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March 2010

To Hell And Back

cast: Audie Murphy, Marshall Thompson, Charles Drake, Jack Kelly, and David Janssen

director: Jesse Hibbs

102 minutes (15) 1955
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Second Sight DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Richard Bowden

To Hell And Back

A largely ordinary film about an extraordinary man, To Hell And Back is the movie autobiography of Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of all time. Born to a poor share-cropper family in Texas, he had only five years of schooling and was orphaned at 16. After the slim-built Murphy was refused enlistment in the other services he finally joined the US Army a few days after his 18th birthday. Over the next 400 days he saw action in various European combat zones as well as North Africa, during which his exceptional personal valour and leadership was recognised through regular promotion and decoration. After leaving the armed services in September 1945 he was invited to Hollywood at the behest of James Cagney, who presumably responded to the still-fresh looks of the hero, before gaining his first lead in Bad Boy (1949). He remained an actor and producer for most of his life, ultimately appearing in well over 40 films, and pre-eminent amongst his output were westerns.

To Hell And Back was made a decade after he left the service, and was a natural enough choice of subject matter. Based upon Murphy's book of reminiscences of the same name, the film was viewed as a useful tonic for recruitment after the Korean War by the Army and they co operated enthusiastically with the studio's production, supplying a good amount of supporting men and equipment. After a brief opening section set in the actor's childhood, the rest of the movie focuses on Murphy's striking military career. Surrounding the soldier are the combat archetypes of such films: the foot soldiers who reminisce about women, bicker, joke and die to the grief of their fellows; those grumbling, fearful men who nevertheless get the job done. Typical of its time, the film presents an uncomplicated view of events, with little effort to probe the psychology of its central character, ending before his discharge.

Director Jesse Hibbs (who, after helming some largely forgotten films eventually retreated into television), does a competent piece of work but it must be admitted Murphy's uniqueness deserved better - someone like Aldrich or Siegel. Or Samuel Fuller, who around the same time was producing such work as The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonet! Fuller was a cigar-chomping ex-infantryman himself and he brought to war projects an essential grit - as well as directorial flair - that's too often missing from To Hell And Back.

Whether or not Hibbs served himself during the conflict I don't know, but his version of World War II, made conservatively and with the army looking over his shoulder, lacks the cynicism and bitter truths one can find elsewhere. Indeed a good deal of To Hell And Back, especially during the early parts, is relatively light-hearted. Turned down by the Marines and paratroopers for being underweight in real life, there's a suggestion at the start that Murphy was a little sickly - a poor start for a hero. Hence we see him suffering from sea-sickness on his way to his first combat zone, and then suffering a reaction from his inoculations which, we are told, has laid him up in bed for a week. So much so, in fact, that his superiors consider sending away from the front line (a fact ruefully recalled later)...

What is striking about To Hell And Back is how ironic it is. Just as 'Murphy' the soldier initially seems an unlikely superhero, so Murphy the actor might be the last person you'd cast as himself (perhaps anticipating this, the star allegedly suggested Tony Curtis for the lead). Unlike the brawling, macho hero figures familiar to cinema audiences, Murphy is boyish and slight looking - young enough, even in 1955, to play himself as a youth. An unassuming if determined character, 'Murphy' is somewhat ill at ease with women (a trait, incidentally, not reflecting real life), one reason why perhaps the 'Italian interlude' of To Hell And Back, when the soldiers are on leave, is the least convincing of the narrative. He's an introspective, diffident character hardly marked out as a leader of men. And yet this is the man who, amongst other acts of extreme valour, stood up on a burning tank with a machine gun to keep the German advance at bay and destroyed several machine gun nests on his own. The man of whom the 3rd Infantry Commander in World War II called "the greatest combat soldier I have ever known" and another Major-General dubbed "beyond a doubt the finest soldier I have ever seen."

There's interesting power occasionally in the film too, exactly because the actor's mild, everyman quality disavows those extreme qualities laying hidden below the baby-faced surface, even while the star's real life history affirms them. When Murphy weeps at the death of a newly fallen comrade, although it's just a short scene, the grief seems true and universal; in its modest way a testament to the courage and loss of all fighting men, and not just Hollywood's emotional artifice. John Ford's work, to take one example, includes moving graveside scenes, but with the likes of poetically manufactured heroes Fonda and Wayne. None have such a unique impact as this.

Such a moment of introspection is unusual in To Hell And Back. Ending as it does with Murphy's war drawing to a close and a parade, understandably the film offers no portrait of the star's later years, decades when he faced stress-related nightmares, health issues, an amount of painkiller dependency and other personal issues. Interestingly at one point the star did consider a sequel to the film, tentatively entitled 'The Way Back', even going so far as reportedly writing a script in 1956, but this idea fell by the wayside.

Murphy, who never considered himself more than a competent actor, wears the mantle of great courage very lightly in his film, just as he did in real life (attempting to give his medals away to relatives for instance). One reason for this is perhaps the star's feelings towards the material. Although To Hell And Back was, unsurprisingly, his most successful film career-wise he admitted to a slackening of interest in events. After all, he'd already done them first hand and then revisited them during the writing of his book, so much so that he "got tired of reliving all these experiences." Murphy saw the purpose of the film as utilitarian as much as entertaining, showing newer infantry what it was really like just as much as pleasing the public. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the American military has apparently always preferred Wayne's much more dynamic Sands Of Iwo Jima over this film as classic entertainment for serving ranks.

Murphy won 33 military awards, including every medal of valour America gives, as well as the Legion de Honour and Belgian Croix de Guerre. By contrast his film, although financially successful, received far fewer accolades. Recently reissued in all its widescreen, colour glory and in a good print (if lacking any documentary support) it's still worth a look. For a less compromising view of war on foot, then the aforementioned Fuller is one place to start; for war's doomed romance you'd want to see Sirk's A Time To Live And A Time To Die. But To Hell And Back, with all flaws, is a sobering reminder of what a mighty real hero looks like.

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