Friday, June 20, 2008


I am writing this post alone but I can imagine Collette leaning over my shoulder and reading the title and saying "Yes dear, Audie Murphy, dear" and going off in order not to waste any more of her life on Mr Murphy. I can't blame her. She has heard more about Audie Murphy than any person should be forced to tolerate. And my poor brother Ed. I was staying with him once and just launched into one my Audie monologues and I saw his eyes begin to go all glassy but I just couldn't help myself. When Eartha came into the room Ed turned to her and with this voice filled with desperation said "Hon, I've been learning about Audie Murphy .. and there is so much to learn."

I don't know why I love Audie Murphy. Reasonably, I should not. This post is not going to be a biography of Audie Murphy. If you are curious about him there is a lot of info on the net ... Google works here . Suffice it to say Audie was known for two things: The most decorated American soldier in WW II and as an actor in B grade movies, most of them westerns. I grew up with Audie Murphy. The aura of the war was still hanging heavy over the world when I was a kid and I grew up watching westerns, mostly on TV, and there always seemed to be an Audie Murphy western on TV

But my interest in him is more than nostalgic. He wasn't even a terribly important person for me, he was no icon. Movie wise he fit right in with guys like Rory Calhoun and George Montgomery who toiled in the B western trenches and at the time I really did not distinguish between them. But as time has gone on, its Murphy that has become the little splinter in my brain.

He works for me today on a couple of levels. I like the movies, or at least enough of them to keep me hanging in. He generally made the kind of low budget, Drive-in oriented westerns that used to be called "oaters". Pretty formulaic stuff, shot on back lots, with weak dialogue and an emphasis on badly staged fight scenes. Often he was miscast. The lone, stalwart hero, the tough guy, but physically he did not work for that at all. Murphy was a little guy, and soft spoken, and when he had fight scenes with big burly character actors it was hard to accept that he could actually be the victor. But he brought something to his character, the ah-shucks Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda American country boy feel and that was genuine. He was also a song writer, working in the country genre and many of his songs were recorded. Murphy was raised in west Texas, dropped out of school at eight to support his family and often lived off the land with his rifle.

Murphy could work against his character. I think I like him best when he has a bit of an edge to him. In Night Passage, with Jimmy Stewart, Murphy plays the "bad" brother, the outlaw with a heart of gold and in scenes of conflict with Stewart (who played the older brother) you can see this little spark come out. Like most actors, he benefited from working with someone who had talent. In Bullet For A Badman, Murphy plays one of a pair of outlaws, but he is the one that has gone "good". Darren McGavin plays his ex partner and the scenes between them get pretty lively. In No Name On The Bullet he plays a darker character, a gun for hire who holds a town at fear by his very presence. He was cast, once again, as a brother (this time with Burt Lancaster) in The Unforgiven where Murphy plays a character with an almost psychotic hatred against the Apache. This is one of his later movies and he's good in it, showing us a character who works from an emotional core even as he does despicable thing. Like Alan Ladd, you can see Murphy had a potential that was never fully realized and usually came when he was given characters with some darkness at their core. Legend says that director Don Siegel was considering casting Murphy as the villain in the original Dirty Harry movie ... damn, that would have been something. Murphy, then his mid forties, facing down against the young Eastwood, the actor who destroyed the old fashioned studio westerns with his work in Italy. Unfortunately, Murphy died in a plane crash before filming began.

So, he was a serviceable actor who made some entertaining western movies. Well, so was Alan Ladd, as I mentioned and although I still enjoy watching a few of his better movies, I don't often sit through his oaters as I will Murphy's. What's the difference? Well, as is usually the case in most narratives, I think its the back story. Remember, Murphy was not just a western actor, he had some other credentials to his name.

There is a lot written about Audie Murphy the "war hero". Winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He had nearly 30 other decorations. He was the most decorated American soldier in World War II (To Hell and Back is his movie autobiography, where Murphy plays himself but really, its pretty lame) He also received decorations from France and Belgium. He received the bulk of his medals before he was 21 years old.

I am ambivalent about war and warriors. At my present stage in life I really can't see many viable reasons to go to war and I have seen very few positive results come out of such conflicts. But when you read about war, when you hear combat stories, and try to put yourself in the boots of the men and women who fight them, it is difficult to dismiss their achievements; just surviving in a combat theatre is an almost miraculous act.

And we have young Murphy. An almost illiterate kid from Texas. An orphan. Basically no education to speak of. Stories say that when he first went overseas, his accent and his terrible diction were so bad people had no idea what he was saying. He was a skinny little kid who looked like a boy next to many of the men he fought with. But consider the event that led him to that Medal of Honour: He had been granted a battlefield rank of Lieutenant. He was leading a company in France when they were attacked by six German tanks and what is described as "waves of infantry". He orders his men back and begins to radio in artillery fire, holding the Germans at bay. One of his tank destroyers takes a direct hit and bursts into flame, and its crew gets out. The crippled destroyer leaves a flank open and the Germans begin to advance there. With his men under cover, he gets up onto the tank and takes hold of the .50 caliber machine gun and begins to unload with the thing. The story goes that alone, with that one machine gun, Murphy held off the enemy for an hour. They wounded him in the leg but he kept shooting, its described as one of the most accurate assaults with a .50 cal. It is a big, heavy weapon designed to spray across the killing zone but Murphy could, when needed, use it for pin point shooting. He took out an entire squad of Germans and held off three fronts of attack. He is personally credited as killing or wounding at least 50 enemy soldiers, single handely, in one fight. He held off the enemy long enough to regroup his men and take them down.

