The horror, of course, is in the wait. The apprehension and uncertainties. Then comes the heat of battle, where almost anything can, and will, happen. It's been this way for eons, for as long as Man has been warring against Man. And it will undoubtedly continue for as long as humankind finds brute force an alternative to reason.
Stephen Crane was only twenty-two when he published his short novel, "The Red Badge of Courage," in 1894. Crane had never seen battle, but he was well versed in the American Civil War and inspired enough to write about it. More important, he was well aware of human nature and talented enough to convey his impressions to the reading public. The book quickly became a literary classic and was first brought to the screen in 1951 by director John Huston.
The novel is no more than an extended short story, and the movie treats it that way. It does not attempt to be a sweeping epic, nor does it preach or take sides. Instead, it is content to ask questions, soul-searching questions, like what does it take to be a hero? What is the nature of courage and bravery? What is the meaning of fear? And how would each of us react under the pressure of imminent death?
The main character is a young Union soldier from Ohio, Henry Fielding, facing his first combat in the spring of 1862. He says he can't wait to get into the thick of things, but inwardly he's a bundle of nerves, plagued by anguish and self doubt. He wonders how he will actually behave when violence finally erupts. His friend, Tom Wilson, appears to have no such reservations. He merely accepts having to do what he has to do, go in and fight, and responds to situations as they arise. Clearly, there is a danger on the battlefield in thinking too much.
Director Huston lyrically, poetically, draws us into the story, yet he purposely keeps his characters oddly detached from us, too. Possibly, it is because of the extent of the voice-over narration, actor James Whitmore elegantly conveying large chunks of Crane's text. This omniscient observer helps to establish an expressively elegiac mood, to be sure, but for a story that is primarily seen through the young soldier's eyes, the narration also tends to distance us from him.
In any case, when his first skirmish comes, Henry hangs tough. But the rebels come again, and with the horror of death too much upon him, Henry runs. "The Youth cringed as if discovered in a crime," the narrator tells us. What would his comrades say when they found out he was a coward? "He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage," so he could rejoin his friends without disgrace. Ironically, he gets his badge.
The choices to perform the leads are fascinating. The Youth, as he is called, is played by Audie Murphy, in real life the most decorated hero of World War II. Murphy is perfectly cast as the man bedeviled by a combination of vigorous, immature enthusiasm and pensive foreboding. Wilson is played by WWII cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Mauldin, famous for his "Willie and Joe" cartoon characters. Both actors are quite youthful in appearance and bring a sincere innocence to their roles.
A supporting cast of veteran hands lends a further note of credibility to the proceedings. Foremost is Andy Devine as "the cheery soldier," an old-timer who finds Henry after his flight, takes him under his wing, and gives him some words of comfort and encouragement. Devine's part is small, a few minutes only, but it is indelible. Then, there's Douglas Dick as the lieutenant, a young man with a Napoleonic complex; John Dierkes as Jim Conklin, "the tall soldier"; Arthur Hunnicutt as the grizzled Bill Porter; Robert Easton Burke as the impulsive Thompson; Royal Dano as "the tattered man"; and Tim Durant as the compassionate but pragmatic General.
"The Red Badge of Courage" doesn't convey the same gritty realism of war as things like "Gods and Generals" or "Glory." Directors had to conform to the conventions of moviemaking in 1951. When people were hit by bullets or shell fragments in Hollywood films of the day, they simply dropped, cleanly, to the ground. No blood, no violent contortions of the body, no flying limbs. "Red Badge" is plenty real in other areas, though, capturing the smoke and din of battle, for instance, and the fear in men's eyes as they face an enemy for the first or umpteenth time.
Huston's camera is compelling as it moves in and about his subjects, highlighting the look, the feel, the subjective brutality of war. "The Red Badge of Courage" is far more a psychological drama than a purely palpable one, and as such it works as well as any war movie ever made.
The picture is presented in a standard 1.33:1 Academy ratio of the day, its black-and-white contrasts alternately dark and light textured. Some of it is among the best B&W photography ever made, while other parts of the film are dim and obscured, occasionally on purpose to convey the smoke and haze of war. Definition and detail are reasonably good, but the best part of the video is that the screen is admirably free of grain, scratches, lines, or age spots of any kind. This is a good transfer of a very good print.
The sonics are rather bland. The Dolby Digital reproduction does what it can to clarify the monaural audio, but it can't do a lot with a soundtrack that hasn't much frequency or dynamic range to begin with. The output is quite low, too, and the volume has to be turned up considerably to get any life out of the sound, which in turn can bring up a faint background noise. Fortunately, it's never an issue. At high enough gain, however, things like gun shots and cannon fire come though loud and clear, and dialogue is rendered effortlessly.
There is little in the way of extras here. Warner Brothers furnish a few cast and crew listings, twenty-one scene selections, and a theatrical trailer. Despite the announcement printed on the snapper case that a French language track is included, English is, in fact, the only spoken language provided. There are, though, English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Crane was perceptive enough to realize that there are no winners or losers in war. The final, heart-wrenching scene of Henry bearing two flags, reminds us that when people fight and kill one another, neither side truly wins.
Crane was also acute enough to see to into the recesses of the human soul and pull out an Everyman in young Henry Fielding. The movie, like the book, forces us to ponder anew the meaning of war and the meaning of life. Through Henry, "The Red Badge of Courage" allows us to face the chaos and confusion, the terror and futility, of both large-scale, national strife and inner, personal turmoil. It's a remarkable and worthy achievement.