The Red Badge of Courage ★★★★½

Esteemed director John Huston reportedly said of his 1951 film The Red Badge of Courage that it could have been his greatest film. “Could have been” because the opposition form studio executive Louis B. Mayer to the project not only almost derailed it, but led to further problems upon release. When the film was originally screened for preview audiences, the reception was surprisingly poor, causing the studio to re-think its strategy. By this time, Huston had left to film The African Queen, and The Red Badge of Courage was then re-edited by the studio, with approximately ten minutes removed from the version Huston approved. The resultant movie, one of the shortest feature films released, impressed the critics but not the public. As a response, the film was apparently considered more suitable for the second half of double-bill sessions. Either way, the film quickly faded from screens, although not entirely from the memory, for in the years since its release its critical reputation has soared, to the point where it is now commonly regarded as one of the greatest American Civil War movies ever made.

Based on a novel by Stephen Crane, considered a classic of American literature, The Red Badge of Courage follows the exploits of a new Union soldier (Audie Murphy) as he approaches his first battle. A pensive youth, he is concerned over his own bravery and questions the nature of courage under fire, measuring his bravery against that of another young recruit (Bill Mauldin). After being held in apparent reserve, his unit is finally sent of to do battle with the Confederate rebels. In the battle, Murphy succumbs to his fear and flees into the forest. He overhears a conversation between his officers that his unit has actually withheld the charge. Now ashamed of his cowardice, Murphy returns to his unit, claiming to have been wounded. He is received sympathetically by Mauldin. Now sent off to another battle, Murphy is full of false bravado, determined to project an image of bravery under fire. When the Confederates charge, his acts are both brave and foolhardy as he is determined, beyond reason or safety, to compensate for his earlier lack of courage. In the heat of battle, he is the one who carries the flag, literally and symbolically.

Essentially a study in the inter-relationship of cowardice and bravery, The Red Badge of Courage is a moody depiction of a young man’s coming of age in wartime. The film holds the first sign of maturity as the ability to conquer or sidestep one’s own innate fear. Only by overcoming fear and doubt are acts of bravery and heroism possible in war. Yet, for Murphy, his acts are beyond reason, more a personal statement than anything else – he has taken the opportunity to make amends for his doubt and fear and to prove himself. Bravery is thus founded in personal issues. With Murphy seemingly in a trance of some kind, the film also implies that his bravery is in part psychotic. Nevertheless, what is important is that he proves to himself that he is indeed capable of brave acts and by so conquering or sidestepping his fear, he matures – the film (and novel) thus becoming a demonstration of war as a rite of passage into adult manhood. From the start, Murphy plays the young soldier as a man preoccupied with his own potential, his fear being of what he may be capable of doing under a future challenge, his expectation of whether or not he can rise to the challenge demanded of him by his mature elders.

The ideology behind the war is almost irrelevant at such a personal level as the film explores the experience of war for soldiers – as a test to their own sense of personal value and responsibility, their willingness or readiness to confront the possibility of their own death. Audie Murphy is perfectly cast in this picture, as in life Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War Two before he became a movie star (of mainly so-called B Westerns) and the then contemporary audience’s awareness of this is thus factored into the study of bravery under fire. The preoccupation with his own potential that Murphy brings to the character adds to the film’s assertion that in any act of wartime bravery there is an aspect of foolhardiness, of actions thought out not in terms of safety but in terms of overcompensation and personal pride. Murphy has passed this test to his moral character, the film implies, and it is to be hoped that if he matures as a soldier, he will triumph. Yet in the sense that Murphy becomes something of a role model for the other soldiers (including Mauldin) there is a sense that his particular journey into manhood carries an important example. Thus of equal importance is Murphy’s confession to Mauldin that he ran the first time. Cowardice is thus shown in perspective as a necessary developmental stage that must be overcome in the road to bravery and, more importantly perhaps, personal pride under fire.