I'm not celebrating fighting or killing here. But when I read that story I don't know if I can understand it. This little, mild mannered guy, standing up on top of this busted tank, just calmly holding off several waves of enemy soldiers. At one point the Germans got within ten feet of him ... ten feet .. point blank for their Karabiner carbines. And they couldn't kill him. He just kept firing into them, directing his fire, picking them apart. It is a situation that moves beyond simple survival.

Another story I heard of Murphy's war experience was when he and some of his buddies were "leased" out to another company in France. The Americans had cleared out a section of farmland and were beginning to advance into the zone when Murphy comes up to the commanding officer (we'll say it was a captain but I'm not sure of the rank) and says something like "Excuse me sir, but shouldn't we clear them German fellas out of that field before we go down there?" The captain looks out across this open farm field and says "Soldier, are you nuts? What Germans?" Murphy just looks up at him and say "Well, them five or six right down there" The captain looks out. No enemy. Murphy just shrugs, unlimbers hi M-1 and begins to walk down the hill ....

Several yards into the field Murphy disappears. He just drops out of site. Pop, pop, pop. The M-1 goes off. Murphy pops again, hunched low, running fast, just his legs moving, the Garand held across his chest and he disappears again. Pop. Pop. Up comes Murphy. He slings the rifle and walks up to the captain. "That should do it sir" The field was riddled with gullies, not visible through the grass but it reminded Murphy of the arroyos of his home and the prey that would often shelter there ....

So I enjoy Murphy the actor and admire Murphy the soldier. Fair enough. You could say the same thing about Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum, solid tough guy actors who saw real combat in WW II. These guys are two of my favorite actors and I certainly put them up on a higher acting "shelf" than Murphy, but I don't hold them to the same sentiment.

There is more backstory. The story that happens after the war, and during the movie making, the one that was never discussed in public during Murphy's lifetime. See, he wasn't just a hero he was the hero. He was a military recruiting office's wet dream; a simple country boy from a poor background who goes to fight for his country, performs some of the craziest acts of bravery ever committed, and lives the Hollywood dream. It was a dream that everyone wanted to perpetuate. The army, Hollywood, most of America's (and Canada's) citizens. Of course, the story was more fable than reality.

Murphy suffered from post traumatic syndrome for the rest of his life. I suppose back then they would have called it shell shock. He went through a couple of marriages. He gambled most of his life away. He had problems with violence, he beat a guy almost to death for kicking a dog .. though I can't really blame him for that. At the height of his success, with the big house and the fast cars he would often go to his buddy's sweaty boxing gym in Hollywood and sleep in the back, on a little cot. His first wife tells about how he slept with a pistol under his his pillow. And he often cried out the names of his dead comrades in his sleep. I marvelled at the young, country kid who could perform these crazy acts of bravery.

But how can we expect that kid to go through that, to see that carnage and watch his friends die, and not be affected by it. Well, that is how we wanted it, and we want it to this day. Several recent articles in the Toronto Star are examining what has happened to some of our Canadian soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan; the stress and emotional damage they are facing and how nobody really seems to give a fuck about it.

I suppose that is the thing that has elevated Murphy above the other cowboy actors I loved as a kid. This man was in fights I can never even conceive of and he managed to survive them. The fight he had afterwards, when everything was over, was probably his toughest because he was left to fight it on his own. Murphy did not self destruct. He was killed in a plane crash. He was beginning to get some more opportunities in Hollywood; Don Seigel liked him, as did director John Houston. But he strikes me as a lonely man. He had a family, children, but I have this image of him going into his friend's gym at night, a place he could have bought with his pocket change, curling up in the back on that little cot ...

Would he rather have been back on the plains of west Texas, moving alone across the land, searching for sustenance? Would he rather be back up on top of that tank destroyer, the big machine gun in his hands, calm in that moment, centered, not taking pleasure in the killing but understanding the necessity of it, simple and focused in that hour, simply doing what needed to be done ...

We all have our demons. I know people who fight monsters and darkness that would have me peeing my pants and they fight it everyday; sometimes they falter but most times they fight on. They hurt, they get scared, but they fight on. When they feel alone it is the worst and what we need to do, the best way to help them, is to just let them know that we are here, that we are with them.

So, I'm here Audie. After all these years, when so many people have forgotten, I'm here. The darkness and monsters are gone, for you, now. Its time to holster the guns.


Anonymous said...

audie murphy was a great soldier and we thank god for men like him that why we have the freedom we have today, he was my favorite actor he the greatest in my eyes I still watch his movies and enjoy them as much ias i did the first time i saw them i sure miss him he great i often think about pam his wife and two sons james and terry sure would to get an email from them charlie weible mt. washington ky. 40047

Victor Kellar said...

Thank you for commenting. I am a guy who grew up in Canada but I always knew Audie's legend and to this day watch his movies; he has many fans and this post has recieved visits from all over the world

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