Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When his reported masterpiece was butchered by MGM, little did John Huston know that its
reduced running time would make it the perfect movie to be shown in high school history classes,
while the teacher took a nap. As chronicled in one of the first and best accounts of the
making of a movie, Picture by Lillian Ross, The Red Badge of Courage got
caught in a power struggle that ended up trimming the 90 minute movie by 21 minutes. What
remains is still excellent, but Ross's accounts of the first screenings make the long
cut one of the lost treasures of Hollywood.
Henry Fleming (the Youth - Audie Murphy) goes into battle in 1862 for the
North, concerned about whether he will prove a coward. He and his closest buddy Tom
Wilson (the Loud Soldier - Bill Mauldin) bluff around the issue, while older experienced
men seem more sure of themselves. Or are they? Army life is a crushing bore until battle
comes, and in the noise and confusion, panic sets in and Henry bolts for his life. Wandering
behind the lines, he's soulsick for his weakness and perceived worthlessness, until
he discovers that nobody has witnessed his desertion. He rejoins his unit with a new resolve ...
When John Huston saw Audie Murphy in an office at MGM, he described him as a born killer. The most
decorated serviceman of WW2 was still in his early 20s, a young man with a baby face and
unprepossessing manner. It was his sixth film.
Huston described the movie he wanted to make as a visual poem, the kind of talk that gave
L.B. Mayer nightmares. Mayer had resisted Red Badge for the commercial reason that
Civil War pictures didn't do well; he finally gave it a green light because he wanted Huston
to direct Quo Vadis?. But the project had a hard time anyway, mainly because authority
at the studio was up for grabs, with the New York office already pressuring Mayer to resign.
Dore Schary, with his message pictures, waited in the wings.
Its budget halved and halved again, Red Badge was filmed near Sacramento instead of back East,
and its very impressive battle scenes were done on a fairly modest basis. Huston concentrated on
getting precises performances from his almost all-male cast, which included not only hero Murphy, but the famous
cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Harold Rosson's crisp photography alternated wide shots with many
expressive closeups, some recorded with such a depth of field that Murphy almost appears to be
matted into the background. Careful lensing creates unusually perceptive visuals, such as
Murphy's view up at a tree, as the sunlight filters through the dust.
Many of Huston's cast had movie experience, but had mostly been underused in bit parts. He cast them
carefully, and then gave each special business and standout action to perform. Douglas Dick was
molded into a mustachioed Lieutenant, striking the perfect Matthew Brady pose when
napping against a tree. Garrulous Andy Devine shows up for a few minutes of amiable morale-boosting,
when Fleming has lost his way. Arthur Hunnicut, later to become one of the most beloved Western
actors (The Big Sky, The Lusty Men, El Dorado) has the best line: "By diddy,
here we are! Everybody fightin! Blood and dee-struction!" Frankenstein actor Glenn Strange rides
a horse well as a General's aide and has a number of lines, a rarity for him. As the General, Tim
Durant prays quietly to himself, whoops like a kid when he finds out his men have held the
line, and goes down the trenches offering an identical pep talk to the soldiers he sees ("Can I
drop by for supper later?").
The two standouts are John Dierkes, a tall and very gaunt man with a characteristic clear voice. He's
given one of the dramatic highlights of the film, a death scene somewhat reminiscent of Huston's
previous The Asphalt Jungle. The talented Royal Dano, as the Tattered Soldier, originally had
what was considered the best part in the picture, and at early screenings was mentioned as a best
supporting actor shoo-in. Unfortunately, the happy cutters at MGM (most likely led by Margaret
Booth) dropped most of Dano's part, including his reportedly 'unforgettable' death scene. As it
is, Dano mysteriously disappears about 3/4 of the way through, after making a strong impression. 1
Also catching our attention in bits or as part of the ensemble are the familiar faces of
William Phipps, Whit Bissell, and William Schallert.
Louis Mayer held a preview for the picture in Westwood, billing it with comedy that attracted a rowdy
group of teenagers, none of whom had any interest in poetry or history. With a stack of negative
responses, he ordered a quick makeover to 'save' the film. Powerless producer Gottfried Reinhardt
could do nothing, and John Huston was already gone, having skipped out on his Quo Vadis?
semi-commitment to go to Africa with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Huston wasn't the
kind of director to stick around and fight for his films after they were in the can.
Margaret Booth's changes mainly speed the film up, while framing it within an old-fashioned
'classic book' presentation. A book opening and closing were put at each end of the picture, along
with voiceover by James Whitmore, reading directly from the Steven Crane novella. Whitmore
practically becomes a narrator for the film, reading aloud Henry Fleming's thoughts for him.
As a cut, it's expertly done; and Whitmore's voice does add something to Murphy's performance. But
Huston had fashioned a movie where the viewer had to pay attention and try to figure out what was
happening in the Youth's head. Without Huston's version to compare, we'll never know for ourselves
what the long version was like.
Lillian Ross mentions a number of interesting bits of business that were pulled out, in addition to
the larger part of Royal Dano's performance. The last battle was cut in half. It actually was shot
cut as a much more complicated action, with the Union forces charging, retreating, and then charging
again. Booth collapsed both charges into one, as can be seen by the fact that Audie Murphy's
bandanna headgear appears and disappears more than once in the same scene.
Even though the film was professionally recut, when The Red Badge of Courage ends, the
impression it gives is that something is lacking. What really stick in the mind are
some of the relationship moments, and Murphy just staring off at nature around him, as he
slowly worries himself into a panic. For all its merits, the picture plays
for what it is, a special movie shoe-horned into a cookie-cutter pattern by a troubled studio. It's
one of the famous lost legendary masterpieces.
Warners' DVD of The Red Badge of Courage looks terrific. The picture is punchy throughout,
sharp as a tack, and given a more than adequate bit rate - heck, at 69 minutes, one would think
that it hardly needed to be compressed. For extras, we're given a trailer, that pretends
that MGM is proud as punch over the film it has chopped by a third.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Red Badge of Courage rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 20, 2003
1. Word has it that Anthony Mann cast Dano as the mute Trout in his
Man of the West, because it had
a showy death scene that would give the actor a second chance.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson