I recently re-read Audie Murphy’s 1949 autobiography, followed by a screening of the Blue ray. The current book edition includes a foreword by journalist Tom Brokaw who recounts the story where Murphy was besieged by reporters after being accused of taking shots at a dog trainer he had a dispute with. When asked if he’d really shot at the man, Murphy’s laconic response was, “If I had, do you think I would have missed?”
It’s a well-known fact that To Hell and Back was co-written/ghost-written by Murphy’s friend, David McClure although his name doesn’t appear on the book. A great effort was put out by both Murphy and McClure. They traveled to Europe together and visited the battle locations so that both men could accurately describe the events as Murphy experienced them. The resulting book is something of a collaborative masterpiece, frankly, both in its style and tone. To Hell and Back was an immediate best-seller and was competing with Irwin Shaw’s fictional classic, The Young Lions, published the year before. Shaw’s book was published when war books and memoirs were all the rage, as was Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. The point is, To Hell and Back has joined the pantheon of classic World War II literature.
Murphy and McClure chose a present tense narrative that gives To Hell and Back its haunting, surreal tone. The opening sentences create the somber mood that won’t let up: “On a hill just inland from the invasion beaches of Sicily, a soldier sits on a rock. His helmet is off; and the hot sunshine glints through his coppery hair. With the sleeve of his shirt he wipes the sweat from his face; then with chin in palm he leans forward in thought.”
This technique is at odds with most first-person accounts, but that’s also why the book is memorable. The images and actions described therein are presented without apology. Murphy’s factual rendering is jarring, uncomfortable, blunt and uncompromising. Murphy never brags. This is the way it was. The dogface soldiers, as they were called, dreamed about home, suffered from gonorrhea, killed the enemy, and often died. The dialogue between the soldiers is a lesson in colloquialisms and slang. The banter is unheroic and lacking in poetry, just as it was.
Audie Murphy killed the enemy without remorse. What sentiment he displays is reserved for his fellow soldiers, especially those who died in front of him, and it’s obvious he mourned for them long after the war ended. Keeping in mind that he was a teenager when these events took place, World War II toughened him in ways that left a lasting impression.
To Hell and Back is a masterpiece because of its honesty, surreal imagery and raw emotion. The film version is another matter. Murphy reportedly recommended Tony Curtis, but Universal Studios executives prevailed, and history was made when Murphy consented to play himself on screen. I read a report that Murphy said he wanted to be as fine an actor as he was a soldier. In every account I’ve read, Murphy devoted incredible effort to his acting career, working tirelessly to be good, and he was. By the time he was cast as himself, he had already made fifteen films, mostly Westerns of which several, such as Duel at Silver Creek, Tumbleweed and Ride Clear of Diablo remain highly regarded genre films.
The Film version of To Hell and Back was one of 1955s top-grossing films. Watching it again recently, I was struck by the pedestrian direction, sub-standard pacing (until the end when it picks up) and obvious studio sets. It’s a good film, but not a great film. Murphy, of course, is excellent, and his supporting cast are excellent as well. Of these actors I knew Paul Picerni whom I once interviewed for a magazine. This is what Paul said about Audie Murphy in 1999, long after Murphy was gone: “Audie Murphy is the consummate American hero. He’s my hero. I loved Audie Murphy, and I am just thrilled that I had the opportunity to work with Audie...He was a real individual, a real man, and I loved Audie. He was very quiet, and you couldn’t force yourself upon Audie. I felt that I was a good friend of his, but I never forced myself with him. You had to let him come to you.”
These comments by Paul Picerni, and other memories he shared with me, brought out a singular emotion. I am not being fanciful when I say that Paul Picerni had a shine in his eyes and a smile on his face when he talked about Audie Murphy. Picerni wasn’t alone. Other actors I interviewed expressed an identical sentiment. Audie Murphy was special, one of a kind.
Paul Picerni (far right) is one of several actors who told me
about their admiration for Audie Murphy.
Screenwriter and film director Burt Kennedy told me: “He was just a hell of a guy.” Regarding Murphy’s acting talent, Kennedy said: “I thought he was quite believable. There again, when he had good material, like the two things he did with (John) Huston, as a matter of fact, The Red Badge of Courage and The Unforgiven, he was excellent.” Kennedy also once said to me in an unrelated conversation when Murphy’s name somehow came up, “Audie was my hero. I think he was everyone’s hero.”
John Agar told me, rather humorously, “Audie was a straight shooter.”
Along with Paul Picerni, Jack Elam provided me the most emotional response in recalling Audie Murphy. Elam’s voice rose with emotion as the memories came rushing back: “Audie and I became very good friends. I am a tremendous admirer of Audie Murphy. He was a greatly underrated actor, and he was a very interesting guy. I think our friendship was cemented one day on The Gun Runners. We shot it down on the California coast, and when there was a break in the shooting, Audie said, ‘I want to show you my boat.’ We had about an hour with nothing to do. There was only about a five-minute drive over to the harbor where he had a big boat, and he took me on board. Audie said, ‘Look at that sloop coming in the harbor alongside the buoys!’ I looked but I couldn’t see a f*****g thing! I said, ‘Sure! You’re just kidding me!’ He said, ‘No, look! It’s a sloop! It’s got a flag tied to it!’ I said, ‘No way!’ Well, sure enough, in about five minutes that boat began to loom and it came right toward us. So I said, ‘Well, s**t! That’s why you’re such a f*****g hero! You can see better than anybody else!’ Well, he fell down and laughed for about five minutes. From then on we were very good friends.”
Jack Elam wasn’t quite done: “But he was a true hero, I have to tell you. I loved to gamble and he loved to gamble, and he was a real fanatic for poker, the horses or dice, so that’s what we did on the set. When we were on location we had a poker game every g*****n night. He had a dynamite temper if you did something wrong. I’d seen him flare up three or four times when he thought there was an injustice around him, and believe me, he was like a coiled rattlesnake when he flared up, but never unreasonably. It was always inline; if he didn’t like some smart-ass on the set who was getting smart with a gal, or something like that.’”
Audie Murphy was a natural in the many Western films he made, and his devoted fans still pay tribute to him with fan pages in social media, or personal websites. Remarkably, there has not been a concentrated effort by Universal Studios to restore and release most of these now classic films. Certain titles, such as Posse from Hell and Six Black Horses are only available in unrestored versions on DVD from third party creators. Murphy is one of numerous neglected stars whose popularity has never diminished, yet who remains ignored by the studios who act clueless as to the cultural importance of film restoration. Such an effort, if coordinated properly, could be profitable for Universal Studios whose executives we can only hope will awake from their slumber and embrace Audie Murphy’s contribution to film history and their studio’s legacy.
Excerpted from a forthcoming collection
Copyright © 2020 by Thomas McNulty