When a genuine American hero becomes a star — Audie Murphy’s ‘To Hell and Back’

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Stick around for a thorough review of soft-spoken Texas soldier turned Hollywood cowboy Audie Murphy’s World War II memoir “To Hell and Back,” Universal’s top box office champ for 20 years straight until defeated by Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” in 1975. In the accompanying still Murphy lets eldest child Terry examine a German helmet during the Bakersfield, California, location filming for “To Hell and Back,” September — October 1954. Image Credit: The Vic Mizzone Collection / Universal Studios

To Hell and Back, distributed by Universal International Pictures in September 1955, recounts the story of Audie Murphy’s battle heroics. The most decorated American combat soldier of World War II, Murphy enlisted at 17 with the help of elder sister Corrine, who surreptitiously lied about his age.

Fighting three years in the European campaign, the reticent hero won 33 awards and decorations for valor on the battlefield, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was credited with saving his unit by killing 240 German soldiers. Wounded several times, France and Belgium also bestowed a number of honors on Murphy.

He returned to Texas in September 1945 a national hero, famously appearing on the cover of LIFE magazine. Though physically and psychologically scarred, Murphy soon found himself in Hollywood after actor James Cagney spotted him on the magazine’s cover.

Several tough, lean years followed, with the Texan attempting to develop a film career with middling results. An offer to pen his autobiography came in 1949. Entitled To Hell and Back, it became a runaway bestseller.

Universal soon became interested in his fledgling film career, signing him to a contract later that year. A number of westerns quickly followed, up to three a year, soon introducing movie audiences to Murphy’s quiet, unassuming, cynical, yet deadly nature.

Murphy was never trained formally as an actor, and he always downplayed his acting abilities. Instead, he relied on instinct. Yet he was almost always believable in his roles, whether in fatigues or cowboy mode, and he soon reserved a place in the hearts of many fans.

As 1954 began, Universal executives believed the time was right to film Murphy’s biography. However, when the star was asked to play himself, he felt uncomfortable and suggested other actors such as rising Universal star Tony Curtis.

Finally, after intense pressure from the studio, Murphy was convinced to play himself in the film version. Not wanting to glorify or exploit his war experiences, since many of his close friends perished during the fighting, the actor oversaw the film’s production.

Murphy did not socialize with the Hollywood crowd, preferring to spend time with the film’s crew, ensuring the film would retain as much authenticity as could be shown on the screen in the mid-1950s.

His efforts, along with the talents of director Jesse Hibbs — responsible for six Murphy films and the actor’s best collaborator along with the iconic John Huston — and producer Aaron Rosenberg, resulted in Universal’s top grosser for decades, a record that remained unbroken until Jaws arrived from director Steven Spielberg exactly 20 years later.

To Hell and Back remains the film most associated with the actor, grossing nearly $10 million, an unheard of sum during the 1950s, during its initial theatrical run. Murphy never quite understood the film’s success, always feeling uncomfortable about putting his heroics on the screen.

The film featured many of Universal’s notable stable of contract players of the 1950s, including Charles Drake — a real-life friend who appeared in five Murphy films — Marshall Thompson, and Jack Kelly in major supporting roles as members of Murphy’s unit in the 3rd Infantry Division.

David Janssen makes one of his earliest appearances on film in a blink-or-miss-it appearance as Lieutenant Lee. It would take almost 10 years before ABC’s The Fugitive made Janssen a bona-fide star to millions of television watchers.

Kelly found the role of a lifetime three years later portraying cowardly-claiming card shark Bart Maverick, younger brother of Bret [James Garner] on the classic, highly influential western series Maverick.

Condensing the soldier’s biography considerably, the film spends its first 10 minutes on his humble beginnings near Celeste, Texas, when Murphy had to drop out of the eighth grade to provide for his 11 brothers and sisters. With the Great Depression at its zenith, Murphy became a crack shot with his rifle, hunting rabbits and other small game.

Quickly moving on to his induction, the film follows Murphy and his unit into France. To Hell and Back does not focus on Murphy entirely; instead, it emphasizes the bravery of his fellow soldiers.

One particularly moving scene is Drake’s sudden death. As the viewer hears Murphy’s blood-curdling scream — “Why didn’t you stay down!” — and agony as his buddy bleeds to death, the lines between acting and reality become blurred.

The star suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and a quick temper for many years. His first wife, actress Wanda Hendrix, admitted that her husband often woke up screaming, never comfortable unless he kept a pistol under his pillow. Also a chronic gambler who reveled in the thrill of being in the fast lane, Murphy’s harrowing war experiences certainly took a considerable toll on his later life.

Light comedy moments happen every now and then, as was the norm during war films of the 1940s and 1950s. Younger generations raised on Saving Private Ryan will find the battle scenes tame — there was only so much bloodshed the film could show in the ’50s — but Murphy’s screen presence makes the film utterly unique compared to the various, sanitized war films of the era, including 1956’s D-Day the Sixth of June.

The most famous scene occurs near the end of the picture, with Murphy climbing atop a burning tank in war-torn France to shoot a .50 caliber machine gun against advancing Germans. His heroic actions on January 26, 1945, resulted in the Medal of Honor and every other possible award America could bestow on the young soldier.

Interested viewers should read Murphy’s biography in order to gain a better appreciation of what happened. It is amazing that he stayed on a burning tank, alone, for over one hour, single-handedly wiping out a German squad while suffering from a leg wound.

To Hell and Back is a near-great film offering an invaluable history lesson on the combat exploits of First Lieutenant Audie Murphy. His performance is not to be missed. Along with The Red Badge of Courage [1951], Ride Clear of Diablo, Walk the Proud Land [1956], No Name on the Bullet [1959], and The Unforgiven [1960], To Hell and Back ranks with the absolute best of Murphy’s films. It is available to stream, on DVD, and crops up annually on Turner Classic Movies [TCM] and other retro cable channels.

The actor perished in a horrific plane crash atop rugged Brushy Mountain near Roanoke, Virginia, on May 28, 1971, at age 45, mirroring his tumultuous past. The genuine hero fortunately endures forever on celluloid.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2012, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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