War Movie Mondays: ‘To Hell and Back’

This week’s pick salutes World War II’s most decorated hero. Audie L. Murphy stars as himself in the 1955 film To Hell and Back directed by Jesse Hibbs. The film was based on Murphy’s autobiography of the same name.

The film also stars Marshall Thompson (Pvt. Johnson), Charles Drake (Pvt. Brandon), Jack Kelly (Pvt. Kerrigan), Paul Picerni (Pvt. Valentino), Richard Castle (Pvt. Kovak), and Art Aragon (Pvt. Sanchez).

The film opens up as a young Murphy struggles to keep his family’s farm going during the Great Depression. When Murphy’s father deserts the family, young Audie drops out of school in order to work full time and now become the head of the household for his younger siblings and ill mother.

When World War II breaks out, Audie takes the advice of his friend and neighbor to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corp and go career in order to provide for his siblings and older sister due to the death of their mother. Audie is denied due to his small stature and his boyish looks. After being rejected by the Navy and Paratroopers, he enlists in the U.S. Army to become an infantry man in the 3rd Infantry Division, the “Marne Division”.

Audie hits the beaches of North Africa in November 1942 to help the British and Free French forces drive out the German and Italian forces who are being sandwiched into Tunisia by the advancing British 8th Army moving East from Egypt. As soon as he joins the men of the 3rd Division, he is ridiculed due to how young he appears. The men of his squad soon take a liking to him after he’s proven himself, especially Johnson (Thompson), Brandon (Drake), and Kerrigan (Kelly) who become his pals throughout their campaigns together.

Once the Allies liberate North Africa and assault the island of Sicily, Murphy becomes promoted to Corporal after taking the initiative against an enemy position. At first he is reluctant to take a promotion because instinctively, he always takes command.  His commanding officer Captain Marks (Bruce Cowling) wants him to take a battlefield commission in order to become an officer. Murphy doesn’t want to take on the job because he would have to transfer out of the unit and he doesn’t want to abandon his friends.

The majority of the film takes place during the grueling months and countless battles on the Italian mainland from Naples to Rome in late 1943-44. The 3rd Division along with many other American and British units endured harsh weather conditions, geographical obstacles such as mountain ranges, rivers, and valleys. The German forces utilized as much terrain as possible including the Monte Casino Line which was a series of mountain fortifications in central Italy which the Germans formed to stop the Allied advance towards Rome.

The 3rd Division took part at the famous Anzio landings on the West coast of the Italian boot in order to bypass the Casino Line and establish a beach head two hours from Rome. The further they advanced, the stiffer the German opposition became for the men of the 3rd Division.

One scene in the film which is brilliantly executed is when Murphy’s squad encounters a farmhouse which they hope to capture as a forward observation post. They have tried to capture it several times and have been driven back by the Germans who also covet the strategic importance of the farmhouse. Murphy’s men assault the farmhouse and take heavy casualties. Every single officer who is brought in to replace the other who has been killed or wounded, gets hit once again. As always, Murphy takes command and leads his men in the assault to capture the farmhouse.

This part of the film is also where many main characters begin to get bumped off, like Kovak (Castle) a Polish native who wanted to gain his U.S. citizenship by joining the army. When he is killed, Pvt. Sanchez takes it the hardest after a new replacement discovers his mess stove outside. Sanchez grabs it from the new recruit and goes outside with it. Murphy follows Sanchez outside to watch him bury Kovak’s mess stove which he made coffee for the men with.

The film also shows the fragile nature as veterans of countless campaigns who avoided getting to know replacements. This is a formula made famous in almost every World War II movie from the 1940s to the 1970s. While gathering men to go and knock out a German tank which is bogged down in a muddy field, a few new recruits want to prove their stuff by accompanying Murphy who quickly refuses their help.

The recruits take it very personal and are corrected by Pvt. Johnson who says that its because vets like themselves don’t want to know new guys cause they usually are the ones who get hit first. Johnson says that you’re stuck with the buddies who come with you, but you don’t make any others after that. The new recruits understand now why many men act the way they do.

As the Allied forces swept through northern and southern France towards the German border in late 1944, the 3rd Division was leading the way. It is here in France that Murphy eventually becomes a “gentleman by an act of Congress” and is made a 2nd Lieutenant by Captain Marks and Col. Howe (Paul Langton) due to his extraordinary leadership qualities.

Both Marks and Howe want to send Murphy to West Point Military Academy when the war is over. Murphy feels that because he dropped out of school in order to provide for his family, would not make him eligible for West Point. Howe and Marks believe that with some army courses and help, he’ll be able to attend.

The film concludes after a decisive battle on the German border where Murphy defeats a German force after being wounded in the hip. He has been given many awards such as the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, the French Legion of Merrit, and is finally given the Congressional Medal of Honor after he returns from the hospital due to his injuries sustained in the previous battle.

To Hell and Back was a huge hit in 1955 and solidified Murphy’s acting career which already included several westerns, and eventually the lead character in John Huston’s film version of Stephen Cranes’s Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. Murphy originally wanted Tony Curtis to play him in the film, but Jesse Hibbs and Universal producer Aaron Rosenberg convinced Murphy that he had to play himself in the film. Murphy does a fantastic job and its hard to imagine anyone else as he in the film.

To Hell and Back is available on DVD through Universal Pictures Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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