Essential: TO HELL AND BACK (1955)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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TO HELL AND BACK is directed by Jesse Hibbs and can be watched on DVD.

Essential: Audie Murphy

This week I thought I’d highlight three clips I found on YouTube. They help us understand Audie Murphy not only as a decorated hero, but also as a humble American.

Audie Murphy Discusses WW2

This short clip is from a radio interview Audie did on Veterans Day in 1963. The interviewer, Vince D’Angelo, tells us Audie was at that time a major in the U.S. Army reserve, and he was widely respected in the military for his service during the Second World War.

Audie says he was originally in the army for three years but it felt longer. He had basic training in his home state of Texas, then additional training in Maryland before he was shipped overseas. He saw action in North Africa and in France. Audie is asked to describe his most memorable day during the war, and he says it was the day he learned the war was over. He had been traveling by train to the French Riviera on a three-day pass.

Audie Murphy – America’s most decorated soldier of WWII awarded Texas Supreme Military Honor

This one is a recording of a Texas legislative session in 2014. Audie was posthumously awarded the state’s highest military honor by the governor, Rick Perry, after a long grassroots effort. The recording is about eight minutes, and the first five minutes provide a good overview of Audie’s relationship with the army, not only during the war, but long after the war ended. He worked with the government on several documentaries, helped with recruiting, and also spoke openly about the effects of post-traumatic stress. You can’t help but get choked up listening to it.

The History of Audie Murphy

This piece is more kid-friendly, though I’d recommend it for people of all ages. It is a short educational video that covers Audie’s life with a focus on his military heroism. The narrator tells us Audie was too young when he tried to enlist in the army after Pearl Harbor so the following June when he turned 17, his sister helped him lie about his age (by adding a year) so he could join up. He was almost rejected again because of his short height and meager weight. He was accepted in as a cook but convinced officers he could handle combat. This video mentions that in addition to his service in Africa and France he also saw action in Italy.

The video describes some of the hardships he faced overseas, including a bout with malaria. His battle with a German machine gun crew is recounted as an example of his bravery. This led to his being given the Distinguished Service Cross, one of many commendations he received. Other heroic adventures are mentioned and we’re told that altogether he received 33 different medals or citations.

The clip goes beyond his time in the war. His movie career is discussed, as well as his later years. We are told about his autobiography TO HELL AND BACK. It was turned into a Universal motion picture in which he starred as himself. I will review that feature film next week.

Essential: INTO THIN AIR (1985)

Last week I reviewed the documentary “Just Another Missing Kid.” It was about college-aged Eric Wilson who disappeared without a trace. He had been traveling from his home in Ottawa to school in Colorado one summer when he was kidnapped and killed. The van he was driving turned up on the east coast, where the Wilsons hired a detective to find out what happened. The police did not seem too interested in the case, since according to them there are many young adults who go missing each year (as if it’s no big deal).

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The documentary was produced in 1982 by Canadian television and screened as a documentary feature in the United States, where it won an Academy Award. Three years later ITC secured the rights to dramatize the story as a made-for-television movie. The result was Into Thin Air which aired on CBS in late 1985 and starred Ellen Burstyn. Though the Wilsons had told their own story in the first film and even re-enacted key sequences, network executives wanted to tell it again with professional actors.

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In a production like this comparisons to the actual story are inevitable. The producers of a TV drama are going to take liberties, though it often isn’t necessary. One major difference is the Wilson name has been changed to Walker. I suppose that was done to protect the family. However, the detective does not have an alias; so actor Robert Prosky is portraying Jim Conway as Jim Conway.

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When you watch the documentary first, followed by the TV movie, you can see how much hokum Hollywood screenwriters and directors like to put on screen. They go out of their way to make Eric as fun-loving as possible in the first ten minutes, playing loud music and goofing around with his brothers; so we can see what a “real” teenager he is (by 1985 standards). Also, the mother keeps telling him to call home when he’s on the road. All this is done to signal the viewer he won’t call home anymore after a certain point, and this loving perfect family will be shattered into a million pieces.


There is a segment after he’s gone missing, where the oldest brother and father search for him in Nebraska. In the documentary, the brother tells us they were haunted every time they saw a van pass by thinking it must be Eric. If Alfred Hitchcock had filmed this TV movie, he would have shown their psychological torture in close-ups every time a van drove by. But in the TV movie, the director wants to give us something more– some big heart-pounding action– so when they see a van drive by, they chase after it down the highway like a bat out of hell. They end up pushing the van off on to the shoulder of the road, the tires practically leaving skid marks on the pavement, just to see if Eric’s inside. I can only imagine what the Wilsons thought when they watched it.

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To its credit the TV movie does keep us fairly entertained, if that’s the right word. Ellen Burstyn and Robert Prosky do an admirable job conveying the predicament the characters are faced with, which helps the whole thing. Burstyn catches herself using Method Actor tricks and refocuses on the gravity of the situation. There are a few lines where she is supposed to rail at the ineptitude of the American justice system, and while the dialogue was cringe in those instances, she overcomes it with a realistic performance.

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When you watch something like this, you realize just how important it is for a grieving family to get assurances from a detective. Often the detective is the only one who gives them anything solid to go on. It’s a meaningful relationship that occurs in spite of tragic circumstances. Circumstances where their idyllic suburban life went poof.

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INTO THIN AIR may currently be viewed on YouTube.


The Fifth Estate is an award-winning Canadian news program, sort of like 60 Minutes. It’s been televised since 1975, and typically its broadcasts are an hour long. In 1982 a special 90-minute edition was produced about a case that had captured the Canadian public’s interest. It was called “Just Another Missing Kid” and was so well-received the producers released it as a documentary film in the U.S. where it won an Academy Award.

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Young Eric Wilson was not just another missing kid. He was a college student who came from a good background and his disappearance was quite different from most teens who go missing each year. Eric’s parents were separated; he and two brothers lived with their mother in Ottawa; while their father had moved to Los Angeles. Eric enrolled in a summer writing course at a college in Colorado and drove a van that he and his brother owned to Boulder. His mother Marilyn asked that he check in while he was on the road. The last call Eric made was from somewhere in Nebraska on the 10th of July in 1978. Then they never heard from him again; he and the van both vanished without a trace.

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The documentary chronicles the family’s search to find out what happened to Eric after they lost contact with him. It plays as as a mystery and a family drama. “Just Another Missing Kid” is different from other non-fiction films because Eric’s parents and brothers retrace their steps and re-enact portions of what happened. The idea of using real-life subjects to portray themselves and act out scenes was not usually how documentaries were made at this time. In case things start to seem too staged, director John Zaritsky wisely cuts to more traditional interview segments where the participants describe their feelings about what was occurring.

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The family would of course find out that Eric was murdered and the van was stolen. So when we reach that part of the story, the narrative becomes more about their quest for justice and ensuring that Eric’s two killers were brought to trial. Because the Wilsons were a Canadian-based family that approached the situation from the outside, they learned the hard way about jurisdictional procedures and how the law worked across international and state borders. The police made a lot of mistakes which the filmmakers are not afraid to depict. As Eric’s brother Peter says at one point, justice probably would not have been served if the family had not persisted and hired their own investigator to do the police’s job for them.

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The Wilsons are very stoic and do not tear up on camera. They are very matter of fact and seem to be saying through their actions and commentary that they experienced a terrible ordeal but it did not devastate or destroy them. The situation was placed on them and they dealt with it. They followed through for Eric’s sake because he was not just any ordinary kid who decided to run away from home one day. Something horrible happened, and they needed answers.

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JUST ANOTHER MISSING KID may currently be viewed on YouTube.