Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: 1951’s ‘The Red Badge of Courage’

A portrait of hesitancy and heroism in war
BY Ian Kane TIMEJuly 31, 2022 PRINT

Passed | 1h 9min | Drama, War | 1951

Compared to World War II and the Vietnam War, equally important conflicts such as the American Civil War (1861–65) aren’t covered as much—at least in the realm of cinema. But back in 1951, visionary director John Huston made a film about a detachment of young Civil War soldiers: “The Red Badge of Courage.”

It’s a raw, unflinching film that is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Harold Rosson, and features some excellent performances by both its main and supporting cast. The film is based on author Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel of the same name.

The film opens during the spring of 1862 as a regiment of the Union Army is performing drills in an encampment near the Rappahannock River in Virginia. A young soldier named Tom Wilson (Bill Mauldin) discovers that the entire regiment might be planning to move out the next day in order to ambush “some Rebs.”

Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy) is writing a letter to his parents when Wilson excitedly enters his tent to share the news of the purported battle. Immediately, it becomes clear by Fleming’s expression that he isn’t exactly thrilled about going into battle.

Fleming even asks another older soldier, Jim Conklin (John Dierkes), if he thinks any men from their regiment will turn and run as deserters when the fighting starts. Conklin ultimately tells Fleming that he’ll stay and fight just as long as most of their fellow soldiers “stand and fight.”

Union soldiers, the youth, and the tall one
Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy, L) talks to friend Jim Conklin (John Dierkes) about their upcoming battle, in “The Red Badge of Courage.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

That night while patrolling the fringes of his regiment’s encampment, Fleming comes to a beautiful swirling river sparkling in the moonlight. A Confederate soldier on the other side of the river warns Fleming that he’s an easy target standing in the moonlight and to turn back to his encampment, lest he gets a “red badge” (bloody wound) before the expected battle has even started. Fleming quickly obliges and backs away.

The next morning, after the regiment has finished performing some drills, Fleming expresses his growing contempt for the seemingly endless drills, as he walks with Conklin. Fleming tells Conklin that he wants to rush into battle and smell gun smoke. But when news arrives that the regiment is indeed going into battle a little later, Fleming again looks less than enthused.

When the regiment finally enters their first major battle with the Confederate regiment that they planned to attack, Fleming loses his nerve and flees. But as his friend Wilson later tells him, since the battle was so chaotic, nobody noticed Fleming’s desertion.

two civil War Union soldiers
Tom Wilson (Bill Mauldin, L) with Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy), in “The Red Badge of Courage.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

However, Fleming now believes himself to be somewhat of a coward, and much of the rest of the film is about him redeeming himself and becoming a man.

Two Who Served Our Country

Ironically, real-life World War II combat hero Audie Murphy plays Fleming, a man struggling to conquer his cowardice. Murphy does an outstanding job conveying the conflicting emotions of his character, which oscillate between fear and courage. It was also a pleasure to watch Bill Mauldin as Tom Wilson, Fleming’s steadfast friend.

Audie_Murphy with his medals
Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War II. (Public Domain)

Interestingly, Mauldin also served in World War II. But instead of fighting in combat, he supported overall American troop morale as a top editorial cartoonist and creator of the wildly popular “Willie and Joe” comic strip.

Unfortunately, due to an internal power struggle at MGM, “The Red Badge of Courage” was cut down from its original two hours to a mere 69 minutes. But that doesn’t seem to have impacted this fascinating film about hesitancy and eventual heroism in the face of war. Perhaps its brevity has helped it become distilled into a more visceral cinematic experience.

a scene from Red Badge of Courage 1951
A scene from “The Red Badge of Courage.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

‘The Red Badge of Courage’
Director: John Huston
Starring: Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, Douglas Dick
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 9 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 11, 1951
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
You May Also Like