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Friday, May 20, 2011

THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951)

At a mere 68 minutes (about twenty minutes shy of its original cut), John Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic is more sketch than fully formed work, but it’s a great sketch. As two soldiers-in-blue rookies, real-life war hero Audie Murphy & war journalist/cartoonist Bill Mauldin are unexpectedly fine leading a no-star cast of off-beat supporting actors thru the drills, marches & battles that make up Crane’s quick-step coming-of-age character piece. Working from his own script, Huston is inspired, as is lenser Hal Rosson who finds a visual touchstone in Matthew Brady’s period photography without making a fetish of it. Few Civil War films feel closer to the source, perhaps only D. W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION/’15 and Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL/’27. In particular, Huston’s use of landscape in the big battle scenes, with serried ranks in long shot, cutting thru dales & rolling over hillocks before breaking out in a charge, show the long influential arm of Griffith at his finest. But the more intimate scenes, with close-up action & awkward camera set-ups seemingly ‘caught’ on the run, benefit enormously from lessons Huston learned on the battlefield, shooting and assembling his documentary footage during the devastating Italian campaign of WWII. The film bursts with memorable moments, but a death away from the battlefield and a meeting between North & South right at the end stand out. And what of the missing two reels? Alas, no directors' cuts back in the day. Studio execs knew enough to keep history from second-guessing them.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Lillian Ross's PICTURE, the original behind-the-scenes-tell-all-Hollywood book, artfully spills the true tortured history of this film with novelistic sweep.

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