Updated: 20 September, 1997
One of America's leading directors who made his name with classics such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) with Humphrey Bogart; and The African Queen (1951) with Katherine Hepburn and Bogart. Son of actor Walter Huston, JH was a child actor, a champion boxer in California in 1920s, a champion horseman in Mexico, a painter, a successful stage actor, a writer and reporter and even a lieutenant in the Mexican cavalry. He worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the early 1930s gaining some success later in the decade. Works as journalist in London and Paris in mid-1930s. His directorial debut was with the classic film noir The Maltese Falcon (1941). Sergeant York (1941) a propaganda movie set in WW1 about a Tennessee religious pacifist (who is also a sharpshooter) who becomes convinced of the justice of the war and becomes the highest decorated soldier of the war.
During WW2 1943-45 JH worked as a filmmaker in the Signal Corps, Army Pictorial Service making documentaries such as The Battle of San Pietro (1945) which was censored because it showed the high casualties suffered by US forces in the battle to take northern Italy and Let there be Light (1945) which showed the psychological injuries sustained by US soldiers in combat. Discharged as Major with Legion of Merit decoration.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the creation of some of his best films The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951) set in Africa during WW1 based upon the C.S. Forster novel. With The Red Badge of Courage (1951) JH became known as an adaptor of literary classics, followed by Moby Dick (1956). In 1947 forms Committee for the First Amendment to defend those persecuted by HUAC. From the mid-1950s his career as a director went into decline but he kept in the public eye as an actor and in the "public ear" with his very disctinctive narrations for TV and documentaries. 1957 an adaptation of Hemingway's WW1 drama A Farewell to Arms.
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Selected Stories, ed. R.W Stallman (New York: Signet, 1970).
It is a paradox that the classic American Civil War novel was written by someone too young to have seen action. To justify his audacity in writing a war novel about a war he had never seen Crane wrote from England about reviews of the book that:
They all insist that I am a veteran of the civil war, whereas the fact is, as you know, I never smelled even the powder of sham battle. I know what the psychologists say, that a fellow can't comprehend a condition that he has never experienced, and I argued that many times with the Professor. Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of the conflict on the football field, or else fighting is a hereditary instinct, and I wrote intuitively; for the Cranes were a family of fighters in the old days, and in the Revolution every member did his duty. But, be that as it may, I endeavoured to express myself in the simplest and most concise way. If I failed, the fault is (not) mine. (Stephen Crane: Stories and Tales, ed. Robert Wooster Stallman (New York: Vintage, 1955), p. xvii quoted in Kaplan "The Spectacle of War"
In The Unwritten War Daniel Aaron argues that there is an anti-war reading of RBC which is not often noted:
The Red Badge of Courage is usually read as a tale of initiation: a youthful hero, after having been overmasterd by fear, regains self-confidence and acquires a juster view of his importance in the cosmos. Less obviously, it is a profane parable against war and against its glorifiers and apologists. (p. 215).
Aaron would point to passages like this one from the novel to support his claim of an "anti-war" reading of the novel:
He said that those tempestuous moments were of the wild mistakes and ravings of a novice who did not comprehend. He had been a mere man railing at a condition, but now he was out of it and could see that it had been very proper and just. It had been necessary for him to swallow swords that he might have a better throat for grapes. Fate had in truth been kind to him; she had stabbed him for his own sake. In his rebellion, he had been very portentous, no doubt, and sincere, and anxious for humanity, but now that he stood safe, with no lack of blood, it was suddenly clear to him that he had been wrong not to kiss the knife and bow to the cudgel. He had foolishly squirmed...
As Fleming was thus fraternizing again with nature, a spectre of reproach came to him. There loomed the dogging memory of the tattered soldier - he who, gored by bullets and faint for blood, had fretted concerning an imagined wound in another: he who had loaned his last of strength and intellect for the tall soldier; he who, blind with weariness and pain, had been deserted in the field.
For an instant a wretched chill of sweat was upon him at the thought that he might be detected in the thing. As he stood persistently before his vision, he gave vent to a sharp cry of irritation and agony. (p. 132)
Taken from Stephen Crane's story of the American Civil War,The Red Badge of Courage (1895) . The "red badge" is the bloodied bandage of his first "battle" injury which thus marks his transition from inexperienced "Youth" into the manhood of the combat veteran.
Set in the Spring of 1862, a group of green Union recruits grows restless while waiting to go into battle and boast about what they would do when under fire for the first time. One of their number (Henry Fleming, but often left unnamed) panics and runs off. He gathers his thoughts, feels shame at his actions, and attempts to rejoin his fellows. In the chaos of battle he is able to rejoin his unit without too many questions being asked. Along the way he comes across a medley of injured, insane and deserting soldiers who make him realise what war is all about.
