The Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Directed by John Huston

In 1951, director John Huston was at the height of his cinematic powers, having already made such iconic feature films as The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of Sierra Madre as well as the brilliant World War II documentary The Battle of San Pietro. It is not surprising, therefore, that he would turn his lens to the seminal event of American history: the Civil War.

Huston is known for examining human reactions to critical, life-changing experiences in his movies. Even though Stephen Crane was too young to fight in the Civil War, his short 1894 novel The Red Badge of Courage offered Huston the perfect vehicle to plumb the depths of a young man’s conflicted reactions to his first experiences of the horrors of war and his search for personal redemption. The central character of Henry Fielding, unnamed in the film, was played by genuine war hero Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier. During his service in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, Murphy had seen how the realities of the battlefield brought out the strength of character in men or revealed the lack thereof. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin plays a minor role as Henry‘s friend Tom.

The film skillfully portrays the young soldier experiencing feelings of anxiety and finally outright fear as he prepares for his first battle. Henry’s struggle with his own conscience begins when he quickly loses his illusions of heroism. After witnessing a friend’s death and being accidentally wounded by a retreating Union soldier (his red badge), he comes to terms with the realities of warfare. The movie has a blatantly Hollywood-type ending with Murphy leading a charge and holding the flag—an obvious symbolic statement that the hero has been redeemed in the eyes of his comrades and has progressed in understanding and accepting the manly arts of war.

Huston’s imaginative direction and cinematographer Harold Rosson’s intriguing camera work caused one critic to praise how the battlefield was being portrayed from the soldier’s point of view, noting “the ragged and nondescript infantry, the marches, the battle lines, the din, the dust, the cavalry charges, the enemy surging out of the clouds of smoke, and the pitiful, wretched lines of the wounded reaching and stumbling toward the rear.”

There are several gaffes in the film, but you have to look closely to find them. The forage caps of the Union troopers are shown to have crossed rifles on them, an emblem not adopted by the Army until 1876. Also, several of the troopers wading across a creek and up the bank are holding 1903 bolt-action Springfield rifles instead of muzzle-loading rifled muskets.

The film runs only 69 minutes because the distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, insisted on substantial cuts before it would release it. Fortunately, much of the narration, taken from Crane’s language in the book and voiced by James Whitmore, remains to help move the action along. The Red Badge of Courage is no Saving Private Ryan and was never a box-office success. But as a Hollywood product with a subtle and often not-recognized antiwar subplot, it more than holds its own as a taut, well-crafted film that is faithful to its source and eloquently evokes the era on which it is based.


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here