To Hollywood & Back
How the World changes.
Suppose, just for a moment, that a single soldier emerged from the messy conflict in which the United States of America finds itself and its allies currently embroiled. This soldier would be a remorselessly efficient killer, the kind of blithe super-warrior we know from a thousand fictions, the kind of man who thinks little of his own heroism, who comes from nowhere in particular, who is handsome in an almost boy-next-door kind of way, but the kind of man you would never look twice at. An everyman, unremarkable in every aspect apart from his proficiency in combat.
This soldier would establish himself as the greatest, most effective soldier the Allies have, continually winning citations and awards for heroism and courage, killing hundreds of enemy troops, playing a vital role in several battles.
After the War, he would write his memoir of the conflict, before becoming a Movie Star. His greatest starring role would be as himself in his own biopic, re-enacting some of the battles which still gave him sleepless nights as he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He would eventually settle down into life as an action star, making cheap and cheerfully generic programmers which demanded little of him yet always made a healthy profit.
This would never happen. Modern conflicts are too ideologically complex, and our relationship with them far too distant and filtered by the media and the Government to allow most people to have any real connection with the soldiers fighting in them. Also, our attitude to War itself has changed as War has changed. Post Vietnam, post-My Lai, after Abu Ghraib, some people distrust grunts, people suspect them of disrespecting occupied children, of laziness, of criminality.
In the 1940s and the Second World War, this was not the case. Still partly regarded as a "just" War by the Allies, the scale of conscription and the conflict meant that everybody knew men who fought and men who had died. Heroism was celebrated in a less self-conscious manner than it is in our modern age, where even bravery seems viewed ironically. Back then it was possible for a man to gain fame and fortune on the back of his exploits in the European theatre of the War, and even for that man to parlay that fame into a career in movies. Just ask Audie Murphy.
He was the most decorated soldier in the US Army during the Second World War, serving for twenty-seven months in Europe and in that time, destroying six tanks and killing over 240 German soldiers and wounding and capturing countless others. He received the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars with Valor device, and three Purple Hearts. His exploits read like passages from WWII movies where the Heroic Super-Warrior decimates whole platoons of enemy soldiers on his own, shaking off wounds, improvising tactics, barely wasting a bullet. He had come from a background of terrible poverty - one of nine children of Texas sharecroppers, his father abandoning the family when he was a child, Audie having to work to support his mother and siblings, learning to shoot so well as he hunted for food to feed his family and afraid to miss because bullets cost money they did not have, turned down by the Marines when he first tried to enlist because he was underweight - and made himself a hero of the kind the modern world seldom presents.
And when he came home - the War's greatest hero, on the covers of magazines, respected and admired throughout his victorious nation - James Cagney persuaded him that he could make it as a Movie Star in Hollywood. He struggled awhile, until his 1949 autobiography, "To Hell And Back" was filmed by Jessie Hibbs in 1955. Who else could star as Audie Murphy but Audie Murphy?
Nobody could. And so Murphy played himself and the film was a huge success, and Murphy was, on top of everything else, a massive movie star. He never really capitalised on this stardom, mainly because he wasn't a particularly good actor. As David Thomson has written "his baby face seemed unconvincing in action and unhappy when called upon to speak". He only made a few major films, most notably John Huston's flawed adaptation of Stephen Crane's brilliant The Red Badge of Courage (1951), in which his seeming stagefright works for the character, and his naturally modest, simple presence is suited to the story. And yet, he is somehow still awkward in the role. In Lillian Ross' excellent behind-the-scenes account of the making of the film, "Picture", Murphy comes across as shy, reserved and obviously damaged by his experiences in the War (he did suffer from a serious and long term case of Post-Traumatic Stress, which he kept private). The charismatic, charming Huston, accustomed to ease and understanding in his dealings with even the most difficult actors, is baffled by Murphy's unresponsiveness and how difficult it is to read him. Murphy seems always to be gazing into the middle distance, his laughter hollow, his smiles forced. Something of this distance is evident in his screen roles, and he was sometimes cast sympathetically: he might have suited The Quiet American (Joseph Makiewicz, 1958) but in the event, the role is beyond his ability and he just seems wooden.
Instead, he became a solid action lead in b-Westerns, making a series of them over the twenty years between 1950 and 1969. A few are more substantial than the majority - he worked with directors like the great Budd Boetticher and Don Siegel - but in the main, Murphy was the 1950s/60s equivalent of Jean Claude Van Damme or another DTV action hero. He had a run in a short-lived Western TV show; Whispering Smith (1961) and Huston used him again in The Unforgiven (1960), but generally his career after his initial breakthrough was as one dimensional as his onscreen presence.
In later life, his facility with casual violence would encourage him in some vigilante episodes - he was charged (and acquitted) with attempted murder after severely beating a man in a bar over the man's poor treatment of a dog, he went on ridealongs with police officers and gave information to prosecutors in Mafia trials, but he was in debt and his career was on the wane, and he died in plane crash in 1971 on his way to settle a debt. For me, he is a fascinating figure. For what he says about the differences between the world in the years after the Second World War and the world now, for what he says about American cinema then and now, and for what he revealed about men and War. Its a shame he wasn't a better actor, and a shame he didn't make more great, or even interesting, films. He would perhaps be better remembered if he had done, and he deserves to be remembered.