Plot centers around how a young recruit (Audie Murphy) faces the horrors of war. Character vascilates between wanting to fight and doubting his own courage. In midst of first bloody encounter, Youth runs away. After seeing dead and wounded, sense of shame leads him back to his unit, where he distinguishes himself in the next battle. Having overcome his fear of "the great Death" he knows e can face whatever comes. Somewhat sentimental "coming of age" tale was pet project of John Huston, who fought MGM over casting of Murphy and Bill Mauldin in lead roles.
Audie Murphy ... The Youth
Bill Mauldin ... The Loud Soldier
Douglas Dick ... The Lieutenant
Royal Dano ... The Tattered Man
John Dierkes ... The Tall Soldier
Arthur Hunnicutt ... Bill Porter
Tim Durant ... The General
Andy Devine ... The Cheery Soldier
Robert Easton ... Thompson (as Robert Easton Burke)
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.
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.
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.
* 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".
* This production amounted to a power struggle between 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 company he helped found in 1924. As Mayer predicted the $1.6 million film flopped badly but by the Summer of 1951 he was out.
* James Whitmore's narration was added after several disastrous previews and extensive editing.
* A huge chunk of Royal Dano's role was removed from the final print.