The Red Badge of Courage starring Audie Murphy—a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie.

The Privates’ War—Making The Red Badge Of Courage
By Henry C. Parke

It’s surprising that Stephen Crane was born in 1871, six years after the Civil War’s end, because his novel, The Red Badge of Courage, seems so clearly the work of someone who was there. Published in 1895, thirty years after Lee’s surrender, countless veterans from both sides and of later wars have remarked on Crane’s ability to recreate the sense of being in mortal combat. It is the enduring legacy of an author who tragically didn’t live to see 30.

It is the story of a young soldier who worries if, when the time comes, he will fight or run. And it was a story that John Huston wanted to film. Having served in the Signal Corps during World War II, making Military Documentaries, he’d since won Oscars for writing and directing Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He had just made The Asphalt Jungle, had a start date for The African Queen, and planned to make Red Badge in between.

He told New Yorker reporter Lillian Ross, “I don’t even know whether I’m going to make the picture… I’ve got the Red Badge script OK’d… [but] we can’t make this picture unless we have 600 Confederate uniforms and 600 Union uniforms. And the studio is just not making those uniforms for us. I’m beginning to think they don’t want the picture!”

Surprisingly, filming Red Badge involved not one but two wars: the War Between the States, and the War Between Moguls Louis B. Mayer and Dore Schary. Head of production since the studio’s creation in 1924, Mayer had ruled MGM with an iron fist, and made it truly the Tiffany of studios. MGM screenwriter Schary shared an Oscar for Boys’ Town, moved to Selznick Studios, became Head of Production at R.K.O., and at Mayer’s (soon-to-be-regretted) invitation, returned to MGM in 1948 as Superintendent of Production. Schary wanted to make the picture, and Mayer did not. Schary had to concede that the film would lack almost all of the elements of Mayer’s winning formula. Schary told Ross, “This picture has no women. This picture has no love story. This picture has no single incident. This is a period picture. The story—well, there’s no story in this picture. It’s just the story of a boy. It’s the story of a coward. Well, it’s the story of a hero.”

Mayer’s opinion? “I wouldn’t make that picture with (despised rival) Sam Goldwyn’s money.” But Nicholas Schenck, President of MGM’s parent company, Loew’s Inc., was the ultimate boss, and he said, “Yes.”

The studio wanted big stars—Van Johnson as the lead, The Youth—but Huston wanted Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the war. He’d acted before, playing Billy the Kid and Jesse James in undistinguished Westerns, but he’d never done any serious acting. For the second lead, The Loud Soldier, Huston wanted someone who’d never acted at all: Bill Mauldin, whose ‘Willie and Joe’ cartoons, showcasing the miserable day-to-day life of combat infantrymen like himself, won him two Pulitzers. Murphy was 26, Mauldin was 29, but they both looked 16, and had been through the hell of war that their characters were facing. Murphy had the expression of a lost child, Mauldin the expression of an imp. They were perfect.

The rest of the cast was excellent. For The Tattered Man, Huston selected Royal Dano, a heartbroken skeleton of a man who would appear tragically in countless Westerns. For The Tall Soldier, Huston chose towering, gaunt John Dierkes, whom he’d met in London during the War. His first film role was in Orson Welles’ Macbeth; and he’d make an indelible impression as a villain in Shane.

Among the wonderful faces in the ranks were William Schallert, before becoming Patty Duke’s TV father; three-time Frankenstein Glenn Strange, who would play Sam on Gunsmoke; and blond, gangly Robert Easton, whose skill with accents would earn him the moniker of Hollywood’s Henry Higgins. The best-known actor was Andy Devine, who played The Cheery Soldier, who reunites the Youth with his unit, a part Huston said he’d written for his late father, Walter Huston. Son Dennis Devine recalls that Huston, complaining about his low budget, had the gall to add, “You know, Walter would have understood and taken less money.”

Money was tight: the budget was $1,434,789. Locations changed with the budget. Originally planned for Leesburg, Virginia, it was shifted to the less expensive Nashville, and finally, incredibly, to Huston’s own 480-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley, where Huston was delighted to direct from horseback. There’s a memorable scene with soldiers crossing a river holding their rifles over their heads. MGM wanted to shoot it on a brook on the ranch that a man could jump across, but Huston fought, and eventually shot it on the Sacramento River.

They also saved by shooting in black-and-white. Oscar-winning cinematographer Harold Rosson made the movie look like Mathew Brady’s famous Civil War photographs.

This was a movie about privates, not battles: you never learn what battle was being portrayed, or its significance. In one of Huston’s favorite sequences, a wounded man decides to die alone on a hill. In his autobiography, Huston wrote that moments later, The Tattered Man “…walks in circles, then drops to his knees. He, too, is mortally wounded and doesn’t know it. The scene is an anticlimax, as in the novel, but all the more shocking for being unexpected. It was, in fact, too shocking. It backfired. It was during this scene, beautifully acted by Royal Dano, that the preview audience started to walk out.”

Huston was already in Africa shooting his next picture when MGM took scissors to Red Badge. Ultimately, the film ran a paltry 63 minutes, too short to release as anything but a second feature. But they did not butcher the film. It is a remarkable, beautiful movie full of intensely realistic performances, and it perfectly captures the spirit of the book.

It was truly a film ahead of its time.

Huston noted, “Today, Red Badge is always mentioned as one of my best films.” Sadly, we’ll never see the full version. In the 1970s, asked if he had a complete copy to release in its original form, he admitted, “It doesn’t exist.” For the rest of his career, Huston had a stipulation in his contracts, “that I receive a 16mm print of the first cut of any film I made.”

Ironically, Mayer was vindicated: the movie did not make money. However, Schary won both the battle and the war; within the year, Mayer was pressured out of the studio he’d built, and replaced by Schary.

About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, will be published by TwoDot in February 2024. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, has been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.