On the eve of battle, union soldier Henry is so scared that he is on the verge of tears. He feels “alone in space”, removed from the other soldiers and envious of what he perceives to be their resolute strength. However, he hears an ominous warning on the cusp of battle drifting in from the lake, warning him of the “little red badge”; "don’t get one pinned on you”, the voice intones. It’s as if the earth sees the horrors of war unadorned, where as men can trick themselves into placing such grave importance on a token. In a war where victory is not immediately attainable or obvious to the soldiers, they latch on to a goal that is tangible. In this case, a “red badge” is a war injury, and it signifies to others that the holder has faced the violence of war head on. Conversely, failure to carry the badge likely means that one is a coward who has avoided battle. After all, if you are a soldier marching side by side with other soldiers through many a battle, it follows that you are going to be shot at some point. This proves too much for Henry to bear, so he quickly flees to the woods when the fighting starts, wandering lost in shame as the gunfire and smoke waft over the trees.
After the battle, the soldiers march in unison, previously a scattered collection of souls. They march in victory, seemingly celebrating their bullet wounds more than the victory of battle. One soldier sings “Glory Glory Hallelujah” forcefully, and the score follows suit, but the melody becomes a slow lament that dies to a crawl. Jim becomes overcome with horror as he feels death imminent, so he breaks away from the path and lies down in a nearby field to die. Henry sees this askew parade of heroes and becomes envious of their “red badges”. Luckily for him, he is soon hit in the head with the butt of a gun during a tussle. He finally has his badge, and can convincingly fall in line instead of continuing to wander as a coward. He hobbles back to the regiment and claims that he was shot in the head, and is quickly accepted back, as “he had performed his mistakes in the dark.”
Henry finally musters up a deep reserve of courage, but ironically only after he has already earned his badge (and a false one at that). He has a second chance to prove his worth, heroically leading a charge, even saving the union flag from the hands of a fallen soldier to keep it waving out in front of the regiment. He also ends up grabbing the rebel flag from the dying hands of an opposing soldier, a sad emblem confirming victory. Maybe it has dawned on Henry that the only thing separating him from the dying rebel soldier are the differing patterns on the tattered flags they carry. Henry soon confesses his cowardice, his false “red badge”, and a weight is lifted off of his shoulders; the burden of courage. He learns that many of the other soldiers also fled in fear at the moment of truth just as he did. He realizes that he was wrong when he thought himself the only coward in the regiment. Like Henry, the other soldiers were merely human.
The film was cut to ribbons before its release, shorn of 20 odd minutes, which supposedly included the death of “The Tattered Man” (Royal Dano). The gaps are bridged with voiceover, appropriately utilizing the haunting and poetic words of Stephen Crane, but inappropriately voiced. It awkwardly bridges deleted footage and also pedantically reinforces what we can easily see onscreen. Huston develops visual metaphors for the fear and alienation of Henry, taking an interior monologue and making it cinematic. Henry (Audie Murphy) is often filmed in close up facing the camera, with the other characters in deep focus behind him. He is facing away from the others in shame, trying to hide, but, unbeknownst to him, the camera is capturing the emotion of his face. The geography between the two battling units is blurred and chaotic, and the soldiers are often filmed as separate people littering a landscape rather than as a structured unit. When the battle is over, the camera focuses in on the faces of men from both sides as they get to know each other; faces instead of battalions. The film doesn’t document a group of men functioning as a war machine, or the good guys versus the bad guys, but individual human beings thrust into an insane world where a bullet wound is considered the pinnacle of achievement.