Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reading and Watching: The Red Badge of Courage

Work is not only the toad that squats on my life, it's also the professional wrestler who's got me in a headlock and is making me smell his rancid pits day in and day out. Still, it's hard to keep a good bookworm down. I managed to pop my head out for a few hours and teamed up the book and movie versions of The Red Badge of Courage.

Red Badge the book manages to be both brilliant and annoying. I'll do annoying first: Why bother to give the characters names then not use them? Why refer to them as the Youth, the Loud Soldier, the Tattered Man and the Tall Soldier after we've already been introduced to most of them by name? Also confusing is that Wilson, the Loud Soldier becomes the Quiet Soldier after their first battle then finally, the youth's friend.
The griping about names is akin to nitpicking. I'm ready to do brilliant now: I'm truly stunned that Stephen Crane never saw a day of battle and yet so perfectly rendered it onto the page. According to various sources I've seen, he interviewed countless Civil War veterans thirty years after the fact, so he must have either had a rare gift as a journalist or had some outstanding interviews. Perhaps both.

Equally stunning is that he was only 22 when he wrote the book. I don't know whether to be more impressed with his amazing psychological insights or his incredible gift for imagery. Crane, who was also a poet, lays on the imagery pretty thick and sometimes it seems as if he's flinging it against the wall to see what will stick, but this technique often produced some starkly wonderful results:

The battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.

Here's the one that has launched a million term papers:

The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer.

For the seriousness of its subject, The Red Badge of Courage has some flashes of humor as well. Here's the young lieutenant, rebuking his men for too much gabbing and not enough marching:

"There's too much chin music and too little fightin' in this war anyhow."

Once in the heat of attack, the lieutenant has to urge his unseasoned regiment on:

The men stared with blank and yokel-like eyes at him. He was obliged to halt and retrace his steps. He stood then with his back to the enemy and delivered gigantic curses into the faces of the men. His body vibrated from the weight and force of his imprecations. And he could string oaths with the facility of a maiden who strings beads.

As the novel draws to a close, Crane lapses into Biblical cadence to describe Henry's/the youth's coming-of-age, his transformation from coward to heroic flag-bearer:

So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquility, and it was as if hot plowshares were not. Scars faded as flowers.

Then it was time for the 1951 John Huston movie, starring Audie Murphy. It's also annoying and brilliant. Apparently, the film was chopped down from a conventional length to a measly 69 minutes. Then, this horribly obnoxious and intrusive narration by James Whitmore was added. Every time the youth (played by WWII war hero Audie Murphy) goes off alone with what's meant to be a thoughtful look, the narration blares in again as if the audience can't be trusted to figure things out.
Even worse, when Whitmore begins narrating at the beginning of the film, he delivers some cornball lines (over the image of a picture of a clean-shaven Crane) about how Crane was a boy when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage and how its publication made him a man. Then he starchily announces (warns?) that there will be more narration throughout the movie. Awkward, cringeworthy stuff.
One last picky bit: the characters serve up Crane's dialogue faithfully, but the lines are set off by little pauses, and don't touch other lines of dialogue -- kind of like those really fancy restaurants where the food is all tidily arranged upon presentation.

There were things about the movie I appreciated. Huston's direction and the great camera work by Harold Rosson keep the film moving along nicely. Murphy is supported by some terrific character actors like Royal Dano, Robert Easton Burke, John Dierkes and Arthur Hunnicutt -- their faces are recognizable from countless Westerns. Rosson comes in for repeated close-ups of the men's weary and weathered faces, but it always feels respectful and genuine. Furthermore, it adds back in a rich layer that the narration stripped away. Bill Mauldin, a WWII cartoonist (who has a face that begs to be caricatured as well) performs admirably in an inspired piece of casting as the Loud/Quiet/Friend Soldier.

I'm curious to see how the 1970's TV movie starring Richard Thomas as the youth compares with this version. I can totally see John-Boy as Henry Fleming.

As for more books by Stephen Crane, I'm hoping to find a copy of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, his first novel.


Heather J. said...

I tried listening to the audio book of this over the summer since my husband says he loved it in high school. I just couldn't get into it! And honestly, after reading some of the quotes you included, I really don't want to try it again. I think I'll have to resign myself to the fact that this book and I were not meant to get along. :)

jenclair said...

The first time I read it, I didn't care for it. After that, the second and third readings (when I was older) gave me so much to think about!

SFP said...

I probably ought to reread this since I absolutely detested it in high school.

Whether or not I do, I've always liked Stephen Crane's poems.

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Bybee said...

Even if it didn't work out for you, thanks so much for giving me the idea to do this as a book/movie event.

I skimmed/read it for my American Novel class back in the 1980s and didn't really care for it. I liked it much better this time.

I've always liked Crane's poetry, too. Which part of his writing do you think he would've developed the most if he had lived at least 30 more years?

softdrink said...

I'm sorry the toad is squatting on your life (he gets around, that toad), but that is a brilliant analogy.

Bybee said...

I should have given credit to Philip Larkin for the toad analogy.

Care said...

This post is terrific! I would nominate it for BBAW best post ever!

Anonymous said...

The narration is by both Spencer Tracy and Jame Whitmore, who waqs added when Tracy was not available.