Midway through “Platoon” (1986), Oliver Stone’s classic film about the Vietnam War, a brash private reassures a squad mate assigned to share his foxhole, “Don’t you worry, Junior. You’re hanging with Audie Murphy here, my man!” He doesn’t have to explain the name — or the reputation — he’s evoking. The squad mate knows. The audience knows.
Audie Murphy was well-known as the most highly decorated American soldier of World War II— indeed, in the entire military history of the United States. He was practically a household name before the war’s end, and his fame skyrocketed after the debut of “To Hell and Back," the 1955 film based on Murphy’s 1949 memoir. “To Hell and Back” was autobiographical in a different sense as well, for in it Murphy played himself.
Contrary to common belief, “To Hell and Back” was not the soldier-turned-actor’s first film. Soon after the war, he had been discovered by James Cagney, who perceived a star quality in the slightly-built 20-year-old with a demeanor at once soft-spoken and uncompromising. It took time, but parts came Murphy’s way; “To Hell and Back” was actually his 16th onscreen appearance.
It was also his most personal film, and he approached it very differently from his previous productions, like the Western films in which he frequently appeared. Murphy had a reputation for being easygoing, but with “To Hell and Back” he was much more hands-on, serving as an uncredited technical adviser and making crucial casting decisions. He insisted that the script reflect the experience of all infantrymen, not just his own. “I’ve always felt their story should be told,” said Murphy. “I just play a part in it.” He knew that the audience would include thousands of veterans, noting, “There’s going to be one hell of a jury looking at this film and reviewing it out front.”
“To Hell and Back” was shot in 1954, primarily at the U.S. Army base at Fort Lewis, Washington, which provided lavish assistance in the form of tanks, trucks, and other vehicles. Nonetheless, the battle sequences made Murphy uneasy. They seemed like pale imitations of reality — “powder-puff battle,” he observed. The scenes made him uneasy for another reason as well because they sometimes caused his actual combat experiences to come flooding back. “Your mind plays back something that you don’t want to hear or see or feel again,” he said. Director Jesse Hibbs noted in combat scenes that Murphy “didn’t seem to think about acting. There was a primitive alertness about him…. He reacted to every explosion and every sound of machine-gun fire instinctively.”
Although Murphy displayed heroism on many battlefields, two incidents did more than any others to make him America’s most decorated soldier. In one of them, Murphy seized a captured German machine gun and used it to wipe out 22 enemies. He did this partially in reaction to the death of his best friend, Lattie Tipton, called “Brandon” in the film. Brandon was played by Charles Drake, whom Murphy selected because they had been in previous films together and Drake reminded him of Tipton. Murphy had trouble nerving himself to relive the death of his friend, and Hibbs had to delay shooting the scene until Murphy could handle it. When filming began, Hibbs felt as though “Audie wasn’t doing much acting in it. He played it as he felt it. His lips were quivering and his eyes filled…. When Charles Drake was hit and cried out ‘Murphy ’— Audie wasn’t acting from there on.”
Murphy’s other great battlefield feat occurred in the Colmar Pocket in France, when he climbed aboard a blazing tank destroyer, manned its machine gun, and single-handedly fought off two reinforced companies of German infantry. In the film, the scene is so incredible that it would have come across as outlandish if the audience did not already know that Murphy had experienced it in real life. Even then, it had moments that seemed more like Hollywood than reality. At one point Murphy calls in artillery fire, and the Fire Direction Center asks just how close the Germans are to his position. “Hold the phone, and I’ll let you talk to them!” he replies. Yet during the battle, Murphy had made that very retort.
“To Hell and Back’s” final scene shows Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor. Murphy hated the scene and wanted to kill it. Most viewers would be aware of that outcome, he reasoned. “And for the others, the events will speak for themselves.” It took two whole days for director Hibbs to persuade Murphy that a film about America’s most decorated hero could only end with his being awarded the greatest honor his country had to give.