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DVD SAVANT

THE Red Badge OF Courage


The Red Badge of Courage
Warner Home Video/Turner
1951 / B&W / 1:37 / 69 min. / Street Date February 4, 2003 / $19.98
Starring Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, Andy Devine, Robert Easton, Douglas Dick, Tim Durant, Arthur Hunnicutt, Royal Dano, John Dierkes
Cinematography Harold Rosson
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Film Editor Ben Lewis
Original Music Bronislau Kaper
Written by John Huston, Albert Band from the novel by Stephen Crane
Produced by Gottfried Reinhardt
Directed by John Huston

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.

Synopsis:

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 and 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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 20, 2003


Footnote:

1. Word has it that Anthony Mann cast Dano as the mute Trout in his last Western, Man of the West, because it had a showy death scene that would give the actor a second chance.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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