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TO HELL AND BACK (director: Jesse Hibbs; screenwriters: Gil Doud/based on the autobography by Audie Murphy; cinematographer: Maury Gertsman; editor: Edward Curtiss; music: Joseph Gershenson; cast: Audie Murphy (Himself), Marshall Thompson (Johnson), Charles Drake (Brandon), Gregg Palmer (Lieutenant Manning), Jack Kelly (Kerrigan), Paul Picerni (Valentino), Susan Kohner (Maria), Denver Pyle (Thompson), Richard Castle (Kovak), Bruce Cowling (Captain Marks), Harold Hart (Sgt. Klasky), Mary Field (Mrs. Murphy); Runtime: 106; Universal-International; 1955)
“A most pleasing biopic of a genuine WW11 hero.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A most pleasing biopic of a genuine WW11 hero. The film accurately reflects the WW11 patriotic fervor of Audie Murphy. To see this film so long after the 1950s, takes away the significance it had when it first played in theaters. It was very popular, in fact it was the highest grossing film at Universal until twenty years later and Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Its clichés give way to Audie’s breathtaking heroics, the authentic battle scenes, and the likability of the hero. Audie was not only the most decorated soldier of WW11, but of all time. James Cagney recommended his fellow Irishman, Audie, to Hollywood after seeing the hero on the cover of Life. Unfortunately, after a brilliant three years in the service and fighting in seven major campaigns, Audie’s dream of a military career and of attending West Point came to an end with a hip injury in a major battle towards the close of the war.

The uniqueness of playing himself in this autobiographical film, based on his book “To Hell and Back,” added much to the film’s many other merits. Also, Jesse Hibbs does a fine job directing this routine 1950s type of war story and doesn’t ruin it with unneeded embellishments. He keeps profanity out, has no use for showing blood, and even though it’s a highly patriotic film it doesn’t wave the flag in your face. In fact it has an uncanny comic tone, as even in the middle of battle the men make wisecracks.

Audie’s dad abandoned his struggling North Texas family, and Audie decided to quit school at 12 and work at a local farm to support his beloved mom (Mary Field) and his five younger siblings. His married sister had difficulty taking care of her own family, and could only offer moral support. When his mother died, the children were sent to an orphanage. Without having the responsibilities of taking care of his family, he joined the Army at 16 after the Marines and Navy turned him down. Since he was underage his married sister, who was appointed as his legal guardian, had to give him a letter with her permission.

Audie’s assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division and is placed with a tough veteran squad of mostly northerners, where he easily bonds and they all become close buddies throughout the war. The running cliché gag is no one wants rank, no one wants to leave the front to go home until the war is over, and there’s an unswerving loyalty and camaraderie among them. Murphy has a very pleasant demeanor and even though he lacked the education skills and was short of physical stature, he made up for it with spunk, courage, and the ability to make the right decisions in the heat of battle. He was loyal, self-effacing, heroic, polite, and soft-spoken, qualities that endeared him to the other soldiers and the brass.

Audie is first stationed in North Africa but General Patton has made short work of the Germans, so he sees no combat. The regaled 3rd Infantry is then given amphibious training and sent to Sicily. He sees his first combat and heroically takes out a machine-gun nest, and immediately earns the respect of his fellow footsoldiers. Sicily is taken in 38 days, as his division kept making their way through Italy despite resistance, rainy weather, and mountainous terrain. Taking a break in Naples for R&R he meets a sweet girl called Maria (Susan Kohner), who comes from a poor but proud family. Her father also abandoned the large family. Audie is flat as a romantic lead, but the scenes of them together was sweetly done and not embarrassing. His buddies end up with prostitutes, though the filmmaker does not show any explicit sex.

Audie is much better looking on the battlefield than when forced to act or show his emotions. When his division lands in Anzio they meet up with five crack German divisions, and Audie puts his ass on the line and does his usual hero thing by leading a squad to take out a farmhouse of Germans firing down on the advancing troops. The farmhouse becomes important as an observation post, and was a key to their advancing. Promotions follow, as he becomes a sergeant. Later he will reluctantly be made a lieutenant. But death also comes from these battles, as he loses a few of his close friends. The veteran soldiers have the following saying: do not come too close with the replacements because it’s hard when someone close dies. So they try to remain tight only with the ones who brought them to the dance.

After victory in Anzio his division pushes on to southern France, as the war nears its end with the Germans forced to retreat back to Germany. Audie’s last act of heroics gives him the wound that ended his army career, as he takes charge against an assault of German Panzer tanks by standing atop of a disabled Sherman tank dangerously leaking gas and using his machine gun to knock off all the Germans within his range. He jumps off just before the tank explodes. This earns him a Medal of Honor.

Audie’s the real deal. Though the film might lack an emotional spark to connect with all the soldiers, nevertheless it connects with Audie–a real hero and not John Wayne acting like one. It came before the country changed and our perceptions of our government with it. We no longer wish to give a blank check for the government to fill in its war goals, that time has long since ended. But for its time period, the film caught a slice of American idealization that should be seen as it was. As a war film, this one is above average despite the acting and script not being more than competent.

It was filmed in Technicolor.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”