John Huston considered this his best film. After a power struggle at the top of MGM management, the film was cut from a two-hour epic to the 69-minute version released to theaters. It was never released as an "A" feature but was shown as a second-feature "B" picture. Both Huston and star Audie Murphy tried unsuccessfully to purchase the film so that it could be re-edited to its original length. The studio claiming that the cut footage was destroyed. Unless there is an undiscovered copy of the uncut version, this movie will never be viewed as John Huston intended.
This production amounted to a power struggle between MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and producer Dore Schary. Mayer rejected the production (partly on account of it lacking women and thus a romance angle) and Schary insisted. Mayer appealed to Loew's Inc. chairman Nicholas Schenck and was rebuffed. This and other ego-bruising incidents that occurred during the same period resulted in Mayer's ouster from the comp/any he helped found in 1924. As Mayer predicted, the $1.6-million film flopped badly but by the summer of 1951 he was out.
Early in the film, Henry Fleming is shown writing a letter to his family. The date at the top of the letter is 10 September 1862. This makes the battle depicted in the film either Turner's Gap, South Mountain, MD, on Sept 14 or Antietam Creek (Sharpsburg), MD, on Sept 17. Scholars generally agrees that the battle in the novel is more like Chancellorsville, VA, in May 1863. The novel never names a place or gives a date. One year after the publication of the novel, Stephen Crane wrote a short story entitled "The Veteran," published in "McClure's" magazine. In the story Henry Fleming is an old man telling the story of his first battle in the Civil War. There Fleming identifies the battle as being Chancellorsville.
Bill Mauldin, who played Tom, was, like Audie Murphy, also a real-life soldier. He was also most notably a leading war cartoonist of his day and won several Pulitzer Prizes for his work and was already familiar with Murphy, having served time with his unit in Italy.
Although Audie Murphy usually went through life with a detached languor, he erupted twice during filming. At one point one of the assistant directors yelled at him the wrong way, and Murphy left the crowd scene he was in, grabbed the man by the shirt and told him, "Don't you ever talk to me like that again!" In another incident he stopped two men in a car from harassing some teens on motor scooters. When the men tried to start a fight with him, he attacked both with his riding crop. They had to go to the hospital, never knowing that they'd been beaten up by World War II's most decorated soldier.
Director John Huston lost control of this picture when, over his objections, his bosses at MGM recut it, editing out over 20 minutes. Whole scenes, including one featuring Royal Dano, were discarded. Huston did not waste any time fighting over it, as he was focused on the pre-production of his next picture, The African Queen (1951). Lillian Ross wrote about the trials of producing "The Red Badge of Courage" in her book "Picture".
Louis B. Mayer was loathe to greenlight the film as he felt (largely correctly) that Civil War pictures never made money. He also disliked it because it had no marquee names or female roles. He only agreed to the making of the film because he was pursuing John Huston to direct Quo Vadis (1951), a film that Huston ultimately dropped out of.
Louis B. Mayer loaded the dice against the film at its first preview screening by pitching it to its audience of students that it was a comedy. Consequently, all the reviews were scathing, allowing Mayer the opportunity to order some drastic recutting. Producer Gottfried Reinhardt was powerless to do anything about this, while John Huston was already in deepest Africa working on The African Queen (1951).
To cast extras for the crowd scenes, John Huston sent his assistants into the pool halls of nearby Chico, Calif., to find what he described as "grizzled SOBs" to avoid giving the film a Hollywood look.
At one point in the original script, the Loud Soldier accused Fleming of cowardice. During repeated re-takes, the accusation got to Audie Murphy, who finally accused Bill Mauldin of trying to get at him with the line. Murphy also had trouble admitting that he was a coward in the scene. Finally, Mauldin suggested, "I think Audie is having trouble confessing to a Stars and Stripes cartoonist that he ran from battle." John Huston did a hurried re-write so that Mauldin would confess his fear first, prompting Murphy's character to admit to his own feelings.
When filming was completed, John Huston held a special screening for the cast and crew and invited directors and producers. They were overwhelmed, and he declared it the best film he had ever made. Audie Murphy couldn't believe he had turned in such an impressive performance, and his mentor, Hedda Hopper, declared it the best war film ever made.
Four years later, with the success of Audie Murphy's film autobiography, To Hell and Back (1955), he and some Texas friends tried to buy this film from MGM so they could shoot new footage to replace what had been cut. The studio turned him down.
Originally John Huston tried to save time by having his assistant director, Andrew Marton, line up one shot while he was finishing another. However, Huston had trouble making up his mind about what he really wanted. When he found himself spending more time rearranging the shots Marton had lined up than he might have spent doing it all himself, he abandoned the idea.
John Huston got around Audie Murphy's insecurities by maintaining a cheerful air at all times. Observers thought he had developed almost a paternal relationship with the young man who, at 26, was still haunted by the horrors he had witnessed during World War II.
The film's public previews in February 1951 were disastrous. Although some people loved the film, more hated it, and many walked out during the screening. Some of the most serious scenes evoked laughter. John Huston ran off to London the day after the first preview. In a panic, studio executives added a narration by James Whitmore, including an explanatory introduction written by studio production chief Dore Schary to explain that the novel had been universally hailed as a classic. It didn't help. Audiences at the third preview still hated the film.
After seeing what MGM had done to the film, John Huston instructed his agent to include a clause in all future contracts guaranteeing that he would receive a copy of his director's cut on all of his films.
With continued poor results from test screenings, MGM sneaked the film out as a second feature on double bills with an Esther Williams picture (Texas Carnival (1951)) and then only in smaller theaters.
When the film played on the second half of a double bill in London, a local critic caught it and was so impressed he arranged a press screening for his colleagues. They all wrote columns demanding the film be given a proper release. Finally, MGM gave in and booked the film into a West End theatre, where it flopped.
In 1957 John Huston and Gottfried Reinhardt tried to get a copy of the original negative only to learn that the studio had destroyed it. Almost 20 years later, when he was directing The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Huston received a cable from MGM management asking if he had a copy of his original cut. He had struck a 16mm print, but by that time it had been lost.
At one point John Huston decided to give up his efforts of making this movie since it caused so much conflict between studio chief Louis B. Mayer and chief of production Dore Schary. Huston told Mayer about his decision, but changed his mind after Mayer told him, "John Huston, i'm disappointed in you. If you really believe in this movie, you should fight for it."
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
There was buzz that Royal Dano was in line for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, mainly for his disturbing death scene. In advance screenings, though, audiences left the theaters because they found the scene far too intense. However, once the studio scissors came out, any chance of a nomination disappeared, as Dano's part was cut down to virtually nothing and his death scene was removed. Rumor was that Anthony Mann felt so bad about Dano's shabby treatment at the hands of the studio that he cast him in his western Man of the West (1958).