An Interview With John Huston

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I never made anything so thoroughly disliked. The first time the picture was previewed, people walked out, not just in twos and threes but by the score. They left at the parts I considered most important. Remember the death of the Tattered Soldier? He is walking in circles, then just sits down and dies. Audiences just couldn’t take it. I think it was almost unfair to put it on them. This was one of life’s darker moments for me. Before the picture was released I had to go to Africa to make The African Queen . I thought the Red Badge was safe, since I left it with two men who had championed it all along, Wolfgang Reinhardt and Dore Schary. But the studio decided the audience hadn’t been sufficiently aware that they were watching a masterpiece. They had to be told. So they changed my opening. I had shot a little scene for the opener, before the titles, where The Youth is standing sentry by the trees across the river. A Southern-accented voice calls out, “Would you mind stepping out of the moonlight and into the shadows, Yank, or I’ll have to pin one of those red badges on you. ” This was dropped. Instead they had the picture open with a copy of the book, with the title and “by Stephen Crane” so that the audience would appreciate that something serious, you know, important , was coming up. And they added a narration, too, that I hadn’t wanted. They cut a 135-minute picture to 69 minutes. And it still failed. I don’t blame the studio for its concern. I can understand their wanting to avoid an utter, ghastly failure. I believe that any picture, particularly an innovative picture, should pay for itself. If it doesn’t, other innovators who follow you have to suffer. They aren’t going to be given the opportunity to innovate. Still, I think The Red Badge was a good picture the way it was done originally. It’s interesting, almost twenty-five years later, I got a cable from Metro wanting to know if by chance I had a print of the original. Of course I didn’t. It’s gone forever.

 
 

In the late 1940’s you, William Wyler, and Philip Dunne formed the Committee for the First Amendment to combat the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was dubbed a Communist front, and the columnist Frank Conniff even described you as the brains of the Communist party in the West. How did you react?

It just disgusted me. Here people were being persecuted for their beliefs, and nobody was coming to their defense. I felt ashamed of Americans. I saw the thing that was coming and I wanted to cut it dead.

You were at one time vice president of the Screen Directors Guild. Did you know Ronald Reagan, the president of the Screen Actors Guild?

Yes. As a matter of fact, Willy Wyler and I went to him urging that he have his guild take a position on this anti-Communist hysteria. He refused. From that moment on I had very little use for him politically. I should say none.

You gave up your U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of Ireland, no doubt for practical reasons. Was that a difficult decision?

At about that time I had gone to Africa to make The African Queen . Then I went to Paris to shoot Moulin Rouge . I felt no burning desire to come back to the United States. It had temporarily ceased to be my country, so I didn’t mind staying abroad. The anti-Communist lunacy of the period also influenced me to move to Ireland. I found out what they thought of Joe McCarthy. And it was a low opinion of him and what he was doing. That made me even fonder of those people.

You have described yourself as a Jeffersonian Democrat. What does that mean to you?

I’m against dictatorship in any form. And I believe in the principles of decentralized government, not as interpreted by Ronald Reagan but as interpreted by Franklin D. Roosevelt. I have never felt so well about our society as when FDR was in the driver’s seat. I never believed what his enemies said about his assuming the prerogatives of a monarch. I’ll go even further than saying I am a Jeffersonian Democrat. Down deeper, I am an anarchist. Theoretically, doesn’t every right-thinking person desire a society so virtuous that no laws are required? But that’s nonsense, isn’t it?

Is authenticity of locale essential to a film? You’ve been willing to pay a stiff price and to exact a stiff price from your performers to get just the right ambiance. Katharine Hepburn was plagued by dysentery while shooting The African Queen in the Congo. Your crew required nearly a thousand doctor calls in Chad where you shot The Roots of Heaven. Eddie Albert even went delirious.

I don’t expect when I go into those situations that it’s going to be an ordeal. Yes, people got ill on The African Queen . The irony is that we had brought in bottled water to head off trouble, and it turned out to be contaminated. I don’t know if it was required that we make the picture in the darkest heart of the darkest part of Africa. I suppose I was yielding to the romantic impulse within myself. Every day was a joy. This is one of the few experiences in life I could live over again.