October 13, 2019

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
Grade: 58/100

Director: John Huston
Stars: Audie Murphy, Bill Maudlin, John Dierkes

What it's about. Adapted from the acclaimed novel by Stephen Crane. Fleming (Audie Murphy) is a young Union soldier. His infantry company sees its first action against the Confederates. Henry is worried that he will run like a coward in the face of the enemy, and discusses this fear with his buddies in the unit, excitable Wilson (Bill Maudlin) and lanky Conklin (John Dierkes).

When a rebel charge crosses the company trench, Fleming indeed runs for his life. Miles later, he feels ashamed of what he has done. He receives a head injury from the rifle butt of a retreating Union soldier, which knocks him out. He is encountered by veteran character actor Andy Devine, who somehow knows the position of Fleming's company and leads him there.

Fleming's company is glad to see him, as he was presumed dead. They believe his head wound is from the battle.

Relieved, Fleming decides he will now be more courageous. And because it is a story, Murphy as Fleming is indeed a hero in action for the rest of the movie, a warm-up for his even greater glory in To Hell and Back (1955).

How others will see it. The Red Badge of Courage has a well-known backstory. By then heralded director John Huston's final cut was more than two hours long. He turned it over to MGM, then went to Africa to make The African Queen.

In his absence, the film previewed poorly. Studio executives decided to pare it down to 69 minutes, barely more than half of its original running time, so it could be double-billed with the Esther Williams vehicle Texas Carnival. It appears that the director's cut has not survived.

The film flopped, a big loser for MGM due to its high production costs. But even in 1951, there was a sense that Huston's work had been treated poorly by the studio. BAFTA was even kind enough to cede a Best Film nomination.

Today, approaching seven decades later, Huston and Audie Murphy are well known to classic film cinephiles. At imdb.com, the movie has close to 4K user votes, a respectable number, and a good-plus user rating of 7.2 out of 10. The user reviews are loaded with praise for Huston's direction and Murphy's acting. Many point out that Audie Murphy was the most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II, which made his casting ideal aside from the fact he was about eight years too old to play "The Youth".

How I felt about it. One does wonder what the original two-hour-plus movie looked like. The story goes that in particular, the "Tattered Man", Royal Dano, saw most of his screen time whittled away in the cutting room.

What is left, though, is not entirely convincing. The "Tall Soldier", John Dierkes, dramatically drops stone dead right after running the length of a football field. It seems that Murphy is the accidental witness to every Union general field conversation of the campaign.

During the fist fight between two soldiers, a ring of unimpressed observing soldiers catcall the fighters, e.g. "Is this a fistfight or a round dance?" The problem is these one-liners come immediately one after the other, with the timing and writing of a Hollywood film, exactly what Huston was presumably hoping to avoid.

The battle scenes are admittedly taken from the source novel, but lack the horrific impact provided by, for example, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). It is interesting that there are so few great movies about the Civil War, with Glory (1989) as the primary exception.