Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Red Badge of Courage (MGM, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I ended up one of those old movies that I’ve been curious about for years but had somehow never actually seen: The Red Badge of Courage, a 1951 film of Stephen Crane’s classic 1894 novel about a young kid who runs away from battle during the Civil War (on the Union side, not that it really matters much), then sneaks back into his regiment, finds no one noticed him missing, takes part in the next battle and proves his courage as a man. The 1951 version (the only other one listed by is a TV-movie from 1974) was a personal project of John Huston, who had just signed with MGM after being fired by Warner Bros. (his last two Warners movies, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, had both been hits, as had Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda, but Warners’ biggest success of 1948 had been Doris Day’s first movie, Romance on the High Seas, and Jack Warner decided on that basis to fire Huston and Negulesco and build his future production schedule around bright, splashy, upbeat Doris Day musicals in Technicolor) and in 1950 had released The Asphalt Jungle, a tough, gritty film noir that Louis B. Mayer hated but audiences loved enough to turn it into a blockbuster hit. On that basis Mayer’s vice-president in charge of production, Dore Schary (Mayer and Schary hated each other and Mayer would be forced out of the company shortly after Red Badge was released), green-lit Red Badge and allowed Huston to cast the film’s two leading roles, Henry Fleming (“The Youth” who deserts out of cowardice and then returns) and Tom Wilson (“The Loud Soldier”), with actual World War II veterans Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin, respectively.

Murphy had been the U.S.’s most decorated combat soldier during World War II, and Huston was obviously going for the irony of casting him as a coward. Mauldin had done the famous “Willie and Joe” cartoons for Stars and Stripes magazine, which grittily reproduced the stress of combat (Willie and Joe were grizzled young men with three days’ worth of beard and Mauldin generally put them in the most environmentally unpleasant situations he could draw, including the driving rainstorms just about everyone who fought in the Italian campaign vividly remembered). He also cast little-known actors in the other principal roles, including Douglas Dick (the psycho who tried to rape Loretta Young in The Accused) as the martinet lieutenant in charge of the platoon with which Murphy’s and Mauldin’s characters fight (or don’t) and Royal Dano as “The Tattered Man,” who in Huston’s original cut had a bravura death scene that had people talking about a possible Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for him but in the end was cut out of the film. Huston wanted to shoot the picture on location in Virginia, where the real battle Crane drew on as the basis for the story (Chancellorsville) had taken place, but when MGM vetoed that as too expensive contented himself with shooting at his own ranch in Calabasas, California. Louis B. Mayer predicted that the film would be a disaster at the box office, saying that Civil War films never made money (remember, this was the man who had made his first real money in the movie business as the New England distributor for The Birth of a Nation and whose company had released Gone with the Wind!) and without a woman and a love interest in the cast no one would want to see it. Huston turned in a 95-minute director’s cut and Mayer had it previewed to audiences who didn’t like it — so, like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, the studio cutters took out the shears and nibbled away at it until it was just 69 minutes long, then released it as a double-bill partner with Esther Williams’ film Texas Carnival (a movie whose own brevity, just 77 minutes at a time when Williams’ vehicles routinely ran 100 minutes or more, suggests that it too underwent major surgery in the cutting room), essentially “dumping” it to try to recoup as much of the budget as possible instead of attempting any real promotion. The catch line they did come up with to get people to see Red Badge was, “M-G-M, the Company that Released ‘Gone With the Wind,’ Presents a New Drama of the War Between the States!”

I haven’t read The Red Badge of Courage since junior high school, but I remember it as a vivid story even though it’s little more than an anecdote (Crane’s other four novels are pretty much forgotten now and the only other piece of his still read is a short story called “The Open Boat”), and at just 69 minutes the movie also is pretty much just an anecdote. Just what Huston had in mind is a mystery, not only because the deleted footage no longer exists (in 1975 MGM asked Huston if he had a complete print so they could reissue it as a rediscovery, but the only print Huston had ever had was on 16 mm and by then he had lost it) but because it’s hard to imagine what more could have been fit in to what’s basically a pretty simple story, simply told. What’s good about the movie as it stands is the vivid beauty of Harold Rosson’s cinematography — the natural setting seems to glow and it’s obvious Huston was going for a contrast between the awe-inspiring natural vistas of his location and the carnage taking place on it — and the understated acting of most of the principals, though once Andy Devine comes on as the soldier who helps the lost Audie Murphy return to his regiment we’re wrenched back to classic Hollywood and it’s hard to keep from laughing at what’s supposed to be a serious drama. It also doesn’t help that after Huston’s cut bombed in initial previews, MGM had James Whitmore come in and narrate the film, starting with an explanation that the movie the audience was about to see was based on a piece of literature long hailed as a classic and then coming it at inopportune moments to read passages from the book explaining what Audie Murphy’s character was supposed to be thinking and/or feeling at that moment. Between the narration and Bronislau Kaper’s obnoxiously Mickey Mousing music, which underscores many of the big scenes that would have been more powerfully left in silence (for all his pushing the envelope in other ways, Huston had an old-fashioned Hollywood sense of the use of music in his films; too many of his otherwise greatest films, including The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, are marred by loud, obnoxious and overused music scoring), Red Badge emerges as a noble failure, a brave attempt to film a piece of material that probably shouldn’t have been filmed at all.

One can see what attracted Huston to the story — Crane anticipated Hemingway, Huston’s favorite writer (even though Huston never completed a film of a work by Hemingway; he was hired by David O. Selznick to direct the 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms but was fired midway through the shoot — irritating the film’s star, Rock Hudson, who had signed for the role only so he could work with Huston!), in his relatively unsentimental depiction of war and also in his economical writing style. But he set the film almost entirely in the mind of his central character — we experience the battles and other events of the story only through his perceptions — and that was inherently difficult material to film, especially with a leading player who, for all the similarities between the character’s experience of war and his own, was still an unprofessional actor at sea trying to depict a complex, multidimensional character. (Imagine Red Badge with Montgomery Clift or James Dean in the lead; that’s the sort of actor the story needed!) Huston also made the big mistake of inviting New Yorker writer Lillian Ross to sit in on the shoot and write about it; instead of promoting the film, her articles about it, later collected in a book simply called Picture, told a vivid story of the trouble surrounding the shoot and probably did more to drive audiences away from seeing Red Badge than to attract them. I’m not sure whether the complete Red Badge, if it ever turns up, will be a masterpiece, just a longer version of the interesting but flawed film we have, or something in the middle; but I suspect that (unlike the complete Ambersons — we have a cutting continuity for Ambersons that, along with Booth Tarkington’s source novel, tells us exactly what we’re missing) the complete Red Badge would probably suffer from most of the same flaws as the short version we have. Not that Huston’s career was harmed by the failure of Red Badge; while the studio was hacking away at it he was already in England and Africa making his next movie, The African Queen, for the British Romulus studio — and that was an international mega-hit that teamed Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in another war story and won Bogart his overdue Academy Award.