Audie Murphy’s 1949 autobiography served as the basis for a 1955 motion picture from Universal that dramatized his military experiences during WWII. In the opening sequence we learn that his childhood was kind of hellish; his father had run out on his mother and nine kids leaving them in abject poverty. This situation forced Audie to quit school at 12 and take a full time job to help support the Murphy family. By age 16, his mother had died and his younger siblings were sent elsewhere to live. In order to support himself, Audie decided to enlist in the armed services. This was right after Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
Because of his age, height and weight, Audie was rejected by three branches of the military. He was finally accepted into the Army as an infantryman. After basic training he was sent to North Africa then on to Italy. The film does not waste time getting right into the battle scenes. So immediately we get a sense of the danger young Audie faced. There are some humorous moments where he seems like the last one who will adapt to these conditions; and his fellow soldiers help him through an initial awkward phase. But Audie soon gains confidence and proves himself.
We get to know the other men in his company, and they come from a variety of backgrounds. What makes these scenes interesting is how Audie the actor plays these scenes as a tribute to his old buddies, most of whom would be killed in battle. You can’t help but sense he is trying his best to give the most faithful rendering possible of this story, not for his own personal glory, but to ensure that the other men are honored and come across as heroes in their own right.
Originally Audie did not want to play himself in the film version of his life story. He had suggested the studio use Tony Curtis; but Universal execs persuaded him to do it instead. Perhaps he had originally felt self-conscious about the idea of playing himself; and in a way it is a bit surreal to see him at the age of 30 portraying scenes from his life from when he was in his teens. However, Audie had retained his youthful looks into the mid-50s, meaning he could still convincingly pass as a teen when the movie was made.
TO HELL AND BACK was produced in Technicolor and photographed in CinemaScope, which adds to its realism. It is important to see the story in widescreen, to get a sense of how the action on the battlefield affected so many men all at once. It is also important to remember when watching the film that Audie is saying things as he probably originally said them over a decade earlier. The expression in his eyes indicates that this is really an acting performance that is relying entirely on emotion memory to convey the truth about what happened.
TO HELL AND BACK is directed by Jesse Hibbs and can be watched on DVD.