To count down to Memorial Day, we’ll be presenting a daily war movie to get you in the fighting spirit. Today, Boots on the Ground presents:
To Hell and Back (1955)
To Hell and Back is an incredible anomaly of filmmaking – a film based on real life events, based on an autobiography (albeit a ghost-written one) in which the main hero plays himself in order to recreate events that already happened to him. In a very real sense, this film is a biopic where the central figure plays himself – an autobiopic (if that phrase exists). I may not have an exhaustive knowledge of film, but I can’t think of any other time in film history when this has happened on such a large scale.
By anyone’s standards, Audie Murphy is a badass. He’s a young man who grew up poor in a rural Texas town wherein his father abandons his family, leaving a mother with nine children to feed. When she dies not long after, Audie has to take care of his siblings all on his own. Then The United States enters World War II. Because of his small stature, Murphy is turned away from service, but ends up talking his way into getting grunt duty in the army as an infantryman. Despite being the butt of jokes, especially ones playing off the “infant” part of “infantry,” he rises in the ranks due to marks of incredible bravery and skill – leading up to an event in which he holds off a German infantry strike by himself. The event earned him the highly coveted Medal of Honor.
This is an engaging hero story that hits every note from the textbook, but it carries an added shine of authenticity. Growing up poor, taking care of his family, volunteering for service and saving the lives of his entire unit. These things all happened, and they are deftly recreated for the screen. Plus, throw in his baby-faced looks and constant disbelief of his abilities, and you have the prototypical underdog story in real life.
The story works on screen primarily because Murphy lived a very cinematic life – one that might have been written out of thin air by the creative minds in Hollywood at the time, one that the press and the United States Government could easily, and happily, display to the American public as a sign of strength and character.
Beyond the idealism and bravery displayed, there’s also a fair amount of action sequences and explosions (something like 1,000 pounds of explosives used) that remain impressive even today. The battle scenes are epic in scale, but shot very intimately as they, especially the last sequence, focus almost entirely on Murphy.
If there is one downfall of the film, it’s that the other characters play as window dressing in an incredible story of one man’s selfless bravery. They aren’t nearly as developed as in most war movies where the story follows an entire unit. Murphy befriends and gets close with several other soldiers, but there’s nothing to indicate that this is anything but his story. However, the self-centric nature of the movie is justified by what a rare feat Murphy achieves after bunkering down on a tank that could explode at any moment to ensure that the men in his unit aren’t mowed down by incoming German fire. As a coda to that heroism, Murphy actually ends up being hospitalized for injuries and then heads back into active duty. And as a coda to the film, Murphy transformed the cinematic version of his heroism into a healthy acting career.
If anything, To Hell and Back is a severe look at the world of war that serves as a backdrop to how the actions of one man can affect a large group or even an entire nation. It’s intense enough to make me wonder how Murphy could have acted in scenes without having major trauma flashbacks, but it’s also an intimate, endearing story about a hero that soars far, far above the call of duty.
Somehow, it adheres and recreates the classic war hero archetype, and certainly deserves its status as a classic. One that I could watch everyday and still appreciate.
Go to hell and back, and read more Boots on the Ground.