TO HELL AND BACK—Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier of WW2, the baby-faced Texan who was too puny to get into the Marines, Navy or paratroops, plays himself in this 1955 adaptation of his book chronicling his horrendous and heroic experience as an Army ‘dogface’ in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany.*
The 1949 book was excellent (I bet I read it six or seven times as a kid), packed not just with action incident, but also with sardonic byplay from Murphy’s pals, binds that tear the reader when they are broken as the men become casualties.
Unfortunately, in the sanitized film version, written by Gil Dowd, the other GI’s are written in one dimension and little emotional pull is provided from the interpretations offered by the second-string supporting cast. Direction by Jesse Hibbs is adequately proficient.
What does come across, and it’s more than enough, is the naturalness of the hero-star, and the battle portions. Murphy was always an underrated actor, and in the eight years and 15 films prior to this he’d really only had one chance to shine, in John Huston’s excellent but ignored The Red Badge Of Courage.
There is no cockiness or hoke in his self-portrait here, and the quiet, unassuming honesty-(and that “I-mean-business” determination) makes the daring all the more impressive.
The plentiful action sequences are superbly arranged orchestrations of sound and fury (albeit nearly bloodless, given the era), including Murphy’s famous single-handed standoff against a squad of Nazi tanks and two companies of infantry–“Hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to them!”
Joseph Gershenson’s music score swells appropriately and he whips up a sprightly march theme. The mid-sized production was a smash, at $16,600,000 the 11th biggest hit of the year, and took high ground as Universal’s top grosser until 1960, when the laurel passed to another hero, Spartacus. Give ’em hell, Murph!
106 minutes, with Marshall Thompson, Charles Drake, Jack Kelly, Paul Picerni, Gregg Palmer, Richard Castle, Brett Halsey, Susan Kohner, Denver Pyle, Paul Langdon, David Janssen, Rand Brooks.
- * Murphy was awarded 27 decorations. The fine biography “No Name On The Bullet” (title of one of Murphy’s 33 westerns) by Don Graham tells what it was like to go from poverty (living in an abandoned railroad car) and a 5th-grade education, to killing 240 German soldiers and losing almost all his friends (Murphy and only two others who entered his company in 1942 came out in 1945) , national adulation and a Hollywood career spanning 21 years and 51 films. How would you handle it? Battling PTSD demons lifelong, Murphy never thought much of himself as a performer, and most of output were proficient potboilers, but a half dozen besides this one were decent, and he was top rate under John Huston’s wise patience in The Red Badge Of Courage and The Unforgiven. He reluctantly agreed to play himself in this picture, and acted as technical advisor. He had suggested another Universal star for the role, the more popular Tony Curtis. Curtis was a better actor, and would have been okay, but it’s doubtful the film would have resonated. Murphy was 31, but still youthful-looking enough to sell himself as a decade younger. His simple grave-site in Arlington National Cemetery is the second most visited after JFKs.