A superb war movie. Also, a very good coming-of-age story; helped, no doubt by its adaptation from Stephen Crane’s classic novel. Rarely does a movie put you in its milieu so seamlessly and carefully–this is the Civil War, this is 1862. The drill, the camps, the men–with their various gear, their vernacular, the weaponry, leadership, tactics, etc, is all very authentic. Yes, the landscape is full of oaks and dried-out grasses instead of the greener pine woods of the East, but it’s nonetheless appropriately remote and rural. The cast fits together wonderfully, the wide-eyed Henry (Audie Murphy) and buddy Tom (Bill Mauldin) working through the hellish mixture of bravado and fear engendered by war.
The supporting cast in no less amazing; particularly John Dierkes as the grizzled veteran Jim Conklin. His stalwart, even nonchalant nature is torn apart once he’s fatally wounded; his macabre death scene is tragic and horrifying. Both younger guys, shaken by the death all around, flee in the wake of their first engagement. Henry’s eventual return follows on Jim’s death; he’s stunned by the incomprehensible fact that even Jim can die. As a result, Henry almost freezes up; once reunited with Tom and the regiment he works out his stress by seemingly becoming a different person. His subsequent fearlessness is a bit overdone, but it not only shows the redemptive value of his suffering, it also sets up some key scenes. The iconic image of him holding both flags, the victorious Federal flag upright, the Confederate one on its side over the wounded ‘Reb’, sums up both his personal triumph and the larger cause.
This symbolic gesture culminates the pageantry begun with the bugler’s and drummer’s exhortations at the beginning of the next battle. Then it’s the Lieutenant (Douglas Dick) having his own sort of epiphany. He chews out Henry for advancing recklessly, but once Henry’s back in the line, the Lieutenant is ecstatic. Even the General (Tim Durant) can’t help whooping it up when things go right. Ironically, as the danger level increases with each successive engagement, the officers and men loosen up bit by bit. The Lieutenant’s role is crucial; as he’s the most visible authority figure. He always seems to know how to act and how to deal with the men. Nonetheless, he no superman. He falls asleep against a tree, utterly exhausted; yet has the foresight to not completely relax his guard by lying down. Plus, of course, he’s wounded, but that doesn’t seem to bother him much.
The ending is rather abrupt; probably a victim of the extensive cutting process. Still, it works, and is fittingly understated. Henry has come full circle. The bird’s singing, instead of a sort of beguiling reminder that the innocent, unspoiled world is far away, actually brings him contentment. He’s at peace with who he is, so he fits back into the world. Ironically, the “cool brooks” and other comforting images aren’t going to minimize the war’s danger, but he can live with that for now.
It’s been said that the movie’s plot lacks coherence; that’s true, but I think it’s intentional. Though the setting is clearly meant to be part of the Peninsular Campaign of 1862, the book is fictional; it’s not concerned with particular historical battles. It seems the author’s (and filmmaker’s) intent was an impressionistic view of war. The ‘fog of war’ is even more palpable the further back we go in history. The only means of communication in the remote locations portrayed were either in person, or by dispatch rider. Assuming that the messenger was able get through, the situation might’ve already changed so that the message became irrelevant. Maps were often hand-drawn and highly inaccurate. If all of that wasn’t enough, even if a commander received an accurate message/order in a timely fashion, he still had to implement the decision. Often the commander couldn’t see the whole battlefield, allowing more confusion in controlling the action. As a result, battles tended to just happen–with the two sides stumbling into each other. The battle could take on a life of its own, often against the wishes of the opposing commanders. All of these intangibles are accurately shown in The Red Badge of Courage.
Since this is as much about Henry as about the war itself, the war’s ‘fog’ also mirrors the subjective, disjointed nature of Henry’s psychological development. The line of wounded soldiers, notable for the scarecrow-like Tattered Man (Royal Dano), is a nightmarish scene that Hawthorne or Poe might’ve appreciated. For all the action, there’s plenty of quieter, even eerie scenes and moments.
I agree with many that the narration was too much. It’s fine at the very beginning and at the very end, especially to tie the movie with the book, but otherwise we see and hear just what we need. It’s been said that this is an anti-war movie; I would say it’s apolitical. The grudging respect the two sides have for each other, especially in caring for each other’s wounded, shows a deeper comradeship once the fighting stops or pauses. On the other hand, there’s a good deal of devotion to duty shown. To the extent that there is a plot, it’s about Henry returning to duty, and, in doing so, learning a lot about himself. That’s not the same as saying that he agrees with the purpose of the war, merely that he agrees to play his part in it. The simple answer is that he can’t let his guys down and live with himself.
This is much more impressive as a straight Civil War movie than the very fancy Gettysburg from the ’90s. The Red Badge of Courage has guys with actual beards using period-correct phrasing and slang instead of guys with Halloween whiskers giving formal speeches every five minutes. It doesn’t show paved roads, or thousands of re-enactors standing around watching some isolated sparring, etc.; in short, despite not being filmed on location, The Red Badge of Courage is much more realistic. Highly recommended for war movie buffs, as well as those who enjoy Crane’s novel. 9/10.