#514: John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage
A grim adaptation of the classic Civil War psychological drama that succeeds despite studio interference
Initial release: September 27, 1951
Director: John Huston
America loves heroes. Dead or alive — though preferably dead — America venerates those it sees as embodying what it means to be American, the definition of which has long been mercurial. Audie Murphy is one such hero: a highly decorated World War II vet, having earned every medal for valor the United States Armed Forces had on offer at the time, only to come home and become a movie star. Across a 21-year career from 1948 to 1969 he starred in over forty movies, mostly westerns, but a few war films as well, including a biopic about himself (with great reluctance.) In the years since, Murphy is something of a meme, or perhaps a kind of shorthand to describe the sort of World War II shooter where players more or less win the war singlehandedly (think Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.) But what’s lesser known about him is the PTSD that dogged him all his life, not just from the war but also the death of his mother.
John Huston, himself a World War II vet with the Signal Corps, had built a name for himself as one of the greatest — and most daring — filmmakers Hollywood had ever known. Fiercely iconoclastic, Huston brought a critical eye to much of the cruft of national and spiritual self-delusion that serves as American culture. When fate — or, rather, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer — decreed that Murphy was to star in an adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, John Huston was picked to direct, and history was made.
And then it was un-made. Huston shot for a 2-hour film, using close ups and Dutch angles to give a claustrophobic sense of unease to string together an otherwise faithful adaptation of the book, with Murphy in the lead role as a cowardly Union soldier who runs away during a battle only to return and charge into battle. But the studio cut the film to ribbons, leaving only a sparse 69-minute film that is nowhere near either Huston nor Murphy’s standards. Any chance of a complete version of the film materializing is nil, as it’s likely that all the film went up in the 1965 MGM film vault fire — a disaster that erased hundreds of films from existence. They’re just gone.
(It really feels like we’re going through something like it again, only this time it’s deliberate.)
Nevertheless, what remains is still viable, even good — a stark tale of how toxic masculinity is often just a mask, and beneath the swagger and braggadocio there’s often a scared boy, and people don’t make the best decisions when they’re scared. Huston has managed to make a film that convincingly feels close to the real thing, in a way that very few war films of the era did — no isolated soundstage this, but fields and forests, gunshots and explosions in the distance. And Murphy as the scared young kid who goes into war terrified and comes out of it battle-hardened is clearly bringing some of his own experiences — and mental anguish — to the role, making it feel more authentic than if they’d gotten a non-veteran to play the Youth. The atmosphere of that bygone war persists; soldiers move, act and speak in that rough, down-home patois often associated with outdoorsmen of the period. There’s a certain sense of unreality to the film, driven in part by Huston’s daring compositions and — it must be said — the odd pacing of the film; it felt like a particularly good Twilight Zone episode, and though nothing supernatural or otherwise strange happened, I certainly would not have been surprised if it did.
While Huston described the original cut of the film as the greatest film he ever made, the cut that made it to theaters is nonetheless a decent enough film that showcases Huston’s skill as a filmmaker, and perhaps served as some kind of catharsis for a haunted Murphy.