In the audience, Larry Winters, 79, had already used his handkerchief to wipe away tears at least once during the screening of To Hell and Back, the 1955 film adaptation of Murphy’s war memoir.
“Every time I see that film, I tear up,” he said.
Sitting nearby, Betty Tate, 82, said Murphy — an uneducated Texas farm boy who later became a movie star and a national icon — is “what everybody ought to be.”
Audie Murphy, you ask?
For men and women of a certain age, Murphy represents a lot of things, most of them good. Most of them gone. But in a world where a boy from Texas can return from a hellish war and still evoke tears of inspiration 50 years after his death, the name still touches a chord deep within a corner of the American psyche.
Calling his autobiography and the subsequent movie made from it a “great story,” Tate said Murphy’s legend speaks to something that no longer exists — “What America used to be. Honor, patriotism, selflessness. We don’t have that America anymore. Now we have hate, divisiveness, fear.”
She and dozens of others gathered in Greenville — where Murphy, who was born nearby, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 — to pay homage to a Texan who survived the carnage of combat and rose to fame’s greatest heights, only to stumble when the guns fell silent and the director yelled, “Cut.”
was the 25th anniversary of the opening of Greenville’s Audie Murphy-American Cotton Museum, and the 50th anniversary of Murphy’s death. It seemed an appropriate time to reflect on what Murphy meant, said longtime fan Charlotte Thompson, who is nearing 70 and who made the long journey from Maryland to Texas to attend the celebration.
“He defined what America was at the time,” she said of Murphy. Calling today’s youth the “me, me, me” generation, she wonders how many of them would willingly sacrifice as much as Murphy and his generation did, both on the war front and on the homefront.
“He was just an extraordinary man,” said Thompson, who carried an Audie Murphy tote bag, Audie Murphy protective mask and Audie Murphy iPhone cover. At home, she said, she has an Audie Murphy blanket and an Audie Murphy shower curtain.
“He deserves to be remembered,” she said.
But as time passes and World War II and its heroes fade out of sight, will future generations care about a man whose actions spoke to America in a way that seems distant, almost foreign?
Winters isn’t so sure. “What is sad is his legacy is fading away,” he said. “These kids today don’t know who Audie Murphy was.”
Murphy historian Mike West, 72, doesn’t disagree. “I have a feeling that outside of a very few hardcore historians, he will become a footnote,” he said.
To hell, but not back
Slight of build, sickly and displaying no particular penchant for doing anything special, the 5-foot-5 Murphy — an elementary school dropout — joined the ranks of young Americans eager to defeat the Axis powers once America entered World War II.
It was what was expected, what was needed.
Under near constant fire in Europe, Murphy, an infantryman, quickly became adept at three things: leading, surviving and killing. He was forever leading attacks, shooting down German snipers, tossing grenades and taking machine gun nests. His military career — and the film version of his life — ended with him manning a machine gun on a burning tank destroyer and shooting down countless advancing German soldiers.
That act earned him the Medal of Honor and, it seemed for a while, immortality.
He started the war as a private, ended it as a lieutenant. By the age of 20, he had secured every military honor and medal the U.S. Army had to offer. His memoir, first published in 1949, remains one of the most realistic and honest depictions of combat in print. Murphy skillfully balanced lengthy passages of matter-of-fact dialogue between soldiers with to-the-point, almost clinically cool descriptions of battle and its emotional, physical and mental aftermath.
It’s a book full of guts, blood and vomit mixed with humor, hope and grit — written by a man who, in the book’s closing pages, makes it clear he had come to trust a clean and loaded weapon more than any friend or lover.
Hollywood, captivated by his image and celebrity, called. Within months of the book’s publication, Murphy was making his first Western film, The Kid From Texas, an appropriately titled B picture in which Murphy played Billy the Kid as a kill-crazy misfit.
Within a decade, he had appeared in some two dozen films, including prestigious misfires like John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1958 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.
But it was the bread-and-butter B Westerns he was best known for, films like Tumbleweed (1953), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), Night Passage (1957) and the cult classic No Name on the B.