Stephen Crane and Audie Murphy

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Stephen CraneStephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1871. He wrote his second and most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, at the age of 24 and died of tuberculosis four years later.

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The Red Badge of Courage is a fictional account of a young man who joins the Union Army during the Civil War and the things he goes through in his first couple of days of battle. Although it’s written in the third person, the reader sees everything through the eyes of its protagonist, Henry Fleming. One of the most striking things about the story is that Crane had had no experience in combat so his descriptions were based on things he had read or were told to him by others. In spite of that apparent disadvantage and the fact that the historical events he wrote about had taken place before he was born, the book was an instant success, viewed by many as a particularly realistic view of war; and it’s gone on to take a permanent place in the literature of the United States and to become a staple of high school reading lists.

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Audie MurphyAudie Murphy was born in rural Texas in 1925 and wrote his only book in 1949, like Crane at the age of 24. It’s a memoir called To Hell and Back and describes his experiences as a very young (he joined the army at the age of 17 by lying about his age) soldier in World War II. After the war Murphy became a movie actor and appeared in 43 films before he died in the crash of a private plane at the age of 45.

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To Hell and Back covers the period from Murphy’s first combat experience in Sicily in 1943 through his subsequent sojourn through Italy, France and Germany to the end of the war. In contrast with Crane, he did see a lot of fighting before he wrote his account of it, although “a lot” falls short of describing what the man actually went through. He won every military award an American soldier can be given, including the Medal of Honor, along with several citations from France. Audie Murphy in fact wound up with more decorations than any other U.S. soldier.

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Given the similarity in the subject matter of the two books and the ages of their authors when they wrote them, making a comparison is hard to resist, with the experiences that the writers were able to draw on being one of the main things that adds interest to the effort. As an additional point of parallelism, both books were turned into movies, and Audie Murphy wound up playing himself in To Hell and Back only four years after he’d portrayed Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage. Those of us who have seen both movies are left with a mental image of the same man going through the rigors of two different wars separated by an interval of 80 years.

The Red Badge of Courage 1To Hell and Back 1

Of the two books, it’s Crane’s that’s come to be regarded as a classic. It’s certainly the more literary in style, alternating soldiers’ conversations with extended accounts of Fleming’s thoughts. The author tries to lend realism to the dialogue by incorporating local dialects, but the offbeat spelling he uses probably does more to make the reader puzzle over the words than it lends authenticity to them. The conversations are of a sort writers like to construct (and school teachers admire) in order to get certain points across, but it’s rather different from the way people actually speak. Artificial dialogue needn’t be thought of as a defect, of course – take Hamlet’s soliloquy on the one hand or the banality of most conversation on the other – but it isn’t the best choice for a work whose aim is to make the reader feel he’s eavesdropping on actual events. In any case the staginess of the conversations isn’t as damaging to Crane’s purpose as the rest of his prose. The descriptive passages are too florid (A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hill.), but at least they tend to be brief. It’s the way Fleming’s thoughts get put into words that constitutes the book’s biggest weakness, especially given the amount of space devoted to those thoughts. They range over a lot of things, from the protagonist’s exasperation with what’s going on around him, his lack of control over those events and his doubts about the responses he’s made, filtered through rationalizations he’s come up with to justify what he’s done. Early on he discovers that the war he’s engaged in falls short of more noble conflicts he’s read about, and as he goes on to new experiences he’s made to confront the kind of suffering and dying that military actions really entail. In spite of these disillusionments and perhaps reflecting Crane’s own attitude toward the Civil War, Fleming continues to accept the purposefulness of the fight he’s caught up in as well as the part he plays in it, to the extent that at the end of the novel he still regards risking one’s life on the battlefield as a commendable act rather than a foolish one. In any case it’s not so much the content of his introspections as the way they’re phrased that wears down the reader’s patience. The ruminations go on too long first of all, but they’re also shot through with adjectives and images of a sort that would only occur in the mind of a novelist and his literary creations: The clouds were tinged an earthlike yellow in the sunrays and in the shadow were a sorry blue. The flag was sometimes eaten and lost in this mass of vapor, but more often it projected, sun-touched, resplendent. In working your way through that kind of verbiage you inevitably find yourself sneaking a look ahead in hopes of coming to a stretch of narration that will actually advance whatever thread of plot happens to be in progress.

