Sunday, June 6, 2010

Unsung Legends: Audie Murphy

A new series I hope to revisit from time to time, discussing some of my favorite screen performers who never really get much notice in modern days.

Audie Murphy. A World War 2 hero, and one of the most decorated men in American history. It's no surprise he eventually became a Hollywood star. He had a childlike face, with broad appeal, and sweet expressions. A presence that showed age, and days of pain in war. Yet at the same time a soft, gentle like, look. Almost too innocent to be true. Murphy was never the villain. Never the huge over the top standout. Always a straight forward performer. Very much cut from the same mold as Jimmy Stewart.

I first became aware of Murphy during an afternoon showing of of Night Passage, in which he plays the Utica Kid. The troubled brother, and rival, to Grant McLaine (Stewart). Though the movie was passably entertaining, Murphy managed to stand out quite a bit. That look of experience, and yet simplicity, was quite attracting to me. I wanted to see more of his performances. Like metal to a magnet, I was sucked in by that glowing charm.

From there I went on to see Murphy in films like Destry, No Name on the Bullet, The Quiet American (1958), and Gunsmoke, among others. All of which were passable films, but all suffered from being mostly generic 50's westerns. Some minor messages on the cost of violence. But mostly gunfighter comes to town, gets girl, fights law/other gunfighter, and that's it. Never the kind of films that really attract mainstream love and affection so many years after their release.

Surprisingly enough the film Murphy is most well known for is a movie in which he plays himself. In 1955 Hollywood was ready for the post-WW2 era of cinema to begin. And where else to start but one of the key faces of the war? Audie Murphy. Already a seasoned actor by then, stepped up to revisit the harsh conditions of war which lead to his public fame. The loss of his many friends, and fellow soldiers. The personal sufferings. It's a rather captivating film, and Murphy just nails that role without becoming preachy, or self obsessed.

Though I suppose what really hurts Murphy as a performer is that he was never really given the opportunity to shine. Despite being great, To Hell and Back, is not exactly that popular of a movie. Written off by some as being too simple, if not overly glorified.

Written off. Despite his 25+ years in cinema, those words can be all too often used to describe the films of Audie Murphy. Such a charismatic performer wasted on genre film after genre film, never able to escape the bounds despite his best efforts (with films like Quiet American). Murphy became a king of the secondary western. A collection of vaguely seen gunfighter and lawmen tales that never grabbed the heart of the nation.

Which is a shame. Audie Murphy was a hero of the country, and a gripping, overly lovable, presence on the screen. He commanded affection, with a childlike glow. Respect, with a quick hand, and wit. So I say to you, if you've never seen an Audie Murphy film give him a chance. An unsung legend of cinema, far to few, know.

2 better thoughts:

CMrok93 said...

Not only an actor, but one of the most decorated American soldiers ever. If he was still alive, he would be somehow still the American dream. However, tragedies come to all.

Univarn said...

@CMrok93 most definitely. I opted to not talk about his tragic early death, and only concentrate on his life.

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