Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy led an incredible life. Decorated combat soldier and movie star. His gallantry and heroism during World War II made him the most decorated soldier of the war and later resulted in a film where he played himself. Murphy was just a kid, from a hard scrabble background, when he made those heroic acts on battlefields across Europe. From Italy and across France, his combat record is beyond belief.
His wartime service brought him to the attention of Hollywood where he carved out a long film career. Most of us are not old enough for the war newsreels or magazines of the time, so his films are how most of us knew him.
Murphy had an affable and straight-arrow onscreen persona, only occasionally playing a darker character. Generally, he played a friendly character, but if you crossed, he came right at you. From what I’ve read of his life, his off-screen life was more challenging than his cowboy roles. The man lived in the spotlight after his war years of experiencing death of his friends, and the several hundred enemy soldiers he killed. In the years after his service, Murphy talked about the problems he had with PTSD. In those days, any recognition of distress from the battlefield, known then as “battle fatigue,” was a question of your character and fitness. Murphy was one of the first to publicly talk of it.
Many of Murphy’s screen characters were generally straight out of central casting, very traditional good-guy roles. He was fortunate that some of his 1950s characters were interesting and somewhat three-dimensional, just enough character not to get in the way of the action.
If you needed a stand-up guy, he was your man. In the 1950s, there were two kinds of Westerns. The straight-laced cowboy yarns, Audie Murphy and most John Wayne Westerns; and the other kind, James Stewart films and those made by a few independent directors about fractured, defiant men, hurt by war and personal loss. Only in the 1960s did the angry, broken protagonist become very popular, a sign of nonconformity and independence.
Interestingly, Murphy co-starred with Stewart in one film, it was one of few Murphy roles where he chose the other side of the law. The film made money, but was not a huge success like Stewart’s other Westerns. Stewart made many Westerns in the 1950s, most of them very daring character roles, but this put him off the genre for four years. In this film, Murphy’s character came around to do the right thing and died saving his brother (Stewart).
Murphy has his most successful years in the 1950s, where the productions were lavish and the surrounding talent ensured quality films. He worked under studio contracts who hooked him up with veteran directors, established writers and solid character actors.
The studios took advantage of his youthful looks, service record and comfortable presence in front of the camera. America loves a hero.
Murphy’s acting career spanned 1948-1969. From bit parts, he worked his way up to starring roles, and then to strictly B-films. He had roles in 44 films.
His most notable films:
The Red Badge of Courage (1951) Directed and adapted by John Huston from Stephen Crane’s novel, casting Murphy was not popular with MGM. The story is of a Civil War soldier who struggles with fighting under combat. The film was heavily edited and not the film Huston envisioned. Murphy’s real war experience was a plus for the emotional struggles of the main character.
Destry (1954) Another entry in the Destry legacy, this time Murphy is the son of Destry, who is recruited to a deputy sheriff in a town that needs help. Taken as a joke by the town’s people because he is more a forensic crime fighter rather than a gunman, he has to battle his way for acceptance. This may be Murphy’s best performance, he is both affable and confident. A top-not effort.
To Hell and Back (1955) Based on Murphy’s autobiography, the film puts him back in the battles he fought. There is nothing glamorous or overtly patriotic, the film is by the book, so to speak, in the trenches and life of the foot soldier. This is a very good film.
The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957) An Army officer that deserts his post to warn civilians of a pending attack. All he has to work with are women, but he trains them to hold off the attack. The film blends the occasional light tough, which Murphy was quite good at, turning his charm and easy manner into an effective performance.
The Quiet American (1958) Adapted from Graham Greene’s novel, it was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of his least acknowledged efforts. Savagely reviewed as departing significantly from Greene’s novel. Murphy did a satisfactory job in the title role, but in this case, the material betrayed him. Working with a high-profile director like Mankiewicz could have boosted Murphy’s career, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.
No Name on the Bullet (1959) Murphy is a hired gun who rides into town to fulfill a deal. Everyone is aware of him, but no one knows who he is there to kill. Tension builds with everyone except the Murphy character who coolly wonders the town being a pleasant and likeable guy. Murphy is very engaging playing off the material. Well-written by Gene Coon, a veteran TV writer for Combat, Wagon Train, Star Trek and many other series.
In the 1960s, the quality of his films dropped off quickly, mostly independent and B-features. He tried television, a series based on the film Whispering Smith lasted just one season. Bad business investments, poor film choices and his increasing gambling losses wiped out his earnings, the horse farm and grand residence. He was forced to accept some marginal film roles. When he died in a plane accident in 1971, he was heavily in debt and hadn’t made a film in two years.
In 2010, newspaper columnist Dennis McCarthy wrote an article about Murphy’s widow, Pam. Her story is nearly as interesting as Murphy’s. They were married for 20 years and two children, and endured his addiction to sleeping pills, sleeping with a gun under his pillow and according to McCarthy, his lengthy record of philandering. After Murphy’s death, she moved to a small apartment near the VA Hospital where she got a job as an admissions clerk. She not only had to support herself, she spent the next ten years paying off every penny of Murphy’s debts.
She worked at the VA until she was 87 years old, serving the Vets each day, making sure they got to see a doctor or received their treatment. She knew them all by name and became their advocate, in a small but important way. Patients tend to get lost in the large system, but she made sure they did not. Her actions did not always make her popular with the administration and when her job was proposed to be eliminated by budget cuts, the Vets staged a protest until her job was reinstated. When she died, the men and women she served remembered and came out in force to pay their respects.
Unlike her late husband, Pam Murphy did not invite the spotlight. She lived in the same apartment from 1971 to her death in 2010. I cannot imagine the challenges being married to Murphy brought to Pam, but life couldn’t have been easy, especially moving out of your dream house and having to work to support yourself and pay off his debts. For a woman who lived in the shadows, she was a bright light for others.
When you think of heroism, you generally think of Sgt. Alvin York or Audie Murphy, but there are many others not as notable, just men and women who did their jobs under threat to their own lives. No movies are made about most of these folks, and generally most of us never know who they are or what they did. We are just grateful they did.