John Huston's version of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), based upon the famous Civil War novella of Stephen Crane, is one of the director's most visually inventive films. At times, it's also one of his most gripping. But as for being one of his finest all-around works, the jury is out, as we'll never see the director's intended opus.
In his engaging 1980 memoir, An Open Book, Huston tells the story of how this film was first turned down at MGM, then later approved and finally edited by the studio after a poor initial reaction by the public (this despite very good critical acceptance). During post-production, Huston had to begin filming The African Queen, so he was not present while the studio executives decided to add narration as well as trim the film down to a mere 70 minutes. (Huston does not mention how long his version was, but we can imagine that at least 20-30 minutes were dropped for the final cut.) Years later after a reappraisal by English critics, the studio asked Huston for his copy of the film, as they wanted to rerelease the original version as the director had intended. But as Huston points out, he didn't have a print, as it didn't exist. Because of this, Huston would stipulate in his future contracts with studios that he receive a 16-mm print of the first cut of any film he made.
Yet despite the studio interference, this is a strong film. Given that the screenplay is rather sparse and the action focuses on only a few sequences, Huston's direction is the principal reason why this work is so memorable. His visuals are quite striking, especially in several shots where he has one character in the foreground of the frame - usually at the extreme left or right - with another in the background. This shot is used more than once with the two main characters, Henry Fleming, also known as The Youth (portrayed by World War ll hero Audie Murphy) and Wilson, also known as The Loud Soldier, portrayed by war correspondent and editorial cartoonist, Bill Mauldin.
Bill Mauldin (l.) and Audie Murphy
Some of these shots are the two of them sitting and talking, as during the morning of the final battle, where each confesses to the other their fears as well as excitement over the upcoming attack. In one shot however, Huston places The Youth in the extreme right foreground and has The Loud Soldier walk from rear left to front left, stopping a few feet away from his friend, as both faces fill the screen in closeup. Huston ends the scene with Mauldin walking back to the rear left of the frame, away from the camera and from Murphy. He never moves his camera and it's all done in one continuous, economical shot.
Huston films this work primarily as a series of closeups, as we identify with the various Union soldiers who march before our eyes. He wants us to see the fear and nervousness of these individuals in circumstances none of them have ever faced; they clearly have no idea what lies ahead. For the most part, Huston does not give us wide panoramas of battles or shots with long lenses to compress the view of two opposing sides in a skirmish. We rarely see the Rebs in this film, with the one exception being a few shots of captured Confederate soldiers talking to their counterparts after the film's final battle. This is an achingly simple scene, as one soldier on each side asks the other his name and what state they are from - the soldiers fight for their cause, but they share the same emotions.
This is one of the quietest war films ever made; battles are few, while the forced marches from one location to the other are the focus - again, so we can learn of the soldier's fears and hopes. There is a beautiful overhead crane shot of the Union troops asleep at night in camp; the camera pans from one soldier to another and composer Bronislau Kaper adds a remarkable cue, at first slow and solemn and then jarring, as he writes a short outburst of brass that communicates the nightmare one commanding officer has during his sleep. This is a haunting and eleoquent scene that tells us the uneasiness of the lives of these individuals.
One can only wonder how good The Red Badge of Courage might have been, had the studio not gotten in the way. Yet Huston gave us a stirring, wonderfully humanistic look at soldiers under pressure in this film that even non-approved editing could not eliminate. This is a film that does not take sides nor does it condone or condemn war. It is simply, an important film about the quiet struggles soldiers face in war. The fact that we identify with these subjects is a sign of the clarity and beauty of John Huston's direction.
I promised Adam Zanzie at IceBox Movies, who is hosting a John Huston blogathon, that I would share my encounter with the director, so here goes - Adam, I hope you love it!
I was flying back home from Ireland in late September 1985 and had just settled into my seat, when John Huston boarded two rows directly in front of me. I immediately recognized him, given his height and that wonderful white beard he sported for so many years. Accompanying Huston was a female assistant who took care of his needs, which included an oxygen tank that he was hooked up to - at this stage in his life, he was suffering from emphysema. But if his health was causing him any agony, he certainly didn't show it this particular day, as I soon discovered.
About 30 minutes into the flight, the lead flight attendant, standing only a few feet from Huston, announced on the intercom that the movie that day was Prizzi's Honor. I couldn't believe my ears, as here was Huston's latest film - it had been released only a few months earlier - and I was going to watch it with the director as part of the audience.
When the flight attendant finished her remarks, Huston, who was in fine voice, barked at the woman, "Stewardess! Who books the movies on these flights?" The poor woman, obviously flustered at the demands of this man whom she did not know, said sheepishly, "I'm not sure, sir. But I can find out for you."
Huston smiled and then addressed her. "Well, you tell them, this is the worst movie I've ever seen!" All she could do was try and be helpful.. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I'll let them know."
I was doubled over in laughter in my seat, but looking around, no one else seemed to get the joke. It didn't matter, as Huston, even in his advancing years, hadn't lost his sense of humor.
Although I didn't get the chance to speak with Huston given his condition, I'll never forget the spark he displayed that day. No wonder so many great actors wanted to work with him. How could you not love someone who enjoyed that type of mischievous fun?