Stephen Crane’s seminal Civil War novel was made to be gripping film material and although my knowledge of the particulars is limited John Huston’s story while streamlined and truncated feels like a fairly faithful adaptation that even takes some effort to pull passages directly from the original text.
Even with the film getting butchered by the producers and chopped down to only 70 minutes from its original 2 hour running time, there’s still a gripping power to this war story. The narration feels a bit forced (despite being delivered by James Whitmore) but beyond that Huston’s film has an undeniable resonance for the atmosphere it develops and the very palpable inner turmoil of its central character as portrayed by famed real-life war hero Audie Murphy.
It suggests the other side of what it is to be a soldier. The fear, the reluctance that wears on the individual, and it begs the question, who are the real heroes if not men who did their duty despite the very fears that shackled them? Portrayed in this film are men and boys who were thrust into conflict and they were forced to respond accordingly. Not necessarily because they wanted to but out of very necessity.
In the end, the realization is that maybe fear is alright and acknowledging it is oftentimes the very sign of a brave individual. Someone who knows their limitations and still manages to push beyond them to do extraordinary things. Because as FDR so famously noted, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It can be debilitating, stifling our resolve to take action. Thus, it’s our response that’s paramount.
Barely 20 during the war Murphy isn’t all that much older here and it feels remarkably fitting for him to play the naive Youth getting his first welcoming to war faced with this very conundrum. He wants the glory of war. He wants that red badge of courage. But he’s too afraid to take it. The utter irony is how battle-tested Murphy was by that point in time–but of course, he became a hero at a very young age and that doesn’t necessarily mean it came easily or without a cost.
Huston also examines the disillusionment in the utter absurdity and idiocy of war sometimes. Though it had already been 6 years since the end of WW II with men such as Audie Murphy and Bill Maudlin involved it’s easy to get the sense that this was a rumination on that particular war’s effect. Huston as well had been involved in documenting the life of soldiers and Maudlin made a name for himself as one of the great wartime cartoonists originating the iconic duo of Willie and Joe. Murphy’s accolades spoke for themselves as one of the most highly decorated soldiers of his day but he also undoubtedly suffered from the trauma of PTSD.
The dialogue is ripe with colloquialisms and the images seem generally authentic with photorealistic visuals to match a fairly dismal outlook. It does not shy away from the reality. Figures constantly moving through the frame mechanistically. Claustrophic closeups, tights angels, billows of smoke and relentless gunfire make the battle sequences truly immersive. And the soldiers are played by actors of all shapes and sizes including Murphy, Mauldin, Royal Dano, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicut, and even Andy Devine.
If it had not been for the studio’s meddling we might be calling Red Badge of Courage one of the great American war movies. As it stands today, cut down from its original running time and slightly removed from John Huston’s original ambitions, it’s still a highly moving picture. Because moments of greatness shine through no matter the muddling factors. So despite its minor status and a runtime that suggests lesser fare, Red Badge of Courage is really Class A material through and through. Huston did not call it one of his best movies for nothing.
Have a wonderful Memorial Day and here’s to all the humble heroes in our armed forces.