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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
MGM's Civil War epic THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE is a minor masterpiece!
Unfortunately however the picture has a chequered history and had
little success when it was first released in 1951. Based on the best
selling novel by Stephen Crane it was beautifully written for the
screen by John Huston who also directed with considerable flair and
expertise. But the finished film suffered greatly in the editing
stages. In Huston's absence ( he was in South Africa filming "The
African Queen" ) the studio cut some 25 minutes from the movie
resulting in a very truncated 69 minute version being released. Louis
B.Mayer disliked the picture intensely because it didn't have a female
in the cast and it was without any marquee names. Top billed was a
young Audie Murphy, a minor player at the time who was just finding his
way in pictures over at Universal International in the B western genre.
That said there is still much to admire in the finished film.
Particularly noteworthy is the stunning Monochrome cinematography of
Harold Rossen and the splendid atmospheric and rousing score by Polish
composer Bronislau Kaper.
Stephen Crane referred to his novel as a 'psychological portrayal of fear' and that fear is clearly established almost immediately the film opens as we see the enlisted men of the Union army mustered in camp waiting for their marching orders to go into battle. One youthful private in particular Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy) is almost sick with fear and trepidation. Tears fill his eyes as he writes home what he thinks could be his last letter. Finally, the moment he dreaded arrives as the order comes for the division to move out up to the battlefield. Before long they are in the trenches holding back the advancing Confederate enemy. Then during one enemy charge Henry is so overcome with fear he throws down his rifle and runs in retreat. Alone in the woods he is beside himself with despair and shame. But later when he is knocked unconscious with a rifle butt from another retreating soldier he awakens with a whole different attitude to the war. His head wound becomes his 'Red Badge of Courage' and he returns to the trenches but this time with a new found gallantry. He suddenly finds himself leading his men against the enemy and even taking up the flag from a fallen comrade and carrying it to victory.
Performances are superb from all concerned even down to the smallest role. Murphy is surprisingly dynamic! His role as the fearful young soldier who finds redemption is totally believable and engaging. It is the actor's best performance. Good too is non-actor and cartoonist Bill Mauldin as Henry's friend and comrade and also the always likable Arthur Hunnicutt ("I got holes in my cap, I got holes in my pants but I ain't got any holes in me except those that were intended").
Huston's film is an arresting evocation of the American Civil War! He lavished great care and attention to the film's look and design which is evident throughout. Together with Rossen's deep focus and stark black and white cinematography the scenes on the battlefield and in the trenches become bracingly authentic with an all encompassing and extraordinary realism. We will probably never learn what was in the missing 25 minutes of lost footage but as it stands THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE remains a minor cinematic masterpiece.
Closing line from Stephen Crane's THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE as the troop, victorious, march from the battlefield and on the soundtrack the voice of James Whitmore is heard behind a close up tracking shot of Audie Murphy..........
"He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows and cool brooks - an existence of soft and eternal peace".
There have been a large number of Civil War movies of every type made
over the years. Yet The Red Badge of Courage is probably the best movie
of this period, perhaps because it is also the simplest of any of them.
It is based on Stephen Crane's great novelette of the same name. It
almost makes one think Crane experienced the War himself, but he wasn't
born until four years after the end of the Civil War and learned about
the feelings of the veterans by reading magazines issued for Civil War
veterans when he was in his early 20s. There is also some speculation
that he visited veterans at a nearby old soldiers home and asked them
about their experiences.
And how could Houston pick a better person to play the lead then Audie Murphy? Murphy was a combat veteran of the greatest war ever fought, and suffered post-traumatic nightmares from it. I fully understand why this great director fought the studio bosses to give Murphy the lead role. Bill Mauldin, a WW II veteran himself, also does an excellent job as the companion of "The Young Soldier."
I've been reading about the Civil War for 44 years and have seen most of the movies on that period, but I am always amazed at how this film captures the emotions and illusions of the millions of young men who fought in it. As a veteran of another, later, war, I can identify with the emotions of the young men depicted here.
The fact that there is very little dialogue (narration is supplied from Crane's book) actually helps the movie convey the mood of the volunteer soldier. And although Murphy plays a Federal soldier, he could easily represent a Confederate.
The movie espouses no side or cause, it is about the individual solider and his personal battle as he prepares to "meet the elephant," as the soldiers of that time called experiencing combat for the first time.
One last remark... the 1974 TV remake of the Red Badge of Courage, with John Thomas, suffers greatly in comparison, in both acting and authenticity.
I can't understand why this movie isn't more well known or why it
doesn't get more critical applause. Well, I suppose it's in black and
white, it's short, it has no expensive bankable stars, and no love
interest. I can't think of any other reasons, because this is a very
good movie indeed. John Huston's direction is outstanding, while still
being understated. When he was uninterested, Huston could do a merely
pedestrian job. But he must have been interested in "The Red Badge of
Courage," from beginning to end.
Example from the beginning: a group of soldiers are gathered around a speaker who is spreading rumors about a coming battle, most of their backs turned to us. The camera slowly moves in towards the small crowd, not the speaker, but the backs of the listeners' heads, and one of the soldiers turns around towards the camera and steps quickly into a close up with an expression of deep self-doubt. What a way to introduce Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming! What a way to individuate a mob of naive young men!
