It's a tribute to director John Huston that The Red Badge of Courage is as good a film as it is today. For although what we see is a remnant of a wonderful movie, this is a great remnant.
Huston, when translating this famous American Civil War novel to film, made that very unfashionable animal in the America of 1951 - an anti-war movie. He left America after finishing shooting, to start work on his all-time classic, The African Queen. In his absence, the film studio edited, re-edited and generally mutilated the movie, leaving it with a running-time of less than 70 minutes.
Yet the film, despite pedestrian voice-over narration taken from the 19th century novel by Stephen Crane, and despite the inept editing, still has power. The power is found in Huston's direction and in the acting.
The actors include the baby-faced Audie Murphy as the young soldier who flees battle in fear for his life, but who then returns to redeem himself. Murphy plays this with great sincerity and conviction. The only flaw is that he looks far too young to be in 'real' battle.
Ironically, in real life, Murphy was a Second World War veteran, emerging from that war as America's most-decorated soldier. This is his greatest film role. Sadly, in later life, Murphy suffered greatly from battlefield-induced trauma and depression.
The film, even in its mutilated form, is immensely viewable and very moving. But do yourself a favour. Before viewing it, seek out a copy of the book Picture by Lillian Ross. In Picture, American journalist Lillian Ross wrote probably the most incisive account of Hollywood movie-making ever put to paper. My battered Penguin copy is more than 30 years old; this classic is however still in print.
Lillian Ross followed the course of The Red Badge of Courage as a fly-on-the-wall observer, charting its progress through executive meetings to actual shooting, and through to its disastrous conclusion, with its sad tatters lying on the editing floor. It's a riveting read; an essential accompaniment to what could have been one of the most potent war movies ever made.
While watching this movie, framed immaculately with Huston's great artistic care, I was reminded of the recent eponymously-titled documentary of the Civil War from documentary-maker Ken Burns. Both Huston and Burns obviously related strongly to the classic Civil War photographs by the photographer Mathew Brady - platinum prints of sharp detail and great composition. Burns showed us the Brady photographs - Huston restaged them, and set them in motion.
I want this in my collection because it's by Huston, one of the most important mid-period Hollwood directors, and because of the direct link to one of my favourite books of cinema lore and history, Lillian Ross's Picture. Others may prefer to rent it first. But do yourself a favour - go out and read the book, then view this movie.