“The Red Badge of Courage” from 1951

Past | 1h 9min | Drama, War | 1951

Compared to World War II and the Vietnam War, equally important conflicts such as the American Civil War (1861-1865) are not covered as much, at least in the realm of cinema. But in 1951, visionary director John Huston made a film about a detachment of young Civil War soldiers: “The Red Badge of Courage.”

It’s a raw, unflinching film that’s shot beautifully by cinematographer Harold Rosson and features excellent performances from its lead and supporting cast. The film is based on the 1895 novel of the same name by author Stephen Crane.

The film opens in the spring of 1862 as a Union Army regiment drills at an encampment near the Rappahannock River in Virginia. A young soldier named

Tom Wilson (Bill Mauldin) discovers that the whole regiment may be planning to leave the next day in order to ambush “some Rebs”.

Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy) writes a letter to his parents when Wilson excitedly enters his tent to share the news of the alleged battle. Immediately, it becomes clear by Fleming’s expression that he isn’t exactly thrilled to go into battle.

Fleming even asks another older soldier, Jim Conklin (John Dierkes), if he thinks any men in their regiment will turn and flee as deserters when the fighting begins. Conklin eventually tells Fleming that he will stay and fight as long as most of their fellow soldiers “stand and fight”.

Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy, L) talks to his friend Jim Conklin (John Dierkes) about their upcoming battle, in ‘The Red Badge of Courage’. (MGM)

That night, while patrolling the outskirts of his regiment’s encampment, Fleming comes across a beautiful swirling river that glistens in the moonlight. A Confederate soldier across the river warns Fleming that he is an easy target in the moonlight and must return to his camp lest he receive a “red badge” (bloody wound) even before the planned battle has begun. Fleming quickly obliges and backs off.

The next morning, after the regiment had finished performing a few drills, Fleming expressed his growing contempt for the seemingly endless drills, as he marched with Conklin. Fleming tells Conklin he wants to rush into battle and smell the gun smoke. But when news arrives that the regiment will indeed be fighting a little later, Fleming again looks less enthusiastic.

When the regiment finally enters its first major battle with the Confederate regiment it planned to attack, Fleming loses his temper and flees. But as his friend Wilson would later tell him, the battle being so chaotic, no one noticed Fleming’s desertion.

two Civil War Union soldiers
Tom Wilson (Bill Mauldin, L) with Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy), in “The Red Badge of Courage”. (MGM)

However, Fleming now believes himself to be a bit of a coward, and much of the rest of the film is about him redeeming himself and becoming a man.

Two who have served our country

Ironically, real WWII combat hero Audie Murphy plays Fleming, a man struggling to overcome his cowardice. Murphy does a remarkable job of conveying his character’s conflicting emotions, which oscillate between fear and courage. It was also a pleasure to see Bill Mauldin as Tom Wilson, Fleming’s lifelong friend.

Audie_Murphy with his medals
Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II. (Public domain)

Interestingly, Mauldin also served in World War II. But instead of fighting in combat, he supported the general morale of American troops as a leading editorial cartoonist and creator of the wildly popular “Willie and Joe” comic strip.

Unfortunately, due to an internal power struggle at MGM, “The Red Badge of Courage” has been cut from its original two hours to just 69 minutes. But that doesn’t seem to have impacted this riveting film about hesitation and eventual heroism in the face of war. Perhaps its brevity helped shape it into a more visceral cinematic experience.

a scene from Red Badge of Courage 1951
A scene from “The Red Badge of Courage”. (MGM)

“The Red Badge of Courage”
Director: John Houston
With: Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, Douglas Dick
Duration: 1 hour, 9 minutes
Release date: October 11, 1951
Rated: 4 out of 5 stars

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