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Reading: The Last American War Hero

Audie Murphy was sort of a Ronald Reagan in reverse--a genuine hero whose stature was diminished by the illusion-making power of Hollywood.

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Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, later ended a long and undistinguished film career with a cameo role in a B western that, lacking postproduction financing, was never released in the United States. Divorced, bankrupt, and prone to violent outbursts, Murphy barely escaped conviction in 1969 when he was brought up on assault charges by a dog trainer. For kicks, Murphy used to hang around with cops and participate in drug raids, and he wasn't above using his honorary sheriff's department badge to bully teenagers. Shortly before his death in 1971, Murphy fell in with a minor underworld figure who had a shady scheme to obtain an early release for Jimmy Hoffa. The plan involved Texas millionaires, an archconservative New England newspaperman, and the Nixon White House. Why Murphy should have chosen Hoffa as his cause is not altogether clear. He seems to have expected to make some money from the venture, but how is also not clear.

It adds up to an uninspiring end for a man who had once been not just a war hero, but the embodiment of a democratic American ideal. The son of an impoverished tenant farmer, Audie Leon Murphy could have sprung straight from the head of an Allied propagandist: the farm boy turned soldier who, with minimal training and pioneer spirit, proved more than a match for Hitler's professional army. During the war, Murphy survived three amphibious landings, earned the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre, and killed an estimated 240 soldiers. When he returned from the war, his boyishly handsome face was on the cover of Life magazine. He had become a kind of national folk hero.

"From age 21 on," writes Don Graham in No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy, "Audie Murphy's life was a postscript to battle; the success he enjoyed ten years later, in 1955, was actually the beginning of a long, slow decline that came only after much pain, much struggle, and a descent into the labyrinthine depths of America in the 1960s. In the end, at a personal level, Audie belongs with Elvis Presley, whom women thought he resembled in goodmannered shyness, and Howard Hughes, whom he resembled in his nocturnal paranoia. Audie, Elvis, and Hughes were all representatives of American dreams gone astray."

As an embodiment of a dream, however, Murphy has not had the staying power of either Elvis or Hughes, a fact Graham attributes to the unpopularity of the Vietnam war. "Since Vietnam," he writes, "Americans have had trouble believing or honoring the kind of warrior that Murphy represented. We prefer video fantasy--Rambo--a kind of MTV celebration of American machismo in which the nation wins that unpopular war it never should have fought and which, of course, it lost. Audie Murphy could have had Sylvester Stallone for breakfast. Audie Murphy was the real thing, not some pumped up, aerobicized palooka."

Far from being a palooka, Murphy stood five foot five and weighed only 120 pounds when he was inducted into the Army at age 17; he was, as Graham points out, "almost exactly the statistical average of an American girl in 1941." Aside from good marksmanship, quick reflexes, and iron nerve, what seems to have distinguished Murphy from the average American infantryman was an unhesitating willingness to pull the trigger. This was not as common an attribute as we might imagine. Graham quotes one military historian who estimates that only 25 percent of World War II infantrymen ever fired their weapons during battle.

"With Audie," Graham writes, "aggression immediately overcame whatever checks might have been inculcated with his mother's milk. The Depression had a hand in it too, in Audie's raw awareness of being a have-not in a world where others had more. Audie's first kill seems closer to murder than any kind of heroic action."

Murphy describes this "kill" in his war memoirs, To Hell and Back, which were written with the help of a journalist who also worked as Hedda Hopper's legman. "We flush a couple of Italian officers. They should have surrendered. Instead they mount two beautiful white horses and gallop away. My act is instinctive. Dropping to one knee, I fire twice. The men tumble from the horses, roll over and lie still. Now that I have shed my first blood, I feel no qualms; no pride; no remorse. There is only the weary indifference that will follow me throughout the war."

Some of Murphy's kills were heroic, even Homeric. His actions at a battle dubbed Colmar Pocket, for instance, were nothing short of astounding. Confronted by a much larger force of German tanks and infantrymen, Murphy ordered his unit to fall back while he remained to direct artillery fire with his field radio. With the Germans advancing steadily, Murphy climbed onto a burning tank destroyer and started mowing down the approaching troops with a machine gun mounted on the vehicle. "He was completely exposed to enemy fire," an eyewitness later testified, "and there was a blaze under him that threatened to blow the tank destroyer to bits. Twice the tank destroyer was hit by direct shell fire and Lieutenant Murphy was engulfed in clouds of smoke and spurts of flame. His clothing was riddled with fragments of shells and bits of rock. I saw his trouser leg soaked with blood. He swung the machine gun to where 12 Germans were sneaking up a ditch in an attempt to flank his position, and killed them all at 50 yards."

Ironically, when Hollywood set out to re-create the Colmar Pocket sequence in a film version of To Hell and Back, it was thought to be too violent to be believable and was toned down. When you see the movie today, however, the sequence seems remarkably tame. In real life, the battle is thought to have lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, but it passes in a few minutes on the screen. A more realistic filming of the scene might have come off like something in a Rambo film, or perhaps one of those scenes of operatic violence in a film by Sam Peckinpah or Brian De Palma.

After a hellish tour through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France, Murphy finally went back home to north Texas, there to be paraded around by local boosters and hounded by stateside reporters who were only too eager to print the kind of simpleminded pap the home front demanded. "What Americans wanted to think about their returning soldiers was simple," writes Graham. "It was what Audie Murphy was meant to represent in the public sphere; he was Huck Finn come home from war . . . everybody's little brother who had been away to face the great death and returned unscathed."

