Red Badge of Courage: John Huston’s Scandalous, Controversial Movie Starring Audie Murphy

MGM’s Louis B. Mayer regime went through a radical change in the early 1950s, when Dore Schary took over.

An uncharacteristic American war film, directed by John Huston after “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Red Badge of Courage” achieved notoriety, on and off screen, after Lillian Ross’ chronicle of the filmmaking in “Picture.”

Meant to be an American epic the film was ruthlessly butchered in post-production, resulting in a short programmer of barely 70 minutes.

Based on the novel by Stephen Crane, the film stars real-life war hero Audie Murphy, who became a star in the 1950s.
The novel by Stephen Crane (1871–1900), set during the Civil War, depicted in great detail the story of a young private in the Union Army, who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound—a “red badge of courage”—to counteract his cowardice. When his regiment once again faces the enemy, Henry goes out pf his way to act as a heroic standard-bearer.

Though Crane was born after the war, and had not experienced battle first-hand, the novel is known for its authenticity and realism. This work, published in 1893, was his second novel in 1893, draws on various contemporary and historical account, including pieces in Century Magazine.

Murphy plays Henry Fleming “the Youth,” a Civil War soldier

who must redeem himself in his own eyes after an act of cowardice. When he finally gets his opportunity, he realizes that he is no less frightened than before. But in the long, arduous process, he has learned to deal with his fears and anxieties.

A comparative newcomer to films, Murphy acquits himself honorably in a difficult and challenging role.

Equally impressive are political cartoonist Bill Mauldin as “The Loud Soldier,” John

Dierkes as “The Tall Soldier” and Royal Dano as “The Tattered Man.”

When “Red Badge of Courage tested poorly in preview, the studio sliced it down to 70 minutes and added a narrator (stage and screen actor, James Whitmore) to clarify the more obscure plot passages.

Bronislaus Kaper’s haunting musical score divided critics at the time. Some thought it was more suited to a big gung-ho war picture than an intimate tale of personal fortitude.
Despite tempering, which for some (not me) made the picture like an illustrated Reader’s Digest, there are many touching and brilliant moments.

Viewers were particularly impressed by the sequence in which a commanding officer ingratiatingly lies to his troops for the sake of morale.

Like Orson Welles’ 1942 elegiac epic, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Red Badge of Courage” holds the status of a truncated American classic, a victim of the studio system and its ruthless ideology at their worst. Fortunately, the movie did not damage the future careers of Huston or Murphy.


Directed by John Huston
Written by Stephen Crane, John Huston
Released: March 16, 1951.
DVD: February 4, 2003