Price of Valor: The Life of Audie Murphy

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Audie Murphy became the poster child for timeless American virtues of innocence, humility, honesty, and steely courage, and yet he would be haunted by nightmares for the rest of his life. Starring beside actors like Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, and Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy would become an enormously popular Hollywood star, all the while suffering from a feeling of emotional numbness that led him to seek thrills and ultimately die tragically and penniless.

The story of Audie Murphy is really the story of the effect of war on the individual soldier and how he must handle “the single most pervasive, traumatic experience of war”: killing and seeing others killed. David A Smith tells a timeless story: one of heroism and tragedy. Audie Murphy’s life story is the “cautionary tale of a hero” that the American public has forgotten.

 

His grave is marked by a standard Arlington Cemetery tombstone of white marble, just like the hundreds of thousands of others. It stands at the end of a row, shaded by the branches of a massive Willow Oak tree, beside the road that passes north of the amphitheater near the Tomb of the Unknowns. Groundskeep-

ers built a flagstone walkway around the tree to accommodate the steady trickle of visitors. Each day, small groups of people drift over, some of them clutching a map from the visitor center, obviously searching for the grave. They pause and a few take off their hats. They speak to each other in hushed tones. Some obviously know more about the record of achievement that is abbreviated on the front of the stone than do others. “The Medal of Honor,” one man says softly to his companion. “They don’t just give those away.”

Seen from afar, among the orderly ranks and files of headstones this one is indistinguishable from all the others. Approaching closer, one may notice a small American flag pushed into the soft ground beside it. Its story of honor and heroism is only hinted at by the letters inscribed on the gravestone.

Audie L. Murphy occupies a distinct place in the roster of famous Americans. During his short, troubled life, he served as an American archetype in at least two ways. First and foremost, he was a soldier and decorated war hero—the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War. His actions in World War II were of the sort from which chroniclers, balladeers, and poets since the days of the ancient Greeks have composed legends. He was the man charging headlong into fortified enemy positions, holding his own against an onslaught of enemy soldiers, defying the odds. Always brave. Always valorous. Always alone.

Second, Audie Murphy was a movie star. He made nearly fifty movies in a career that spanned twenty-three years—ten times as long as the war experience that made him famous—and during his peak of popularity received more fan mail than almost any other actor. The quality of the movies he made varied widely as he took on westerns, war movies, and “serious” contemporary scripts. Some directors with whom he worked coaxed stirring, praiseworthy performances from him that seemed to portend a hopeful career. In other films, critics would pointedly and acidulously note that he seemed lost, detached, or simply going through the motions: an actor distracted, a man unable to engage.

Murphy was not alone in being a movie star who served in the war. Other leading men like Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart did so, although neither was as decorated as Murphy himself would be. Unlike them or, say, baseball player Ted Williams, Audie Murphy was not an established star celebrity who went off to war, but instead a poor boy from Texas who volunteered for the Army in 1942, a year before his eighteenth birthday. He endured some of the toughest sustained infantry combat in the European Theater. Few people beyond his division had heard his name when he became the most decorated soldier of the war and was suddenly hailed as a hero.

In the summer of 1945, his face, impossibly young and fresh, appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Life at the time was the supreme arbiter of all things American, the herald and billboard of the “American Century,” and to appear on its cover was to embody all that the country wanted to think of itself. More than anyone else, Murphy became the very incarnation of the average American who went to war, performed valorous and selfless deeds, and then came home to resume his life—except that in Murphy’s case, he did not return to the poor, small town, rural Texas that he knew but to a life in Hollywood and of celebrity.

 “War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth,” said journalist Ernie Pyle, who reported the news from the Italian front while Audie Murphy was fighting there. When the war was done, Murphy was a national hero, and to his embarrassment and obvious ill-ease he was treated like a dignitary, given parades, and made to give speeches. Hardly before the shock of being home had worn off, he found himself summoned to Hollywood by one of the biggest stars in the movie business.

There were, of course, other Congressional Medal of Honor winners and many other heroes in the war, but few became permanent celebrities, let alone of the Hollywood sort; and in Audie Murphy the tension between the real-life heroism he performed on the battlefield and the celebrity that was awarded him afterward was almost always evident.