As one might expect, however, Murphy was not unscathed; he came home a highly complicated, tightly wound young veteran, one suffering from what is now diagnosed as postcombat stress syndrome. Throughout his life he was plagued by recurring nightmares, frequent headaches, bouts of vomiting, and an overwhelming sense of disappointment and boredom with civilian life. "War robs you mentally and physically," he once said. "It drains you. Things don't thrill you anymore. It's a struggle every day to find something interesting to do."

At one time, Murphy had considered continuing his career in the military--he was promoted from private to lieutenant during the war. But with only a fifth-grade education, he was intimidated by the prospect of studying at West Point. It was Jimmy Cagney who enticed him out to the west coast in 1946. Cagney was trying to form an independent film company, and he felt that, with Murphy's boyish good looks and popularity, he would be a natural star. But after giving him a place to stay and staking him to acting lessons, Cagney dropped his young protege, having concluded that he lacked talent.

Murphy stayed on in Hollywood, however, trying out for minor parts and writing his war memoirs. In the early 50s, he started getting lead parts in middle-budget westerns; he also starred in John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, a box-office failure. He reached the peak of his career in 1955, when Universal cast him in To Hell and Back, a smash hit.

As would later be true of Vietnam, it took Hollywood about ten years to launch a World War II revival, so To Hell and Back might have led Murphy to several more blockbusters. But because he was hypersensitive about any suggestion that he was exploiting his war record, Murphy turned down several World War II parts. He appeared in only one other war picture, the 1961 Battle at Bloody Beach.

Today he is most widely remembered for a string of unexceptional westerns, none of which would ever appear on any French critic's list of underappreciated genre classics. By the early 60s, Murphy, like Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, and Ronald Reagan, was in a curious limbo: he was too big a star for television, which had pretty much taken over the oater business, but not big enough for the historical extravaganzas that Hollywood was producing. As a result, Murphy found himself being forced into ever-smaller movies with ever-smaller production values. In the meantime, he had managed to gamble away most of the fortune he had made during his more lucrative years in the business.

Of all the young male stars who surfaced during the early 50s, Audie Murphy is one of the least enduring. Like Jeff Chandler and Tab Hunter, he is an actor whose screen appeal is increasingly difficult to understand with the passage of time. Graham argues that the reaction against Vietnam and the declining popularity of westerns were the main causes of Murphy's posthumous fade to black. "Audie's death threw into high relief the extent to which he belonged to an earlier era," he writes. "In 1971, the nation, deeply suspicious of traditional military valor, was sick of a war that refused to go away, sick of Kent State, the Calley trial, and a decade of upheaval, assassinations, and burning cities."

A sympathetic biographer, Graham is obviously hoping to restore some of Murphy's reputation, as both hero and film star. Still, he makes no attempt to gloss over Murphy's personal failings, his foul temper, his bullying, his cruel practical jokes--Murphy once terrified actor Tony Curtis by shooting him at close range with a six-gun loaded with blanks. Graham does seem a little too kind in his assessment of Murphy's acting career. He writes, for example, that "Audie created a memorable portrait of the American as Boy Scout" in the title role of Joe Mankiewicz's The Quiet American. But he goes on to mention that Laurence Olivier refused to act in the film when he discovered that Murphy had been cast as the naive and meddlesome American diplomat in Vietnam. And Graham doesn't neglect the fact that novelist Graham Greene, in disowning the movie that had been based on his book, later wrote that "Murphy's limited acting ability looked even more inadequate than usual in the company of such seasoned performers as Sir Michael Redgrave . . . and Claude Dauphin." (John Huston argued until his dying day, however, that Murphy had natural acting ability, describing his work in The Red Badge of Courage as a "splendid, beautiful performance.") It's been so long since I've seen The Red Badge of Courage that I can't remember Murphy's performance, but I do recall his part in Huston's The Unforgiven, a film about Anglo-Indian conflict on the Texas frontier in which Murphy plays Burt Lancaster's racist brother. One of his few character roles, it suited him well; his anger and intensity came across vividly. It's too bad Murphy didn't get more character parts; it wasn't so much that he was a dreadful actor as that he lacked screen presence. Short, thin, with sloping shoulders, a baby face, and a soft, almost feminine voice, Murphy would have made a good cherubic killer (Don Siegel thought about casting him as the psycho-killer in Dirty Harry) or a seedy film noir heavy like his fellow Texan Zachary Scott.

But it followed from Murphy's war record that he be cast as a romantic lead, in roles to which he brought inadequate technique and a limited physical presence. When you think of all the enduring screen tough guys--Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and Errol Flynn--none of whom ever saw action, you have to wonder at the craft of screen acting. What is it about the big screen that picks up a larger-than-life toughness from these dubious characters while failing to capture the true-to-life heroism of America's most decorated soldier? Graham blames Vietnam, but one way of looking at Audie Murphy is to see him as a sort of Ronald Reagan in reverse, a genuine hero whose stature was diminished rather than enhanced by the illusion-making power of Hollywood.

In the end, it may have been Robert Hatch, then the film critic for the New Republic, who was most on target about Audie Murphy. He wrote of Murphy's first film role 40 years ago, as a juvenile delinquent in Bad Boy: "I hope he is an actor, and a good one, for if he is not he is an extremely dangerous citizen. Murphy conveys the dead and deadly blandness of a boy who has tried to make himself invulnerable."

No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy by Don Graham, Viking, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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