We delve back into the war section of the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book, and the next big title there, is John Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s novel, that follows a young, Union soldier, Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy) also known as The Youth, as he struggles with his fear, and the horror of war, as he tries to summon up the courage to fight in the battle he finds himself in.
Audie Murphy, himself, was one of the most decorated US soldiers during World War II, and those terrible times comes through in his performance.
Running a bare 69 minutes, apparently it was cut and chopped by MGM, ruining much of what Huston wanted to convey, but its essence remains. There is an added narration, excerpts from the original novel to give the film a cohesiveness, as Fleming goes through training, drilling, and finally is plunged into the terror of combat.
We get a brief look at life in the Union camp, even as Fleming tries to confront his own worries about what he’ll be able to do when the fighting begins, those around him, admit to fear, even while they talk brave in front of the rest of the army.
The fear and tension grows as the army draws closer to the Confederate forces, with Fleming the face of the everyman as he wrestles with his thoughts, and his duty.
Shot in glorious black and white, Fleming and his compatriot are brought to life, realistically, and without the glorification of violence. When Fleming runs, and returns to his troop, he sees countless injured and admits he is envious, wishing he had a wound, a red badge of courage to show his bravery, instead of his self-perceived cowardice.
When he fakes a wound and returns to his fellow soldiers, they seem different, no longer the go-getters they were, changed by the things they’ve experienced, where Fleming remains idealistic, almost foolish about the concept of bravery and war, and races heading into danger.
Huston has created a poignant, albeit far too short film about the trials and tribulations of war, as evidenced through the eyes of one man, but also the way the fires of battle change and unite and Murphy turns in a fine, and layered performance. It’s no surprise that he went on to fairly healthy success in Hollywood.
It would have been interesting to see the film Huston had originally intended as opposed to the one that the studio recut, but even this version works as an anti-war statement, even as it celebrates the triumph of the Union over the Confederacy.
I’ve never read the original book, though I remember seeing it in my school’s library as a kid, perhaps now, I should track it down and give it a read.