Example from the end: Henry and his friend Tom, played by Bill Mauldin, are marching away from the battlefield, still alive, and a bit surprised. Tom says something about how the birds are beginning to sing again, and Henry agrees that as soon as the smoke and noise of battle end it doesn't take the birds long to get worked up again. Henry looks upward over his shoulder, and Huston gives us a point-of-view shot of a hazy sun drifting dimly through the tops of the trees that tower alongside the road. The cast could hardly do better. It is Audie Murphy's best performance by far. In "To Hell and Back," in which he played himself, he wasn't required to do much more than rudimentary acting, and the film itself is cliché ridden. Here, Murphy convinces us that he's worried, or scared, or hijacked by his amygdala, or whatever the situation calls for. His boyish voice is completely appropriate to the role, as is his overall appearance. He seems to have really given this movie some effort. Bill Mauldin as Tom is also surprisingly good. He was undoubtedly the most famous and most controversial cartoonist of World War II and spent a good deal of time with Murphy's Third Division in Italy. He may not be a trained actor, but his sincerity, his gawky face and outlandish ears are more convincing than, say, Tab Hunter's brawn ever was. All of the supporting cast are excellent, particularly John Dierkes as the dying soldier.
Do you want to have your hair raised? Read Steven Crane's original novel. He was 22 when he wrote it, years after the Civil War had ended, but no one would know it from the novel, which has the ring of reminiscence about it. The scene of the dying soldier as he actually dies, standing and trembling from head to foot as if in some Jacksonian fit, is unforgettable in its horror. It's impossible to identify the battle on which the book was based, if indeed there was any.
Let's face facts. The North lost damned near all of its most dramatic battles, and not through the fault of its soldiers or junior officers. (General Winterside's cognomen must have been influenced by the real-life General Ambrose Burnside, for whom our "sideburns" are named. Burnside was one of Lincoln's worst generals and had the good sense and the courage to admit it himself.} The Penninsular campaign, fought under MacLellan, another real hard-charging fire eater, was a dismal failure and ended in an ignominious retreat Crane was from New Jersey and is now buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, having died a young man. One can only wonder what he might have accomplished had he written more than just two novels. The photography may be black and white but it's splendidly done. I find the only two problems, and they're relatively minor ones, involve the production itself. This isn't back East where the war was fought. This is clearly California, with scattered live oak trees dark and evergreen against the dried summer bunch grass. And the musical score is generic, adding little to the picture aside from the expected Battle Hymn of the Republic and triumphant marches in major keys. A fine picture, all around.
This version of Stephen Crane's epic is the only one that should be shown. The character, Henry Fleming, was truly Audie Murphy's alter ego. The individual portrayals of the Union soldier's was John Huston at his best. The battlefield scene that truly captured the essence of this movie was when Henry held the tattered Confederate flag over the body of the dead reb soldier. What could have been more poignant then that scene as one soldier salutes his enemy, who, in reality was his countryman. Also, another icon appeared, Bill Mauldin, the noted cartoonist of "Willie and Joe" from yet another war. I feel this movie, as abbreviated as it was, since L.B.Mayer had over one hour of the original version cut, is still a masterpiece.
Although John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage has stood the test of
time critically, back then it lost lots of money in its first release.
The film was a bone of contention between Louis B. Mayer and Dore
Schary who were locked in a power struggle for control at
Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer. Schary wanted to make the film, Mayer said it
would flop and he was proved right. He also got ousted anyway.
The Red Badge of Courage refers to the blood that gets spilled should you sustain a battle wound. If you remember in Oliver Stone's Platoon, the men don't treat new arrival Charlie Sheen until he's gotten one of those. Here the Red Badge is something to be avoided if possible.
By a piece of serendipity when Audie Murphy returned from World War II and was deciding on a career, he chose the movies. He certainly was loaded down with offers, but I guess he sensed in himself an inner gift for being an actor. Not Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier, but someone in the hands of the right director could get a good performance out of him. In John Huston he found that director, twice in fact as he later worked with him in The Unforgiven.
There was no need for research because our most decorated soldier in history lived the research in North Africa and Europe. There's a dimension to Audie's performance and that of GI cartoonist Willard Mullin that no training at the Actor's Studio could have given them. Murphy just summoned his memories of what it was like to be a kid from Texas whisked off to Europe the way young Henry Fleming is facing the Confederates in their backyard.
Murphy gets good support from an able cast of people like Arthur Hunnicutt, Royal Dano, John Dierkes, and Andy Devine as various other soldiers in the Union Army, all citizens serving their country. No career people in this crowd. Also James Whitmore, reading the narrative of Stephen Crane's novel serves almost like another cast member and moves the film's story line along.
Though it lost money for MGM, The Red Badge of Courage is still a fine film with some great insights into the meaning of battlefield bravery.
