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With the first half of the 20th Century receding ever more into what is commonly regarded as the distant past, it becomes more difficult to impress anyone born after 1970 with the fact that movie star Audie Murphy (1924-1971) was the most decorated combat soldier of World War II. The son of a Texas sharecropper who abandoned his wife and twelve children, Audie Leon Murphy was still a teenager at the time of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Turned away from active service due to his age, Murphy falsified his identification papers to ensure that he would see action with the Army's 15th Regiment/Third Division (after first having been turned away by both the Marines and the Navy). During his twenty four month tour in Africa and Europe, Murphy was credited with over two hundred enemy kills, rising through the ranks during that time to the level of second lieutenant. Wounded several times in combat, Murphy earned every possible medal awardable by the United States military (as well as several foreign honors), and grew an inch and a half in height. Featured on the cover of the July 16, 1945 issue of Life magazine, Murphy was discharged from active service the following month. Actor James Cagney had seen his Life cover story and encouraged the photogenic war hero to come to Los Angeles and try his luck in Tinsel Town as a film actor.
Murphy's fortunes had been better in the European Theater of Operations than they would be as a Hollywood hopeful. Even with his wartime memoirs, To Hell and Back, charting as a New York Times best seller, Murphy had to make do at first with bit parts in inconsequential features. He played a copy boy in William Castle's minor crime film Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven and a West Point cadet in John Farrow's courtroom drama Beyond Glory (both 1948) before winning his first starring role. His portrayal of an angry juvenile delinquent (more misunderstood than malicious) remanded to a summer camp detention center in Kurt Neumann's Bad Boy (1949) won Murphy a Universal contract. The future cowboy star made his first western, again under the direction of Kurt Neumann, as William "Billy the Kid" Bonney in The Kid from Texas (1950). That same year, he was Jesse James in Kansas Raiders (opposite a young Tony Curtis) and Wild Bunch founder Bill Doolin in The Cimarron Kid (1952) for director Budd Boetticher. Murphy's highest profile role at the time was as the star of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951). Based on the novel by Stephen Crane, the adaptation fell victim to a regime change at MGM and was recut by studio head Dore Schary while Huston was preparing The African Queen (1951). Even trimmed to 69 minutes (Huston's preferred cut is presumed lost) and rife with studio-imposed continuity errors, the film represented a quantum leap for Audie Murphy in terms of his perception within the film community as a leading man of weight and worth.
Murphy appeared as himself in Universal-International's adaptation of To Hell and Back (1955), a role for which he had suggested Tony Curtis (despite the fact that Curtis had been his rival for the attentions of actress Wanda Hendrix, Murphy's first wife). That film's success allowed Murphy more latitude in choosing roles: as a suspected Yankee spy in Indochina in Joseph Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958), as a villainous gunslinger in Jack Arnold's No Name on the Bullet (1959) and as a principled Indian agent in Walk the Proud Land (1956), directed by To Hell and Back helmer Jesse Hibbs. Based on the exploits of John Philip Clum (1851-1932), the Arizona government's advisor to the San Carlos Apache Indian reservation, the film depicts Clum's attempts to deal fairly with the long-abused aboriginals and to bring renegade chieftain Geronimo (Long Ranger costar Jay Silverheels) off the warpath. Despite being nearly a decade older than the 23 year-old Clum was at the time, Murphy proved a good fit for the historical personality, one of the few Wild West figures to be well-regarded by both whites and Native Americans. An associate and friend of Wyatt Earp, the one-time Mayor of Tombstone appears as a supporting character in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Hour of the Gun (1967), Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), among other films, often played by actors more than twice Clum's actual age.
The Universal-International production had originated with Clum's biography, Apache Agent: The Story of John P. Clum (Houghton-Mifflin, 1936), written by Woodworth Clum from his father's unpublished reminiscences. The studio retained a shortened version of the book's title as the Technicolor/CinemaScope production got underway shortly before Thanksgiving 1955 in and around Tucson, Arizona. Cast opposite Murphy, as John P. Clum's Eastern fiance and the Apache widow gifted to the Indian agent by a grateful Apache chieftain, were rising starlets Piper Laurie and Anne Bancroft. Bancroft had just come off of the Psychotronic double-header of the 3D circus thriller Gorilla at Large (1954) and the Biblical sub-epic Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Delmer Daves' follow-up to The Robe (1953). Signed at 17 by Universal, Piper Laurie had been groomed by the studio for a career as a sexless ingnue but the Detroit-born actress had other ideas. Despite a weekly salary of $2,000, Laurie grew frustrated with eye candy roles in such fluff as Francis Goes to the Races (1951) and Son of Ali Baba (1952) and refused the assignment in Walk the Proud Land, purportedly throwing the Gil Doud-Jack Sher screenplay into her fireplace. While Laurie headed to New York to study with the Actor's Studio, her role was passed to Pat Crowley. Another Hollywood hopeful, David Janssen (who had played a small role in To Hell and Back), tested for a supporting role in the film in October of 1956 but Walk the Proud Land was not among the six features in which he appeared that year.
Audience response was disappointing at the time of the September 1956 opening. As The Red Badge of Courage had suffered at the box office for putting Murphy in the shoes of a timorous wartime virgin, so Walk the Proud Land alienated the actor's fans by depicting him not as a gunfighter but a peaceable humanitarian whose greatest act of courage lies in not fighting. Critical reaction was equally cool, with The New York Times denigrating the "drowsy" script and Murphy's "somnambulant expression of a boyish counselor making his rounds at day camp." Contemporary film scholars have been kinder, recognizing the film's groundbreaking bid to humanize the American Indian.
The project's failure queered the deal for Murphy's dream project, a biopic of frontier painter Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), but he remained at Universal-International for another decade while accepting the occasional outside assignment. A longtime victim of what is now known as posttraumatic stress disorder, Murphy battled depression and violent outbursts and spent his final years as an advocate for US veterans. While on a business trip in May 1971, Murphy perished along with five other passengers and pilot Herman Butler in the crash of a chartered airplane in the Jefferson National Forest, near the Virginia town of Galax. He was 46 years old.
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Jesse Hibbs
Screenplay: Gil Doud, Jack Sher; Woodworth Clum (biography)
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Bill Newberry
Music: William Lava, Hans J. Salter (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Sherman Todd
Cast: Audie Murphy (John Philip Clum), Anne Bancroft (Tianay), Pat Crowley (Mary Dennison), Charles Drake (Tom Sweeny), Tommy Rall (Taglito), Robert Warwick (Chief Eskiminzin), Jay Silverheels (Geronimo), Eugene Mazzola (Tono), Anthony Caruso (Disalin), Victor Millan (Santos), Ainslie Pryor (Capt. Larsen), Eugene Iglesias (Chato), Morris Ankrum (Gen. Wade), Addison Richards (Gov. Safford).
by Richard Harland Smith
The Films and Career of Audie Murphy: America's Real Hero by Sue Gossett (Empire Publishing, 1996)
Audie Murphy: Now Showing by Sue Gossett (Empire Publishing, 1996)
Savages and Saints: The Changing Image of American Indians in Westerns by Bob Herzberg (McFarland & Co., 2008)
"Veterans Remember Hero: Actor Audie Murphy was killed in 1971 when an airplane flew into the side of Brush Mountain" by Tim Thornton, The Roanoke Times, November 11, 2004.