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The opening title cards reads: "Stephen Crane's Great Novel of the Civil War The Red Badge of Courage." The end credits differ from the opening cast credits, which are listed as follows: Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, Douglas Dick, Royal Dano, Arthur Hunnicutt and Tim Durant. The end credits, which are in a different order and include added cast names, are presented with moving images of the principle cast, with their names and roles superimposed. The actor billed onscreen as Robert Easton Burke was more commonly known as Robert Easton. This was the only feature film in which he was used the name Burke.
Prior to the start of the action, a picture of author Stephen Crane, with his name printed below, is shown. After the photograph appears, the following words are spoken by the narrator, actor James Whitmore: "The Red Badge of Courage was written by Stephen Crane in 1894. From the moment it was published, it was accepted by critics and public alike, as a classic story of war,..." Whitmore provides intermittent narration throughout the film. The text of the narration was taken directly from Crane's novel, as was much of the film's dialogue. When the film ends, the book's final page is shown and Whitman recites the penultimate line of the novel, "tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks-an existence of soft and eternal peace-".
Crane's novel, which was serialized in the Philadelphia Press (3 December-8 December 1894), was his second, and was written when the author was twenty-four years old. As noted in the film's narration, it was highly praised by contemporary critics. Its reputation as one of the greatest American novels has continued and it is often cited as the first modern war novel. The released film is close to the novel in style and content. Some critics have speculated that the novel's central battle is based on Chancellorsville (1863), but no specific battle is named, either in the book or the film.
News items, feature articles, reviews and press releases reveal the following information about the production: On August 29, 1947, a news item in Los Angeles Times reported that Michael Kraike and Monte Brice were going to produce a film adaptation of Crane's novel, with a script by Robert D. Andrews, but that production apparently did not advance beyond initial planning. Audie Murphy, who portrayed "The Youth," the central character of the story, was the most decorated soldier of World War II prior to becoming an actor. Although Murphy had appeared in several earlier films, The Red Badge of Courage was his most important film to date, and considered by some modern critics to have been his best. Some contemporary reviewers pointed out the irony of the famous war hero portraying a young man grappling with worries of personal courage. Murphy received good notices for the film, including the Time magazine review, which praised his "boyishly eloquent" performance. Although some modern sources indicate that Montgomery Cliff was considered for the film's lead, in his autobiography, director John Huston indicated that Murphy was his only serious candidate, partially because of a rapport that existed between the two men, who both had been greatly affected by their own experiences during the war. Bill Mauldin, "The Loud Soldier," was a Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II cartoonist for the U.S. Army magazine Stars and Stripes. Mauldin, who had made his motion picture debut in M-G-M's Teresa, released a few weeks prior to The Red Badge of Courage, provided cartoon sketches of the production to accompany a feature article on the film in Life.
Portions of the film, which had no interior scenes, were shot in Chico, CA. Additional location shooting took place in Southern California on Huston's Calabasas ranch and on an adjacent ranch that belonged to director Clarence Brown. Various news items recounted that the production was utilizing a new technique called "leapfrog" directing. According to reports, the method required director Andrew Marton to set up a scene until Huston was ready to take over. As soon as Huston began direction of one scene, Marton would then immediately go on to set up the next. Although the process was intended to reduce a proposed eighty-day shoot to forty, thus saving money, the production ultimately ran about $50,000 over its proposed $1,500,000 budget.
Writer Lillian Ross wrote a series of four lengthy articles on the film's production. Ross, who became a lifelong friend of Huston's, wrote what was considered to be the most significant production history of any film to that time. Her articles, which appeared in The New Yorker from 24 May to June 14, 1952, were published in book form later in 1952, and was reprinted in book form with a foreword by Huston's daughter Anjelica in 1993. Much of the information that has been included in modern sources about the production was based on the essays written by Ross. In her articles, which included extensive interviews with the filmmakers, Ross offers a detailed history of the troubled production: After producer Gottfried Reinhardt proposed a screen adaptation of Crane's novel to Huston, they were given enthusiastic support by M-G-M production chief Dore Schary. At the same time, M-G-M studio head Louis B. Mayer opposed the project, feeling that it was not an interesting story and would not be successful. In Huston's autobiography, and in documentaries on his career, he stated that he offered to drop the project when Mayer voiced strong reservations, but Mayer told him to "fight for it" if he really wanted to make it. Throughout the pre-production and filming of The Red Badge of Courage, relations between Mayer and Schary, which had been strained since Schary assumed his position at the studio in 1948, became increasingly hostile. Ultimately, Nicholas Schenck, chairman of M-G-M's parent company, Loew's Inc., sided with Schary, and Mayer was forced to resign from the studio in June 1951.
Both Huston and Reinhardt, as reported by Ross and in Huston's autobiography, wanted to maintain the lyricism of Crane's book and stay as close as possible to the original text. According to modern sources, Huston had originally wanted author Norman Mailer to write the screenplay. Huston and Albert Band, credited onscreen with "Adaptation," but acknowledged in several contemporary sources as Huston's production assistant, both wanted the film to emulate the look of actual photographs taken by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. In modern interviews, Band has claimed that both he and Huston wrote versions of the screenplay but that Huston preferred, and used, most of what Band had written.
The completed film ran more than 130 minutes and received numerous highly negative response cards from audiences members at previews held in February 1951. Huston stated in his autobiography and elsewhere that the audiences started leaving one hour after the picture began. As recounted in Ross's articles, Schary, Reinhardt and Huston were shocked by the reaction. Prior to the public previews, a private screening of the film was held and the filmmakers had been told by industry friends that the film was excellent. Huston was quoted in the Ross articles as saying that director William Wyler, who was usually highly critical, told Huston that the picture was "wonderful," and one of the greatest pictures he had ever seen.
Shortly after the public preview, Huston left to begin pre-production in Europe on his next film, The African Queen, and left final editing of The Red Badge of Courage to Reinhardt and Schary. Although Schary initially maintained that the film did not need significant changes, eventually, with the assistance of veteran M-G-M film editor Margaret Booth, Schary cut the picture to 69 minutes by removing several sequences, including the death of "The Tattered Man." In addition to removing considerable footage, Schary decided to add the narration that was spoken by Whitmore and to use an actual copy of the book as a framing device in the opening and ending credits.
Although the film had some excellent notices, it did not do well at the box office. When Ross's articles ran in The New Yorker, the studio hoped to capitalize on them by re-releasing the film in spring 1952, but it still failed to garner the public's attention. According to a September 23, 1952 news item in Hollywood Reporter, the film became the basis of a motion picture analysis course at New York University, for which Huston himself was a guest lecturer. Many modern sources have called the film one of Huston's best and Huston himself stated that it was his personal favorite among his own films. A television adaptation of Crane's novel was made in 1974, starring Richard Thomas.