This Texas farmboy, whose fortitude led him from an impoverished upbringing to becoming America’s most decorated soldier for his service in World War II, thereafter found a longstanding niche in Hollywood, as his easy charisma marked a successful string of B oaters through the 1950s and ’60s.
The son of a northeast Texas sharecropper, Audie Leon Murphy was 12 when he was forced to drop out of school and help support his large family after his father abandoned them. He became proficient with a rifle–reasoning that if he didn’t hit the small game he targeted, his family wouldn’t eat–when not working for a dollar a day at any farm that would take him on. Murphy was 16 in the spring of 1941, when his mother passed away; following the bombing of Pearl Harbor that December, he sought to enlist, and was rejected as underage. After his 17th birthday, Murphy obtained his older sister’s assistance in backdating his birth records, and the 5’5″, 110-pound youth again tried to sign up–and found himself rejected in turn by the Marines, the Army paratroopers, and the Navy.
Finally accepted by the Army, he had to lobby hard to be considered for combat; his persistence paid off, as he was accepted for advanced infantry training and shipped off to Morocco and the 3rd Infantry Division in early 1943. Murphy’s first action came that July, with the invasion of Sicily; he’d distinguish himself there, as well as Salerno, Anzio and the Volturno River, rising to sergeant and earning decorations for valor. The 3rd Division was ordered to southern France in August, 1944, and Audie’s remarkable heroism in multiple encounters with German forces over the ensuing five months brought a battlefield commission to second lieutenant and earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor. Removed from the front lines and promoted to first lieutenant, Murphy was ultimately presented with 33 U.S. medals, as well as five from France and one from Belgium.
The subject of a July 1945 Life magazine cover story, the baby-faced battle hero caught the eye of James Cagney and decided to pursue the celebrated star’s offer of a Hollywood tryout. By 1948, the Cagney-backed acting and dancing lessons had only netted Murphy a pair of walk-on roles and plenty of self-doubt about his movie prospects.
His big-screen debut was in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven (1948), but the turning point came the following year with the lead role in the Variety Clubs-backed indie effort Bad Boy. The juvenile delinquent drama’s returns and Murphy’s effort were sufficient enough to impress Universal, who tendered a seven-year contract. The studio began pressing him into service as a western lead. In 1950, he was William “Billy the Kid” Bonney in The Kid from Texas; played opposite his then-wife Wanda Hendrix in Sierra; and was a young Jesse James in Kansas Raiders.
John Huston sought Audie’s loan-out to MGM for the director’s ambitious adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War tale The Red Badge of Courage. Despite the effective and acclaimed performances elicited from Murphy and another celebrity soldier–Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin–Huston encountered significant studio interference in bringing the film to completion, and it was not a commercial success (although it would become a minor classic in years to come).
Murphy returned to Universal and his comfort zone on the frontier over the next several years. 1952 found the star cast as The Cimarron Kid, followed by The Duel at Silver Creek, in which he tries to get even with claim-jumping villains. In 1953, Audie was caught in the middle of a war brewing between an Indian tribe and a group of greedy white miners after their gold in Drums Across the River, and he strapped on the irons again to avenge his father’s murder in the following year’s Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), keeping his string of well-received westerns active.
Audie’s next high point in film was one he embraced reluctantly, as Universal was adamant that only he could star in the adaptation of his 1949 best-selling war memoir, To Hell and Back. He originally told the studio, “I don’t think I’m the type. Maybe Tony Curtis would do.” Apparently Murphy was wrong, since public response was such that the film stood for 20 years as Universal’s highest grosser ever…until the release of Jaws in 1975.
By the decade’s end, Murphy would be trying his hand at other studios and other genres–among them the boxing drama World in My Corner (1956) and the military comedy Joe Butterfly (1975)–and was surprisingly intriguing as a naive American attempting to help the South Vietnamese in their struggles against French colonialism and Communist rebels in the political drama The Quiet American (1958), based on the Graham Greene novel. But he’d never stray too far from sagebrushers, even if second-billed in such roles as James Stewart’s wayward brother, in one of his most popular films, Night Passage (1957).
In Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) Audie was a bank robber who assumes the identity of a famed U.S. marshal in order to evade capture, and that same year he took Humphrey Bogart’s role of a charter boat skipper who gets roped into international intrigue in The Gun Runners, the updated remake of Bogie’s classic To Have and Have Not. After that, he was a notorious gunman-for-hire in No Name on the Bullet (1959) ,where the locals in a small frontier town figure out Murphy’s not there for a vacation and in Cast A Long Shadow he was a hard-drinking, long-drifting cowpoke trying to change his fate.
With the coming of the ’60s, he reteamed with director Huston as Burt Lancaster’s conflicted sibling in The Unforgiven. In 1961, Murphy embarked on a single-season TV stint with the NBC cowboy-detective series Whispering Smith, based on the Alan Ladd movie from 1948. He thereafter returned to theatrical features in a rip-roaring western, Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963), starring as a detective going undercover as an outlaw. In The Quick Gun (1964) he was a gunslinger returning to his hometown, and in the revisionist western Apache Rifles, he learned to overcome prejudice against Native Americans.
Arizona Raiders (1965) took Murphy to a post-Civil War story, playing a Confederate soldier who joins Quantrill’s Raiders; in ’66 he was a former lawman on the run in The Texican — but for Murphy, the onset of middle age would dovetail with the decline of the Hollywood cowboy film. On turning40, his good sense of humor surfaced when he said, “I guess my face is still the same, and so is the dialogue. Only the horses were changed.”
Regardless, he had multiple other business interests, including ranching and country music composition, to occupy his time, and he hung up his cinematic spurs after once again playing Jesse James in 1969′s A Time for Dying. In his later years, Murphy came forward about his long struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, vigorously campaigning for providing understanding and support to returning veterans.
Interestingly, when getting ready to film Dirty Harry, director Don Siegel had a thought — wouldn’t it be a coup to cast a well-known combat hero-turned-actor, one who had a “clean cut” screen persona and was very well-liked, as the despicable antagonist? He offered the part to Audie Murphy. Sadly, before he fully explored Siegel’s idea, while Murphy was on a Memorial Day weekend business trip, the light plane he was riding in crashed into a Virginia mountainside. He was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Normally, Medal of Honor recipients’ tombstones are ornamented with gold leaf, however at Murphy’s request, his grave was to be inconspicuous and plain.
In 2005, The History Channel created a Biography installment on Murphy’s life and how his selfless heroism inspired the world. Audie would probably not have been comfortable with the tribute given that he once said, “I never liked being called the ‘most decorated’ soldier. There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did…”
Here are some scenes to enjoy from Universal’s No Name on the Bullet starring Murphy in 1959: