To Hell and Back
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Actors and other performers often play themselves in cameo film roles, but only rarely does one get to star in a story about his or her own life. A small handful come to mind - Ann Jillian's 1988 TV movie about her battle with cancer, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali aka Cassius Clay in The Greatest (1977). It was only natural, however, that Audie Murphy should play himself on screen. The most decorated soldier in the history of the U.S. military, Murphy had also become an action star after being invited to Hollywood by James Cagney at the end of World War II. He already had 15 films under his belt by the time Universal Studios decided to put his 1949 autobiography on screen. The story follows the orphaned son of Texas share croppers as he joins the Army at 18 and becomes an unexpected hero in the war in Europe.
The movie almost didn't happen. Although he approved of the film project, Murphy was reluctant to portray himself (he preferred Tony Curtis), worrying that the public might think he was merely boosting his career by trading on his war hero status (as if that status hadn't helped get him the career in the first place). More important, however, Murphy's intent in telling his story was not to glorify only himself but all infantrymen who fought and died for their country under horrible circumstances. But under pressure from the studio and old friends, he put aside his fears of "self-eulogizing" and his concern that he was too close to the material to portray it well and agreed to it.
Murphy was concerned about every detail of the shoot. He advised set painters how to color the sides of a shell crater to correctly capture the look of a fresh artillery blast; he inspected the uniforms of both U.S. and German soldiers for accuracy; and he worked with special effects technicians to be sure the battles were as authentic to his true-life experience as possible.
Nevertheless, he was not satisfied with the final product. He dismissed it as a "Western in uniform" and confided to a close friend that the filmmakers had "missed by a mile." Among the issues he had with it was what he considered a cleaning up of the war conditions; where the battle of Anzio was fought in the mud and rain and Colmar Pocket was all snow and bitter cold, the film placed them in relatively sunny terrain (the movie was shot in Washington State). Cleaned up, too, was what one Universal executive had noted was a book filled with "bloody, graphic incidents" revealing "mostly hate, frustration, horror, futile courage and terror." The executive concluded his analysis by urging the addition of some warmth, humor and "a more encouraging conclusion." That conclusion was the one point Murphy most objected to. His autobiography stopped short of his being awarded the Medal of Honor and two dozen other French and U.S. military decorations. But the producers (quite rightly, it turned out) reasoned audiences would want to see that moment.
The picture proved to be a huge box office hit and Universal's highest-grossing release until Jaws (1975). Despite the star's dissatisfaction, critics praised his work in the film, placing it on a par with his performance in John Huston's film of Stephen Crane's Civil War drama The Red Badge of Courage (1951).
Perhaps what weighed more heavily on Murphy than any considerations of artistry or self-aggrandizement was his own turbulent personality. Filming such scenes as the death of his mother and those of his closest war comrades took an emotional toll, and at one point during a battle recreation he became disoriented and caught up in what he thought was the real war all over again. All of this contributed to his already dark, moody nature. Murphy suffered from what was then called "battle fatigue" and what we know today as "post-traumatic stress disorder." Later in life he worked to make the government and the public aware of the debilitating effects of this syndrome on soldiers.
Other than a couple of interesting performances as Burt Lancaster's hotheaded younger brother in The Unforgiven (1960) and in the somewhat sanitized adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1958), Murphy's career never again quite hit the high of To Hell and Back. He was offered the role of the villain in Dirty Harry (1971), but he was killed in a private plane crash before the picture went into production. Audie Murphy was buried with the highest military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, but true to his self-effacing nature, he requested that his tombstone remain plain and inconspicuous, unlike those of other Medal of Honor winners, which are decorated in gold leaf.
Director: Jesse Hibbs
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Screenplay: Gil Doud, based on the autobiography by Audie Murphy
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Editing: Edward Curtiss
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Robert Clatworthy
Original Music: Henry Mancini
Cast: Audie Murphy (Himself), Marshall Thompson (Johnson), Susan Kohner (Maria), Jack Kelly (Kerrigan), David Janssen (Lt. Lee).
C-107m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon