy (Henry Fleming “the Youth”), Bill Mauldin (Tom Wilson “the Loud Soldier”), John Dierkes (Jim Conklin “the Tall Soldier”), Andy Devine (“The Cheerful Soldier”), Arthur Hunnicutt (Bill Porter), Royal Dano (“The Tattered Soldier”), Robert Easton (Thompson), Douglas Dick (The Lieutenant), Tim Durant (The General).
BW-69m. Closed captioning.
by Joe D’Onofrio