John Huston's camera and sense of drama and tension make this one of the
best soldier's-eye movies ever made. You really get a feel for the
Civil War recruits must have experienced - not during battle, but before
after, when orders appear to be arbitrary and nothing is ever
The cast is wonderful, including many who show up for less than 30 seconds, giving their all for their roles - Audie Murphy never had it so good with this material and backdrop. A truly literate action movie that has a soul and a vision.
"Red Badge Of Courage" was a film destined to fail from its inception.
Louis B. Mayer never wanted the picture to be made and did what he
could to discourage the process. He felt it could never be a commercial
success without female characters or established stars. Mayer expressed
his views directly to John Huston, he said, "It has no story and won't
make a cent!"
When the film was finally completed, the test screenings were a failure. Houston remarked: "With the Red Badge of Courage, I quite understood at the time why they took the steps they did. I was present at a preview when damn near a third of the audience got up and walked out of the theatre."
Various edits were tried without the participation of Huston, who was working on the "African Queen" with Bogart and Hepburn, and seemed to not give a damn. All that resulted was a picture that got shorter and shorter. The final release version is 69 minutes. The original cut was of 95 minutes, not two hours as has been suggested.
"...they cut out one scene that was probably the best in the picture, in a way of anticlimax. The monumental death of the tall soldier. The boy and the tattered soldier walk away down the hill, and the tattered fellow says, "I've never seen a feller die like that." He begins to ramble and begins to walk around in circles then dies himself. This was the most extraordinary moment in the picture as far as I was concerned. It wouldn't have made any difference so far as the audience was concerned. They still walked out in the middle of the picture."
The footage that was extracted was from the master negative. It was discarded to the floor of the editing suite and thrown away as useless. There are no records of any of the cut scenes or extra footage surviving.
Louis B. Mayer dispatched a second unit to Huston's ranch. The second unit was to film the battle scenes in Technicolor using the Cinematographic process: MGM Camera 65. Louis B. Mayer, at his most vindictive, shot footage that would eventually be used in future productions with the full knowledge of Huston.
As the problems mounted, Huston's enthusiasm for the project waned and he started to gravitate towards his next project. Huston never re-visited "Red Badge Of Courage". It is assumed he was never happy with the film in its original form or its release version and was happy for the film to fade into annals of film history.
stephen crane's best work. audie murphy's best work. any serious student of the civil war will recognize this film as the best, most honest portrayal of civil war action. it captures the fear and dread of deadly combat like no other film on the american civil war. during bloody battles, if your side was not having a successful day, the usual way out was "skedaddling" or running like the wind. both sides did it. a great little film that all civil war students and scholars should own and view every so often.
This movie, directed by John Huston, is arguably the finest Civil War movie of all time. The performances by the young Audie Murphy,America's most decorated soldier and all the cast are as true to life as can be found anywhere. The narration and ultra-realism gives an almost docu-drama feel. This movie is so short,at 69 minutes, that it never had a chance at the box office, and instead was probably seen mostly by school kids and a few old movie buffs. The only other movie that is almost as short and so successfully tells a story is "The Petrified Forest". The Red Badge of Courage is on my best movies of all time list.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Based on Stephen Crane's classic short novel (one of the finest pieces
of American literature ever written), this John Huston adaptation is an
absolutely remarkable film on many levels. Huston not only directed,
but also wrote the screenplay. If you watch closely you may notice that
the film has very little dialogue and, if you are familiar with the
book, you may notice also that the sparse bits of chat that DO make it
into the film are taken almost verbatim from the source novel. With his
clever script, sharp direction (Huston was in rich form, having just
completed the equally remarkable The Asphalt Jungle), and a very
believable performance from real-life WWII hero and debuting film star
Audie Murphy, Huston went on the make one of - if not THE - finest
Civil War movies ever.
Young Union soldier Henry Fleming (Murphy) is inexperienced in the realities of warfare, but he quickly realises that the brave and reckless attitude to battle that he has heard about is rather different to the real thing. When he finally reaches the front and realises the terrible danger he is in, he flees in panic. During his cowardly, if understandable, retreat he is injured by another fleeing soldier. Later, Fleming reunites with his fellow troops and, when asked what became of him in the earlier battle, he claims that his "injury" was a gunshot wound caused by an enemy bullet. The troops are satisfied by his dishonest explanation and Fleming unwisely plays up to their perception of him as a brave, wounded soldier. Later, during another skirmish with the Confederacy, Fleming has to live up to the courageous name he has carved for himself and, in a fit of rage (and perhaps guilt?), he leads a battle-charge which repels the enemy and, ironically, transforms him into a true hero.
Murphy gives a superb performance, drawing on his WWII experiences to etch a really convincing portrayal of a scared young man on the brink of potential death. Huston lets the camera linger on all his actors' faces, and their excellent expressiveness conveys a lot of the psychology of warfare. The film is visually very powerful, thanks largely to Harold Rosson's cinematography, and has about it a near-documentary feel. Also, Bronislau Kaper provides an outstanding music score which adds immeasurably to the proceedings. What is truly amazing is that the 69 minute version of this film, which I have here reviewed and given a maximum 10-out-of-10 rating, is actually a heavily cut and studio-tampered version of what Huston intended. One can only assume that his full film might have gone on to become his - and perhaps cinema's - greatest movie of all-time.
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