The story behind the making of this Civil War movie is far more interesting than the movie itself. We see Audie Murphy take on the role of Henry Fleming, a Union soldier in the Civil War who is desperately afraid of combat. Murphy is painted as a coward as he runs away from battle, but returns with a newly galvanized bloodlust for confederates. He valiantly charges into battle with his rifle raised high, proving to his comrades and himself that courage flows through his veins, not cowardice.
It’s fairly standard war movie stuff, not incredible but not terrible, an astutely-made film that doesn’t reach greatness on any level. But it’s also only 69 minutes long, nearly short film status but just long enough to be qualified a feature. Director John Huston had a two-hour cut of the movie available, but MGM forced him to trim it down based on poor test screenings. According to Huston and those familiar with the production, that original version was a modern masterpiece.
And that makes watching “The Red Badge of Courage” such an invigorating experience. Not for the plot or performances, but just for imagining what more this movie could have been, what possibly is missing that would have elevated it to legendary status. It feels like visiting Mount Rushmore after an earthquake, where the structure is in place but all the faces have been fractured and unrecognizable, and you try to remember or even imagine what the sculpture once looked like based on the incompleteness sitting in front of you.
We know the north won the war, and we know in this movie that Henry helped out. But what we so desperately want to discover, but never will, is what happened in-between.