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The Red Badge of Courage

by Cynthia Tintorri
November 15, 2011

On November 12, 2011, a screening of the classic Civil War film The Red Badge of Courage was shown at Northampton Community College - Monroe. The screening and discussion, made possible by an NEH grant, were one of the first events to begin the year-long series The Civil War: The Meaning of Freedom as part of its "History and Hollywood" programming.

Based on the novel by Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage stars real-life war hero Audie Murphy  as a Civil War soldier who must redeem himself in his own eyes after an act of cowardice. When he finally gets his opportunity, he realizes that he is no less frightened than before -- it is only that he has learned to push on in spite of his fear.

NCC English professor Jim Von Schilling introduced the film with a brief biography of Audie Murphy. Murphy rose to national fame as the most decorated U.S. combat soldier of World War II, and was only 21 when the war ended in 1945. Among his 33 awards and decorations is the Medal of Honor.

After seeing him on the cover of Life magazine, actor James Cagney brought Murphy to Hollywood, where his career intersected with that of legendary director John Huston. Huston, who insisted over the protests of studio executives that Murphy play the lead role in The Red Badge of Courage, "treated him like a son during the filming," Von Schilling explained. The movie contains one of Murphy's finest performances in a career that included roles in 44 movies.

"Murphy had what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), then called battle fatigue or shell shock, and actually lost it during filming of the scene where he was accused of being a coward," Von Schilling said.

In initial screenings of the film, industry professionals called The Red Badge of Courage Huston's best movie, and one of the best war films ever made. Von Schilling explained that, at the time of the film's theatrical release in February 1951, "the Korean War had just taken a turn for the worse. World War II had ended only six years before. A traumatized American public didn't want to see a realistic war movie. Audiences hated The Red Badge of Courage, and the studio panicked."

Huston was out of the country filming The African Queen, "so the studio producer edited it himself, taking out over half the movie," Von Schilling said. "The original is gone, so we'll never see the actual movie Huston made."

The pared-down movie -- only 69 minutes long -- slowly became more popular and is now considered a classic for its depiction of the psychological aspects of war.

"Murphy continued to suffer from PTSD, and had nightmares, insomnia, pill addiction and depression," Von Schilling said, "but he became an advocate for veterans' counseling before dying at the age of 46 in a plane crash."

After the film, there was a brief discussion of the psychological trauma of war, whether in close-up warfare as in the Civil War, or in the missile and drone combat of modern-day battle.

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