His name was Audie Murphy he was the most decorated American soldier of the second world war


Truth is the first casualty of the war movie. Ask a British D-day veteran who has seen Saving Private Ryan. Or a Zulu who’s seen Zulu. Or anyone who has seen Where Eagles Dare. But what about To Hell and Back? The veracity of that one is harder to call. It’s a 1955 spectacular about the war in Europe that had finished 10 years earlier: the story of a teenage Nazi slayer who, in January 1945, secured himself the congressional medal of honour by mounting the burning carcass of a tank and gunning down a phalanx of Germans. His name was Audie Murphy. He was the most decorated American soldier of the second world war. He was also the leading man in To Hell and Back. “It is the first time, I suppose,” he once reflected, “a man has fought an honest war and come back and played himself doing it.” Which makes him, in our terms, cinema’s most significant reality star.

Despite being Universal’s most profitable picture before Jaws came along in the mid-1970s, To Hell and Back has sunk into relative obscurity, which its new release on DVD may not entirely remedy. If you watch without knowing that Murphy is re-enacting his own experiences, the film is a pretty alienating experience. It opens with a pep talk from Eisenhower’s chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith. Its willingness to depict the catastrophic psychological impact of war is weirdly at odds with its fierce flurries of patriotism. And Murphy himself is hardly magnetic: he often seems lost in the vast, horizontal world of CinemaScope – a tiny smudge of khaki in a vast landscape of mud and blasted trees.

When you try to imagine what must have been going on inside his head, however, the movie begins to thrum with horrible life. Its star gained medals in Europe, but he also acquired a pretty serious mental malaise. They then called it combat stress – in today’s terms, post-traumatic stress disorder – but Murphy’s own description was richer. “It is as though a fire had roared through this human house, leaving only the charred hulk of something that once was green.” To Hell and Back is an account of a traumatised man being returned to the scenes of his trauma, which have been lavishly recreated using all the resources of the Hollywood studio system.

The boys from Universal recreated the beaches of Anzio and the battlegrounds of Sicily and Germany on the Yakima firing range in Washington state. The army – believing that the film would prove “a vitamin pill for recruitment” – lent them a division of troops. The studio, in Freudian mode, suggested that Murphy might find the process cathartic. Director Jesse Hibbs called action, and Murphy scrambled back on the burning tank and fired round after blank round at 100 infantryman in Nazi uniforms. For a modern analogy, you would have to imagine Jessica Lynch in a restaging of her 2003 rescue – or, in some darker version, Lynndie England participating in a project involving an Alsatian, a movie camera and a pyramid of naked Iraqis.

I’m not sure who won the battle of Audie Murphy, but it wasn’t Audie Murphy. To Hell and Back secured his career as the hero of war pictures and cheap little westerns. There was talk of a sequel, in which Murphy would re-enact the years of psychological disarray that followed his return to civilian life – but the star couldn’t decide how much of his instability he wanted to reveal, and Universal gave up asking. His troubles with pills, debt, guns, roulette chips and other men’s wives were all terminated by his death in a plane crash in 1971.

Texas celebrates Audie Murphy Day each year on his birthday – a tradition instituted by the former state governor, George Bush. Murphy also haunts Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which imagines his spiritual Nazi brother – a German sniper obliged to star in a biopic of his own life, with Goebbels holding the megaphone. But To Hell and Back remains his lasting tribute, if only as a record of how Murphy’s life became trapped in one day of violence in a field near Holtzwihr. He knew it, too. No matter what he did, Murphy said, he would always remain one thing: “The baby-faced killer who shot all those Krauts.”

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Matthew Sweet


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