Jack Valenti, a fellow Texan and veteran, journalist, and longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America, wrote that “the important fact, the significance of Audie Murphy’s valor, is that he was a simple, ordinary youngster, with no indications or outcroppings to show the stern courage within him that was shortly to burn as bright as the glint of the sun.”


Indeed, one of the complexities of Audie Murphy’s story is that he did seem on the surface so thoroughly simple and ordinary. It was a central ingredient, even, of his cultural image. What made him so appealing, however, was not his being average but rather his being emblematic—the ideal of “everyday American” virtue, an embodiment of Norman Rockwell America. He was how the country wanted to think of itself.

Yet, lurking below the Norman Rockwell–like image of Audie Murphy was what we now call “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” from which he so clearly and devastatingly suffered. During World War II it was called “battle fatigue” and in the war before that “shell shock.” Whatever the label, it plagued him for the rest of his life after the war. It was a condition which at the time was little understood, and for the treatment of which there was almost no help available. He was aware of how it affected him and sometimes gave way to bitterness about it.

Killing, psychologists say, is “the single most pervasive, traumatic experience of war.” Second to this is the emotional distress experienced by observing violence and the death of friends and comrades. Murphy had done more than his fair share of killing and seeing others killed. Despite an appealingly fresh-faced and youthful appearance that stayed with him well into his adult years, his wartime trauma left him scarred. There was always a profound melancholy just under his surface along with a fatalism that was completely at odds with his image. The tension made him an interesting actor, but it came at a high cost.

“Before the war, I’d get excited and enthused about a lot of things,” he once admitted to film director John Huston, “but not any more.” Murphy often appeared withdrawn and depressed, unable to focus too long on any one task. Overwhelmed by pessimism, he was subject to hair-raising bouts of temper. He was tormented by nightmares. Within a week of flying home he was reliving the war in his dreams. He would wake up yelling for his buddies who had died in his arms. He slept with the light on, and then resorted to sleeping pills. Military historian Max Hastings described Audie Murphy as “a psychological mess of epic proportions.”

Some of Murphy’s torments also had their roots in his childhood, which was marked by profound insecurities. Murphy came of age during the Great Depression and the uncertainty of those years left their mark on him. In his acclaimed book The Greatest Generation, journalist Tom Brokaw noted that children like Audie Murphy “watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. They had learned to accept a future that played out one day at a time.” Murphy never looked far into the future; the present was always enough of a challenge. His father’s periodic absences and the strain they put on his mother also affected him deeply. He was both fiercely proud and remarkably withdrawn. Even when he was a young boy, adults who knew him sensed his pride, his sensitivity, and his anger.

But it was Murphy’s war trauma that shaped his adult life more than anything else, and his responses to the distinctive stresses of war are not unique. A friend of mine who teaches at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College once told me that there were certain clips from movies he refused to show to any of his classes in which there were veterans. The images and, even more, the sounds of combat, he said, could trigger terrible and unpredictable reactions. Given this, the more one knows about Audie Murphy’s story the more difficult it is to watch To Hell and Back, the 1955 film version of his life based on his memoir in which he starred as himself. Not only was a fragile and lonely soul made to relive the pain of his mother’s death, but amid Hollywood-choreographed explosions and gunfire he was made to relive the deaths of his closest companions as well.

In the 1959 movie No Name on the Bullet, a psychological drama in the form of a western, Murphy plays a hired killer named John Gant who has grown numb from his line of work, and speaks of death with cold detachment. In this movie, as in so many others he made, Murphy’s character is low-key, a man of few words, a distant look in his eyes; a man who has been drained by his experiences.

“I can’t make my mind accept that Gant is the vicious killer I know him to be,” says the town doctor at one point. “I’ve played chess with him. I’ve talked with him. I found myself liking him.” Similarly, it might be hard to recognize not only the war hero but the tormented veteran in the small, quiet young man who stepped off the Army transport plane returning home to instant fame. “A man can’t escape his past,” another character remarks of John Gant. That certainly became true for Audie Murphy.

The tree that shades Murphy’s tombstone in Arlington Cemetery, and on hot summer days provides a welcome relief to those who come to find his final resting place and pay their respects, also hints at the shadow the war cast over his life. His story is one of triumph, trauma, and ultimately tragedy. He was a man who, without ever intending to be, had to live out his life as the most decorated soldier of World War II and one of the most celebrated heroes in American history.

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