One critic has written of the film that it was badly cut by the producers in the general conservatism of Cold War America:
John Huston always insisted that this Civil War battle picture examining the fine line between cowardice and bravery could have been his greatest film, and certainly it is among the director's best despite the tampering of studio executives... Huston's direction is vivid in every scene; however, the film's battle sequences are its most impressive element. In more pensive moments RBC is a moving study of Americans fighting Americans, and the reluctance many of them bring to this awful task... Huston left the production immediately after its completion to fly across the world to make "The African Queen", leaving the film in the hands of studio chiefs who cut it as they saw fit, removing much of the director's questioning of the necessity of warfare (unacceptable during the Cold war), adding narration by James Whitmore, and reducing the running time to a scant 69 minutes...(In spite of little popular success) Huston maintained that the movie as he filmed it was one of his favorites, and in the 1970s an attempt was made to revive the uncut version, but to Huston's knowledge a print of his original cut no longer existed and the idea was dropped. (War Movies (Cinebooks, 1989), pp. 126-7).
The Red Badge of Courage (1974) directed by Lee Philips, starring Richard Thomas who also starred in the remake of All Quiet on the Western Front (1978)
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Selected Stories, ed. R.W Stallman (New York: Signet, 1970).
"...the real war will never get in the books": Selections from Writers During the Civil War, ed. Louis P. Masur (Oxford University Press, 1993).
Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1975)
Amy Kaplan, "The Spectacle of War in Crane's Revision of History," in New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Lee Clark Mitchell (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
War Movies: A Guide to more than 500 Films on Videocassette, (Evanston, Illinois: CineBooks, 1989).
1. Huston's borrowing of visual images from Matthew Brady's daguerrotypes of the Civil War.
2. How can someone who had never experienced war write the classic account of America's most devastating and divisive war? Who is best able to write "war stories" - those who were there or those who were not?
3. Why was this film so heavily cut by the producers? Compare The Battle of San Pietro (1945). What in JH's work offended the film and military establishments?
4. The battles scenes of rebel cavalry charges.
5. The behaviour of the officer who rides about talking to his troops on the eve of battle promising them all he will have dinner with them afterwards.
6. The thin line which exists between cowardice and bravery.
7. What makes a man fight? What reasons do the boastful soldiers give? What reason does the soldier give? Compare the Vietnam Vet Tim O'Brien's claim that he fought to avoid shame and embarrassment in the eyes of his family, community and fellow soldiers.
8. The presence of the USA's most decorated WW2 soldier Audie Murphy as the soldier. Reputed to have killed or captured 240 German soldiers. Won Congressional Medal of Honour and 27 other decorations (inlcuding 3 Purple Hearts). After WW2 became western and war movie star, including a "re-enactment" of his own war experiences To Hell and Back (1955). Who is best able to portray a soldier on the screen - an ex-soldier like Murphy, an actor who has undergone some "basic training" as in Oliver Stone's Platoon, or just a regular actor? As Jeanine Basinger notes:
... bringing a true-life hero back from the war, making a movie actor out of him, and casting him as himself in his own story is a significant meshing for "those who fought" and "those who watched the fight as a narrative event." Murphy, it appears, is stepping into his own role to ennoble the stories we have seen by his very real and honest presence. The stories will be retold, amalgamated, unified, and made true by his participation. (p. 175).
9. The conversations the soldier has with the mad, injured soldier in the wilderness.
10. The difficulties of making a pro-war film out of a possibly anti-war story. The problems of making any reflective film about war during another period of conflict (the Korean War). The clash between the story, the intention of the director, the hero leading actor, and the demands of the contemporary audience.
11. Is this a film/novel about the Civil War (where are the references to the political, intellectual or even military context of war, e.g. slavery, Lincoln, secession)? Much more general concern with abstract question of the nature of war, its impact on those who fight, nature of heroism, coping with stress of battle, meaning of mass killing.
12. The idea of the "rite of passage" of a young man to adulthood or manhood, tested by fear (gains a head wound which is his "red badge of courage"), overcomes fear, returns with sounder view of himself and the cause for which he fights. Film opens with pages of book being turned with voice-over comparing the transformation of a boy into a man and the states of the union into a Nation.
13. The blurring of western and war movie, especially by using Audie Murphy. As Basinger observes:
The most interesting connections are all visual ones, when an audience knows it has seen the action in another context. Characters ford rivers, and they take churches. If they are wearing cowboy hats, it's a Western, but if they wear helmets, it's a combat film. (p. 176)
14. Made during the Korean War - another "civil war" between North and South.
15. The many images of the flag and the sounds of patriotic music (drums, bugle, "John Brown's Body" - "Battle Hymn of the Republic").