He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
I recently was watching The Red Badge of Courage, (1951) and I was struck yet again by what a forgotten masterpiece it is. Filmed in stark black and white, the film has almost a documentary feel to it, as if a World War II era newsreel camera had magically transplanted itself to the Civil War. The combat scenes are highly realistic depictions of Civil War combat, and the actors speak and act like Civil War soldiers and not like 1951 actors dressed up in Civil War costumes.
As one critic said at the time, watching the film is like watching a Matthew Brady photograph of the Civil War come to life.
It was a stroke of genius for director John Huston to have as star of his film Audie Murphy, as the youth who, in Stephen Crane’s unforgettable novel, has his first taste of combat in the Civil War. Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but. From a family of 12 in Texas, Murphy had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to support his family after his father ran off. His mother died in 1941. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 16, lying about his birthday, partially to support his family and partially because he dreamed of a military career. By the end of the war, before his 19th birthday, he was a second lieutenant and had earned in hellish combat a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2.
Murphy’s co-star in the film was also an Army combat veteran, Bill Mauldin, the famed cartoonist who drew the Willie and Joe cartoons in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, during World War II.
The film is absolutely stunning to watch, especially when we recall that Huston was forced to cut the film to 70 minutes and to add a narration, both decisions taken over his bitter protests. The making of the film, and the conflicts that ensued, are given masterly treatment in Lillian Ross’ book on the making of the film, Picture (1952). The film was a box office failure, but critics hailed it. I think audiences are often right and critics usually wrong, but in this case I side with the critics.