Thursday, January 19, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.4: John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up is 1951’s The Red Badge of Courage.
Grade: 61 (B-)
In nearly every great director’s career, there’s a point where a highly ambitious, deeply personal project is taken away from them and mercilessly hacked to bits by the studio. With Ridley Scott, it was Blade Runner. With Orson Welles, it was The Magnificent Ambersons (among others). With Sergio Leone, it was Once Upon a Time in America. With John Huston, it was The Red Badge of Courage. Some of these directors (Leone, Scott) found a way to restore their original vision. Others (Welles, Huston) had less luck. Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage was an innovative, non-jingoistic, deeply felt war movie that he believed had the potential to be his greatest film. It didn’t quite get there.
18-year-old Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy) is a soldier fighting for the Union in the American Civil War. His regiment is on its way to a major battle. It is unlikely that many of them will survive. The men are all understandably afraid, but Fleming is gripped with a fear so great that he deserts in the middle of battle. Deeply ashamed of his actions, he wanders the land, running into wounded and dying soldiers along the way. He eventually finds his old regiment, ready to rejoin battle and face down the Rebels.
Huston always said that casting was the biggest part of his directing, and as always, he picks his actors well, populating the Northern Army with talented character actors such as Royal Dano, Andy Devine, and John Dierkes. These men all look worn down by conflict and fear. Bill Mauldin is especially good as Fleming’s friend Wilson, another young man coming to terms with the likelihood of his death. Murphy, a famous World War II hero, was famously small in stature (less than five feet tall) and at 27 looks like a young teenager. It’s perfect casting: the man looks as inexperienced and youthful as the character requires, yet the actor has the knowledge and life experience to accurately portray a man in the middle of war.
Fleming is a new sort of outsider in a Huston film: rather than a jaded Humphrey Bogart or Sterling Hayden (from  1950’s The Asphalt Jungle), he’s a boy in a man’s world, forced too early to grow up. It’s a theme explored in some of the best war films (Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan/War Horse), but what’s remarkable is that Huston does it using very little dialogue. Murphy’s expressiveness says more than his nervous conversations with the other men, and the film’s best stretches are often wordless scenes as he wanders, full of fright, dripping with sweat. Fleming comes of age during battle, but how long his maturity will last is uncertain: the film ends with his regiment marching off to yet another battle. The brief peace that comes with the singing birds won’t stay long.
Huston once famously said that if he ever made a pro-war film, he’d deserve to be shot . Red Badge is anything but a pro-war film; Huston took the intensity of the footage he shot for his Battle of San Pietro documentary and added a morally ambiguous noir element to the proceedings. The precise framing isolates Murphy from the other characters, even as he’s only a few inches away from them. He plainly doesn’t belong there, and this fact is highlighted in any conversation Murphy has with another man, not to mention a scene in which Murphy watches in horror as a group of soldiers harass a local woman. The battles are smoky, ugly, and chaotic, and their consequences are real: we’re not at Saving Private Ryan levels, but the wounded are visibly shaken and tattered, while the real locations (and what glorious locations they are) are torn apart by gunfire and explosions. The suggestion that this war, however necessary, isn’t as glorious as most films portray it, sets Huston apart from other directors of his time. Hell, the Southern soldiers aren’t even bad people; captured soldiers have friendly, animated conversations with the Northerners. It’s deeply sad to see good men – nay, countrymen- kill each other.

It’s all brilliantly constructed, but the emotionally resonant scenes all feel a bit disconnected, the pacing is jerky, and the film ultimately feels thin. None of this falls at Huston’s feet: the studio took his eighty-eight minute cut after test screenings proved unpopular and released a butchered sixty-nine minute cut. With most directors, re-cutting a film against their will is a poor decision; with Huston, it’s insane. Only nineteen minutes were cut, but their absence is felt. Huston said again and again that he rarely, if ever, shot a scene that he didn’t feel was absolutely essential to the final product. nineteen minutes might not seem like much, but few directors were able to pack so much content into so little time and come out with rich results. Worse, the studio added in terrible, expository-but-not-really narration taken directly from the novel. No doubt edifying in its original context, it’s unneeded and unwanted here. Huston and Murphy fought to no avail; Murphy wasn’t a big star, and Huston was too busy prepping The African Queen. It’s unlikely the lost footage (including one scene Huston considered particularly essential) will ever resurface. The result is one of the great might-have-beens.


January has been a bit busier than I'd expected, this series started later than I'd expected, and getting ahold of certain Huston films has been difficult. Given the limited time to finish this project, certain Huston films have been eliminated due to lack of time to find them: The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Fat City are unfortunately all out.

Also out: The Asphalt Jungle, a film I firmly believe to be one of Huston's very best, but I haven't seen it in some time and I can't get ahold of it. Since going from memory isn't going to do the film justice, it's an unfortunate casualty, one filled with great performances (Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe, an early role for Marilyn Monroe) and technique (it's a great noir and the granddaddy of all heist movies).

Here's the tentative schedule, barring any further cancellations:

January 20: The African Queen
January 21: Beat the Devil
January 22: Moby Dick
January 23: The Misfits
January 24: The Bible...In the Beginning
January 25: The Mackintosh Man
January 26: The Man Who Would Be King
January 27: Wise Blood
January 28: Annie
January 29: Under the Volcano
January 30: Prizzi's Honor
January 31: The Dead

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