Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, Becket), Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Deep) and Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, Charly).
All award winners in the film world who worked on Murphy’s War. Somehow, this film got away from them.
Viewing this film 50 years later, there is still a lot to like about this film. I have seen this film many times, as something about it continue to fascinate me. This is one man’s war in the backwaters of World War II. Death is death.
Peter O’Toole was in a career slump. After The Lion in Winter and Goodbye Mr. Chips, the 1970s was a dry decade. Murphy’s War was not a real action film and it wasn’t a complex character drama. Critics said it was a mess of a film, that the pieces didn’t really come together. They were more right than wrong. Drawn from a book, Silliphant rewrote much of it, emphasizing the conflict between Murphy and the German submarine.
Irishman Murphy was on a British ship torpedoed by the German submarine off the coast of Venezuela during the final days of World War II. The Germans machine gun Murphy’s crew trying to escape their sinking ship. Only Murphy, a seaplane mechanic, survives and is picked up by Louis coming by on his oil company barge. No explanation is really given for the Germans killing the helpless sailors, unless it is to keep anyone from knowing the location of their submarine. Venezuela was generally neutral during the war, but it’s oil resources were of great interest to both sides. A German submarine being able to operate undetected on inland waters would be worth keeping secret.
Murphy is dropped of at a hospital/mission operated by a Dr. Hayden doctor in what used to be a military fort, where he convalescences. The Germans are hiding their submarine in a river. Meanwhile, another survivor is found, he was a flyer that Murphy knows. The Germans find out about Murphy and kill the flyer thinking it is Murphy.
By now, Murphy goes from survival to vengeful, and he obsessively spends the rest of the film trying to get back at the Germans. For Murphy, the war is now even more personal.
His efforts put the doctor and the natives who live at the mission at risk. She has risked her life to help Murphy and the flyer. We know that she is a Welsh Quaker, but not much else. Sian Phillips plays the doctor, who is real life was married to O’Toole. A minimum is made of the differences between Hayden and Murphy; a lost opportunity to know more about Murphy, who remains an enigma.
Murphy finds the flyer’s plane and with Louis’ help, is able to repair it. Not a pilot, Murphy learns to fly well enough to drop homemade bombs on the submarine.
Murphy thinks he has sunk the submarine, but in reality has only pissed them off. The Germans show up at the mission and extract some revenge by destroying the plane and terrorizing the natives, killing one of them.
News is broadcast that Germany has surrendered, the war is over. Murphy does not care, he takes off with Louie in the barge. The Germans attempt to get Murphy to stop, telling him the war is over. Murphy continues on, appearing to want to ram the submarine. The Germans fire their guns and a torpedo, which misses the barge and lands on the beach.
The submarine submerges before the barge can ram them. Murphy is angry until he sees that the submarine is stuck on the bottom and cannot free itself. Murphy steers the barge to the beach to get the torpedo. As Murphy attaches a chain to the torpedo, Louis climbs off the barge, he’s had it with Murphy’s obsession. “Let them die in peace,” he says as he walks away.
Murphy figures out how to work the barge crane and heads back out to where the submarine submerged.
Murphy cannot be sure of the exact location. He’s frantic to find some sign, then, a few bubbles surface. Murphy releases the torpedo, which strikes the submarine with a mighty explosion. The submarine fills with seawater, the crew scrambles as their time runs out.
The explosion has caused the barge to rock and the crane to fall on Murphy. As the barge begins to break up and begin to sink, Murphy struggles without success to free himself, disappearing beneath the surface as the barge sinks out of sight. The sinking of the barge is quite spectacular, with no CGI effects.
In the book, Murphy does not get trapped on the barge. Some of the Germans escape from the damaged submarine and reach the beach, where the Captain and Murphy fight to an exhausted standoff. Perhaps showing that war has no victors.
In the 1970s, endings tended toward the downbeat and tragedy. Murphy got his revenge, at the cost of his own life. You reap what you sow. Murphy’s obsession was his downfall. Even when Louis and Dr. Hayden try to get him to stop, he cannot see beyond his fixation. He must avenge the death of his crew. Justice may have been the loss of the submarine and perhaps the German crews’ death, but maybe some of them escape, as in the book. Murphy wants their deaths to be by his hand.
The film has few characters and aside from the barge sinking and use of a submarine, this is not a huge budget film. The photography, particularly the aerial scenes by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Great Gatsby, Never Say Never Again) give the a film a realism and puts the viewer in the action, without drawing attention to itself. Slobcombe was a photo journalist in Europe during the outbreak of WWII and experienced the Blitzkrieg in Poland.
This film did not really help or hurt O’Toole’s career. His choice of films would continue to work against his career in what should have been a highly successful period.
The character of Louis was played by Philippe Noiret, a well-respected French character actor, appearing in over 130 films, including a few Western films including Topaz, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, The Night of the Generals and “Round Midnight.