MURPHY’S WAR ,an offbeat WW2 adventure, sank without leaving much trace in 1971, settling at 97th place, losing most of its $5,000,000 investment. Downbeat, it was never destined to be much of an audience-grabber, with its unfamiliar (albeit striking) setting, handful of half-sketched characters, unexplained behavior reverses and prolonged, unsatisfying conclusion. The exotic locations and some superior cinematography of aerial sequences are worth seeking out for escapist and/or war genre fans rounding out their check-lists.
Near the end of WW2, a British merchant ship is sunk by a Nazi U-boat off the coast of Venezuela. Slaughtering the escaping crew, they miss ‘Murphy’ (Peter O’Toole) who makes it to an Orinoco river community inhabited by local fishermen, a Quaker doctor (Sian Phillips–O’Toole’s wife) and a French civilian (Philippe Noiret) left by his company to watch their oil site and dredging equipment. Recovering in this backwater, Murphy convinced that the German sub is in a nearby tributary, undertakes to single-handedly sink her and exact revenge for his murdered crew-mates.
It half-works. The actors are fine (oddly, with O’Toole actually playing an Irishman for once, hearing him do so is somehow distracting—plus Murphy is pretty much of a dip). The mechanics and labors of Murphy’s ingenious schemes are filmed in a details- interesting and unhurried way, and though the script (Stirling Silliphant) makes a hash of his motivation, as well as the responses of the others caught up in his private war, there are some stunning scenes involving his perilous takeoff, flights and landing of a sea-plane—these are the movie’s standout highlights. The wide expanses of tropical scenery are well-captured by Douglas Slocombe’s camera. *
John Barry provides an okay score–within a minute before his name came up on the opening credits my movie composer-attuned ears wiggled “hey, that sounds like John Barry”.
Peter Yates directed an arduous and unhappy 7-week shoot on the steamy Orinoco locations. According to Robert Sellers, author of “Hellraisers”, one crew member recalled the atmosphere as “picnicking on Vesuvius”, with 75 Venezuelan soldiers on hand to make sure no-one was kidnapped by terrorists. Miserable, Our Man O’Toole indulged himself by doing most of his stunts (and of course, drinking like a fiend). He was quoted: “In Venezuela I even fly a seaplane. If you want to see a picture of sheer terror have a look at the shots of me when I first fly that seaplane.”
It joins a slew of WW2 pix from the era that laid on the futility angle, items like Hell In The Pacific, Castle Keep, The Bridge At Remagen, None But The Brave. With Horst Janson. 107 minutes.
* The great Frank Tallman handled the exciting and frankly nutty flying action. Tallman’s other bravura displays of aerobatic insanity can be savored in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Capricorn One, Catch-22, The Great Waldo Pepper and 1941. Like his business partner and fellow daredevil Paul Mantz (killed at 61 making The Flight Of The Phoenix), Tallman perished in a plane crash, during a routine transport trip in 1978. He made it two days beyond turning 59.