B Roll is a weekly column that digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, and the awesome. This week, writer Nathanael Hood tackles John Huston’s Civil War drama THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE starring Audie Muprhy.
An odd thing happened in the days following my first viewing of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage: I began to feel more and more appreciation and fondness for certain scenes and sequences. Usually when I watch a great film by a great director, the film will linger in my mind for only a day or two. But 4-5 days later, I was still thinking about moments that amazed me in Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel: a beleaguered Union general promising to have supper with multiple regiments before a major attack; a young soldier fumbling for his glasses before succumbing to a gunshot wound; a quiet moment where the protagonist—aptly referred to as “The Youth”—has a moonlit conversation with a Confederate sentry on the opposite side of a river. These scenes left an incredible impression on me. But savvy viewers who have actually read Crane’s book will notice something that most audience members will miss: none of these scenes are in the novel.
Of course modifications were necessary for adapting The Red Badge of Courage. The novel works primarily because of its dearth of details—we are never even told which battle the soldiers are participating in. Everything is simplified to individual, abstracted images: sheets of gun-smoke, campfires blossoming up in bare fields, waves of indistinct blue and gray men. The Red Badge of Courage is first and foremost a novel of psychological interiors. So it stands to reason that Huston, who spent much of his career filming “unfilmable” novels, would have to expand on the source material.
This is both the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness.
On the one hand, it externalized an essentially internal narrative. Huston was still perfecting his ability to illustrate internal thoughts and emotions purely through images. As a result, there are many times where “The Youth,” played by real-life war hero Audie Murphy, stands in the foreground of the frame and grimaces for a good 5-15 seconds (compare this with the masterful last shot of his later film Fat City  where the inner turmoils of two characters are perfectly captured without any dialogue). The studio-mandated narration further dilutes the potency of Huston’s images: what good are possibly ambiguous moments when a bored narrator drones on about what he’s thinking and feeling and, by extension, the audience?
It’s so tempting to dismiss The Red Badge of Courage’s flaws as the result of studio meddling. And, to be sure, it certainly played a massive role by adding that damned narration and editing the film down to a paltry 70 minutes. But I don’t believe Huston should have been left off the hook that easily. Some of the performances are too hammy, some of the visual sequences don’t seem like they would have made much sense without the narration, and the battle scenes are surprisingly mild. Compare the battle scenes with those from Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951). Even though neither of them are very “graphic,” they have a bare-faced intensity and energy that The Red Badge of Courage sorely misses.
And yet I can’t get the film out of my mind.
Perhaps it’s Huston’s invented sequences from the start of this article. Perhaps it’s the admittedly bold use of claustrophobic cinematography which frequently framed characters in the immediate foreground with action going on in the mid- and background. Perhaps it was all of these things mixed with my ultimate disappointment. But, if anything, I feel sympathy for Huston. His true sin was merely biting off more than he could chew.