A bad film is disappointing. An average film with the potential to be great is even worse.
Viewers who have never read the classic Stephen Crane novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) or Lillian Ross’s book Picture (1952) may be spared the sinking feeling the rest of us may feel upon watching John Huston’s MGM film The Red Badge of Courage (1951). The film clearly does not measure up to the great war films of the period, but it’s not terrible, either. It’s the kind of film that might make such uninitiated viewers, when the lights go up in the movie theater, turn to their friends with a shrug and say, “It was O.K.”
But for the rest of us, we can’t un-read Crane’s beautifully imperfect novel. We can’t un-read Ross’s mesmerizing first-person account of watching The Red Badge of Courage fall apart before her eyes. And we can’t help but grieve a little for the film that is, and the film that might have been.
The film began with the finest of pedigrees. Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage remains one of the great works of war literature, and for good reason, though the slim novel’s stream-of-consciousness style narration and intense focus on a period of a few days in a young soldier’s life feels counter-intuitive at first. Where’s the epic theater of war, the months spent on the battlefield, the brave “everyman” protagonist through which the entire meaning of war is projected? Not here. Our protagonist is Henry Fleming, mostly referred to as the Youth, a painfully green Yankee soldier who acts cowardly and cruelly when confronted with his own fear and the pain of those around him. Our time and place is a few days during which the Youth fights in his first battle – a battle in which he and his regiment ultimately play a helpful role but that is not even won or lost by the novel’s end. Crane does not attempt to convey the entirety of the Civil War or even the entirety of the Youth. Instead, he offers a snapshot of the everyday mental struggle that must get carried out in any young man forced to confront his own failings in one of the most hellish situations on Earth.
As such, Crane’s work succeeds admirably. The Youth’s anguish over his own bravery begs each reader’s introspection: “Would I run away from battle?” Though at times the Youth’s selfishness is irritating and his concerns become repetitive, Crane’s narration remains honest, and the Youth’s ultimate change of heart is realistic. The journey may not be a long one, but it is deep and feels needed among a canon of war novels that take for granted the courage of their soldier protagonists.
Yet the aspects of introspection and mental turmoil that make Crane’s work so affecting are the same that ultimately led to the near complete failure of Huston’s film adaptation, as documented by Ross in Picture. Ross’s work here is formidable in its detail, brutal honesty and knack for turning every person mentioned into a full-bodied character who is more intriguing than half those portrayed on the silver screen. Through Ross’s almost unbelievable access to director Huston, producer Gottfried Reinhardt, and MGM executives including Louis B. Mayer, the saga of turning Crane’s work into a movie becomes one of literature versus film, art versus profit, director versus executive.
Ross’s interviews and correspondence she obtains among the various players reveal the basic problem facing Huston and Reinhardt: how to portray the Youth’s thoughts, which make up over half the novel, on film, and how to turn the somewhat thin plot into a Hollywood-style narrative. In the beginning, because Huston and Reinhardt are confident, so are we. Huston’s verve and Reinhardt’s practicality combine to create a first cut of the film that they are proud of and that other executives and team members praise as moving, incredible, even great. How we wish we could see that film.
It is not to be. The film gets chipped away, motivated by poor previews and executives worried that the film is too artistic and meandering for average audiences to appreciate. In the end, Ross describes a version of The Red Badge of Courage that is ostensibly saved from being a total flop but left a shadow of its brief glory as a piece of art that Huston at one point called “the greatest film” he’d ever made. Still, because Ross has painted the long-suffering Reinhardt and dynamic Huston with such rich, sympathetic strokes, it is possible to maintain the belief that the final film must be good. After everything its creators went through, it simply has to be.
Only after watching the film can one have a true appreciation for Ross’s perceptive and accurate storytelling. The Red Badge of Courage is, amazingly, exactly as Ross had described it all along. The editing and various narrative devices – completed, changed, and then changed again with such dogged determination – have exactly the effect we now know the executives and Reinhardt wanted, from the opening narration explaining that the film is based on a great work of literature to the obvious cuts made to create a more coherent narrative. Watching the film, you finally understand what made The Red Badge of Courage so difficult to film and edit, and the intention behind each choice is obvious.
However, even more poignant is the realization that MGM destroyed the film in its attempt to cure an illness that probably never existed. Picture allows us to understand the executives’ thought process, but it also reveals how little the finished product resembles the ambitious film it was meant to be. The Red Badge of Courage reeks of the unhappy fact that the studio chose to be average and safe over truly great. The film has no passion, no desire to challenge its viewers, and any sense of innovation has been wiped out. Flashes of brilliance still remain, making the experience all the more frustrating; the Tall Soldier’s death, for example, is just as startling and memorable as Reinhardt and Huston always said it was, and visual effects add to the film’s realism. The film’s most affecting scenes come directly from the novel, but most of it feels truncated and rushed. In the end, MGM’s The Red Badge of Courage fails not only to live up to its source material, but also Ross’s account of the drama behind its creation. Both stories could make better movies than the one we have.
Of course, we’ll never know if a version of The Red Badge of Courage that stuck to Crane’s novel, warts and all, would really have been as terrible as Mayer and the other executives at MGM said it would be, or if that first cut really was as good as Reinhardt and Huston thought. But there’s something admirable about a film that wants to be great and strives to get there, despite the risk. Even if it had failed, it would have been in pursuit of something noble, and for that reason would have been something to be proud of. Instead, The Red Badge of Courage can only hope to be remembered as the great film it never was.