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There are plenty of stories of musicians or athletes going on to have successful movie careers, but there is only one war hero who became a movie star – Audie Murphy. He was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, earning numerous medals and even the Medal of Honor, all for actions while he was only 19-years-old. While he could probably have written a book and spent the rest of his life in a nice house, Murphy had hoped to be a military man for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, he was wounded, preventing him from doing so. Instead, he attracted the attention of Hollywood, becoming a popular Western star during the 1950s.
In 1949, he did write a book, To Hell And Back (which was ghostwritten by David 'Spec' McClure) and obviously, that needed to be turned into a movie. However, it wasn't until 1955 that Universal finally got moving on the project. While Murphy certainly had the film acting experience by then to make a movie, the 31-year-old Murphy was understandably apprehensive about playing his 19-year-old self. Eventually, producer Aaron Rosenberg and director Jesse Hibbs did convince Murphy to do it and To Hell And Back got made.
To Hell And Back reveals that Murphy's story is surprisingly similar to World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York, who came from a rural part of the country and singlehandedly took down Germans after all seemed lost. (York's story was recounted in Howard Hawks' 1941 film Sergeant York.) However, unlike York, Murphy was not opposed to going to war. In fact, he was itching to go after his mother died and thought about making a career of military service.
Once Murphy heads off to war after joining the Army infantry (everyone else rejected him), he trains in North Africa, but he doesn't see action until he leaves for Sicily. Murphy sees action during the Army's push up the Italian peninsula and later in southern France. It was in Holtzwihr that Murphy managed to unload a tank's ammo in the direction of the Germans, just before it explodes. But it was enough to get the Germans to retreat and save his company.
Hibbs and screenwriter Gil Doud turned Murphy's story into a compact 106-minute film, but it is definitely an episodic piece. Since they trace Murphy's life from leaving Texas to the end of his Army career, the movie doesn't even have a common thread, aside from Murphy growing from idealistic boy to military leader. We're not focused on a single action, but given bits and pieces of fighting.
But, what makes To Hell And Back more engaging than you might expect is how realistic it really is. Sure, this isn't Saving Private Ryan level action, with blood, gore and “F*CK!” flying as often as bullets, but this is better-than-average Hollywood war. There's nothing glorified throughout. There is blood, the characters get dirty and Americans die as often as Germans do. One has to think that it helps that Murphy was a part of the film every day to make sure that it was just like he remembered.
It's also worth noting that To Hell And Back works because the rest of the cast is so anonymous, at least to modern audiences. Aside from Murphy, there's no 'big names' or 'movie stars' in this film. Jack Kelly is probably his best known co-star in the film, but only for his work in Maverick on TV. The rest of the cast are people like Marshall Thompson or Greg Palmer and Paul Pecerni – they appeared in a few movies, but never had huge roles. Susan Kohner, who would go on to appear in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959), is in here, but she's in the film for only a few seconds.
I honestly never expected anything from To Hell And Back. I only saw it because it was in a $5 four pack of war movies I picked up. However, I was impressed from the moment it began. Yes, Murphy isn't the best actor, but he certainly does a good job playing himself. He could have done with a better director, though. To Hell And Back is still an above average Hollywood war movie and definitely one to check out this Memorial Day weekend.