Approved! It's about kids dying at war. Yeah, it's based on something that is in the literary canon, but the movie is fundamentally about death and cowardice. It is a G-rated version of war. We don't really experience any real blood. There's a part in the movie where the injured march this parade towards safety. But the injured are primarily composed of bandaged folks sans blood. Henry takes a hit to the head, but the blood is pretty minimal. Despite being named The Red Badge of Courage, there is surprisingly very little blood to be seen in the film.
DIRECTOR: John Huston
Man, I'm not ready to rag on John Huston. I had all of these talking points that I wanted to make about this movie, but Huston is infamous for making war movies and adaptations of famous novels. The big thing is that I want to be writing about the Academy Award nominations now, but I'm in the middle of clearing off the docket of stuff that I watched before the nominations came out. Regardless, I swear to you, my devoted reader, that I will try my best to not be distracted by the million things that I still have to do. I will write without the spectre of slight boredom over my head.
I taught The Red Badge of Courage one year. If you read my review of 1917 for Catholic News Agency, I pile it on pretty thick that I'm a pacifist. As such, traditional war stories don't really appeal to me. Stephen Crane is an impressive writer, but he also really drives the red motif home in that book. There was a time where I actively rolled my eyes when Crane would drop a reference to the titular metaphor. It's just so present throughout the story. But The Red Badge of Courage, for all its heavy-handedness, is a respectable book. It's very gritty and internalized. The novel explores what it must feel like to be a soldier. It humanizes the soldier and addresses the hypocrisy of emotion. It's complex in all of the right ways and, while I don't love the novel, I appreciate and respect it for challenging the traditional war story while also creating a microcosm for its protagonist.
But the one real takeaway is that The Red Badge of Courage might be on the list of sort-of unfilmable movies. I tend to shy away from that list because I love what cinema can do for storytelling. I know that Cloud Atlas was on that list of unfilmable movies. From what I understand of "unfilmable" is the idea that making the text into a visual medium only detracts from the foundation of what the book tried to achieve. The Red Badge of Courage nails some of the plot points of the story pretty well. But if you read the novel, the plot points really are second to the character. Huston does his best with this. With a disembodied narrator, sections of the novel are read over the film, trying to connect what Crane was saying with the visuals. It's functional, but doesn't really have the same effectiveness.
Narrators are kind of a big ask for an audience in film. Sometimes, they are instrumental to the mood of the film. Alec Baldwin as the narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums is part of the odd tapestry that Wes Anderson created. Morgan Freeman can pretty much narrate anything, that is, if it is a documentary or wildly meta. But even with a classic film like Blade Runner, there is a cut where the filmmakers just couldn't make it work. In The Red Badge of Courage, rather than contributing to the film, it reads like a shortcut for actual character development. The movie starts off with the prideful claim that the film uses the words of the immortal novel to supplement the film. This oddly handicaps the film. Instead of allowing us to view Henry's self-doubt and growth, we kind of view the events of the novel as a summary.
Because Henry never has to make that slow decent into cowardice, it feels like the film acts as a SparkNotes version of a much richer movie. The narrator does a lot of the heavy lifting. Rather than reading the complexity of what this story is about, the narrator just tells us that the character has changed. I don't want to detract from Audie Murphy's performance as Henry Fleming. It's not an amazing performance, but it isn't bad either. It's just that it all comes across as very clipped. Rather than allowing the story to play out in long-form, the movie lets us know what has happened and then it moves on. Like 1917, the movie keeps its eye on the protagonist. In the novel, this creates a sense of isolation. We don't know what major battles are or aren't happening. The news of others comes across as hearsay. But with Henry having a narrator giving all of this exposition, these scenes tend to be very short. No location really matters.
And now the pacifist comes out. The Red Badge of Courage, as a novel, works because of its complexity. It is both damning of war and celebratory of the soldier. War is no joke in Stephen Crane's novel. I always saw the theme as the unpreparedness of the person to enter a transcendental experience. There is an element of propaganda to it, allowing Henry to rise above his own insecurities and fears to eventually grow into the veteran soldier. But the movie hamfists the whole thing and the movie, ultimately, becomes a propaganda piece. When Henry finally overcomes his fear and runs into battle, it is a tense and uncomfortable moment. While the novel has been building up to this climax, it feels like Henry's going to die as a consequence of his earlier cowardice. I was convinced the first time I read it that he was going to die. When that moment completes, it is exhausting.
However, the movie uses a sprawling soundtrack to show the glory of battle. I don't know if The Red Badge of Courage is really about the glory of battle. I mean, it is. But it isn't at the same time. There's something very personal about Henry in the novel. He is an avatar for the common man. He's got the flaws of humanity woven into his moral fabric. He's both confident and fool-hearty. He's a hero and a coward. But I never really read The Red Badge of Courage as a recruitment tool. It was more of a commentary on the soul in the face of war. When, in the film, Henry is charging with the union flag fluttering behind him as the score swells, it undoes a lot of that moment. The rest of the movie feels like a recruitment film and I hate that. It's not a terrible movie, but I don't like how it manipulates a text to get what it needs. The movie just feels icky from that point and I don't really like it.
It's also really short. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing. I talked about how this movie feels truncated from its source material. I love me a short movie, especially when I don't really like the movie to begin with. But this movie's shortness adds to its weakness. The bulk of the novel is Henry out in the woods, questioning how he can live with himself and justifying his own cowardice. The movie is really too short to explore the main purpose of the film. I can see this movie really working if it just allowed itself to exist with itself for five minutes. Instead, the breakneck pace of the whole movie just tears its soul from it until it just is seen as a student project summarizing the major plots.
I guess I ripped into this movie pretty hard. I suppose its fine. I just think that I have a standard for the film because it is both in the literary canon and could be considered to be part of the film canon. But there is just such a break between the source material and the final product that I wish that this movie wasn't called The Red Badge of Courage. It's claim to respect the source material is actually what harms the film more than anything else. If it was just another movie, maybe I would have been fine with it. But nothing really does it for me with this movie, which is kind of a bummer.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.