The Red Badge of Courage 2To Hell and Back 2

When John Huston decided to put Crane’s book on the screen, he seems to have adopted much the same goal that Stephen Crane had set himself – to bring his audience as close as he could to the feelings a young recruit would have in his first experiences of war. In line with this intention, he chose a combat veteran, Audie Murphy, to play the lead, and Bill Mauldin, an army journalist without acting experience but who’d participated in some of the same campaigns as Murphy, as his chief supporting actor. The film crew did its part by staging the battle scenes effectively, and the actors chipped in as well. Nevertheless the overall effect fell short of what it might have been, mainly due to the defects of the script’s source. Huston chose to produce a more literal version of this material than of most other things he’d adapted to film, taking images, events and a lot of the dialogue right out of Crane’s text. Artificial dialogue survives the printed page better than it does the screen though, and the conversational scenes wound up coming across as stagy. Having had the sense to allow Fleming’s thoughts to be expressed in dialogue and action rather by a superimposed voice, Huston proceeded to make the curious blunder of undermining whatever realism he’d managed to achieve in some of the scenes by having an unseen narrator declaim passages of overripe text in the background.

The Red Badge of Courage 3To Hell and Back 3

The style of Murphy’s book is different from Crane’s. Events are related in a straightforward way and introspection is kept to a minimum. There are descriptive passages, but by and large they’re in simple words with few adjectives. The book is dominated by conversations. Weary, ironic and cynical, these exchanges lend distinctiveness to the individuals who engage in them and bring the men to life in a way no amount of description could have accomplished.   If Murphy was drawing on dialogue he’d actually heard, it’s amazing the degree to which he was able to reproduce as well as he did the content and style of interchanges he’d been exposed to five years earlier. To the extent that the author allows his own thoughts to emerge, it’s mainly in these conversations with his companions. Like Crane’s surrogate, Fleming, Murphy seems never to have questioned the purpose or impacts of the war he was involved in. He differs from Fleming in the single-mindedness of his commitment to what he views as his main objective: to kill as many of the enemy as he can. His dedication to that goal is tempered only by his willingness to stay within the rules of war and his loyalty to the group of men that fight alongside him. The book’s straightforward approach allows the tragedies and losses that Murphy encounters to hit the reader with more impact than they would’ve had if the author had relied on a more elaborate style. If you want to find out what combat’s like, read To Hell and Back.

The Red Badge of Courage 4To Hell and Back 4

John Huston took a book he admired and brought it to the screen in order to make some points about war and the effects it’s likely to have on kids who get drawn into it naively. I happen to think his effort fell short of the goal he’d set himself, but I respect the seriousness of the attempt he made. On the other hand the movie version of To Hell and Back turned out to be a slickly produced combat epic. Action and drama it has, but the only thing it’ll tell you about war is how the movie industry of the United States managed to turn the most devastating conflict in human history into a collection of conventionalized incidents in which ordinary joes from Brooklyn and Texas come together to take Europe back from the Nazis. Audie, they let you down.

A final note of a personal sort: in spite of the enormous differences that separate me in all sorts of ways from Audie Murphy and the relatively less drastic ones that separate me from Stephen Crane, of the two men it’s Murphy whose company I would have sought.

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7 thoughts on “Stephen Crane and Audie Murphy

  1. Pingback: Stephen Crane and Audie Murphy | That’s what I’d like to know – Audie Murphy Appreciation

  2. I just happened to read this and found it very interesting, with a more nuanced reflection on war than one usually expects to find, and a very effective and sympathetic conclusion.

    I didn’t really see a comment on Audie Murphy’s acting in either film. Playing oneself seems especially difficult and he did it pretty unselfconsciously in “To Hell and Back.” I do think Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage” falls very short of one might hope it would be, but contrary to conventional wisdom, I actually believe that’s true of most of his literary adaptations. However, Murphy was inspired casting and very good–Huston is one director who really appreciated the underrated actor Murphy was and later elicited one of his very best performances in “The Unforgiven” (1960).

    Hope maybe you see this comment made long after your piece was written, just to know I enjoyed it.

    • Concerning Audie Murphy: I admired his book and found him engaging as an actor in all the movies he made, although the scripts of a lot of those westerns were less than inspired. “Seven Ways from Sundown” was one of my favorites.

      In the relatively few parts he got in films of another nature, his presence was generally a plus, and I agree with your assessment of the supporting part he did in one of Huston’s good ones, “The Unforgiven”.

      Despite finding the movie version of “To Hell and Back” routine, I thought Audie was fine playing himself and he did a good job as Fleming in “Red Badge”. (Political-cartoonist-to-be Bill Mauldin as his buddy was also an interesting choice.) And Audie brought an appropriate quality of naive likability to the character he did in “Quiet Amerrican” as well, quirky as that film was in a lot of ways.

      In any case thanks much for the thoughtful comment.

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