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The Films of John Huston: The Red Badge of Courage

August 30, 2010

After tackling two contemporary classics (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a few other popular works (In This Our Life, We Were Strangers, Key Largo), and three war documentaries (Report from the Aleutians, Battle of San Pietro, Let There Be Light), in 1951, Huston delved into America’s literary past and adapted Stephen Crane’s 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage.

Clocking in at a miniscule 69 minutes and starring war hero Audie Murphy, veteran and two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin, Andy Devine, Royal Dano, among others, Badge is among the more forgotten than remembered of Huston’s filmography. It’s more or less faithful to the novel, following the young Henry Fleming from his first experience in combat to his flight, his wounding from the rifle butt of a fellow soldier, on up through his final heroics as flag bearer, and seems appropriate for its time, coming relatively soon after the end of World War II.

Almost everyone, Huston included, speaks of Badge as though it was in line to become his next masterpiece had it not been for the meddling studio and their insistence on cuts. Whether that’s true or not, and whether the excised footage had been restored, honestly, I don’t get much of a sense of greatness from Badge.

For one, this is one Huston film where the narration seems wholly unnecessary. Maybe that was a studio decision, but I have yet to read anything that says it was. Huston’s a talented enough director to show everything the narrator mentions, so when he does, it’s overkill. Fleming has just shown the audience he’s brave by carrying the American flag head first into combat, do we really need this ponderously officious voice to confirm it?  And I’m not one of those viewers who dislikes narration in any form, because I usually don’t mind it—just that here it’s repetitive.

The shortness is a detriment as well. Fleming sort of drifts through the narrative hazily wanting to achieve true courage on the battlefield and going from coward to braggart to hero all in the span of around 20 minutes. This is the main focus of the story—to show Henry’s transformation from recruit to warrior, boy to man—but it just sort of happens. The narrator may make some comment about how it was at this or that moment that Henry understood the nature of war or manhood or whatever, but it feels haphazard.

That’s what’s holding Badge back and those are largely the reasons why it’s not often mentioned among the Huston pantheon (wedged between The Asphalt Jungle and The African Queen probably doesn’t help, either), but Badge is a Huston movie, and despite its flaws, it boasts a lot of inspired touches.

Most noticeable are the battle scenes. Badge is not especially long on action, and even during its action scenes you don’t see much. The enemy Confederates are barely seen at all, masked by clouds of dust and always shot from the far-away perspective of the Union trenches. When a rifle fires, the camera is focused on the shooter rather than the intended target so that we see their reaction instead of the actual consequence. Huston’s not out to make a “war” movie in the sense that he wants to show action, explosions, and epic battles; rather he wants to show the effect all those things have on his protagonist and his immediate company.

So, to that end, eschewing action for characters is a poignant touch, but on the other hand, Huston scholars (and anyone who’s been following this series of articles) will note a lot of similarities between the battle scenes here and those in The Battle of San Pietro. Both blur the enemy, are shot from the perspective of the “good guys,” and emphasize the personal tolls of battle rather than combat itself. However, while I like that Huston is using the same technique, the gaps in character development lessen its effectiveness (that and San Pietro was real). A great idea, but bland execution.

The other strength is Badge’s actors. Murphy has a flair for saying a lot with just his facial expressions; it’s a versatile mug, and we see a lot of it. He doesn’t have too much in the way of lines, but for someone whose claim to fame is his war exploits, Murphy is a good actor and believable, even when placed among a handful of supporting characters painfully drawling out a mishmash of accents. Maudlin is another somewhat unusual choice and doesn’t fair quite as well but is far from unconvincing. The fact that Huston chose actual WWII veterans to play his Union men gives Badge a sense of reality, but I don’t think it was completely necessary—especially when the show is all but stolen by Andy Devine’s guardian angel!

In all, ardent fans will see it, but for everyone else, we’d rather see The African Queen.


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