The Western Channel has recently been running a number of Audie Murphy westerns. One of them, Six Black Horses, I recalled with particular fondness from seeing it back in 1962 or '63, when I was in my early teens. So I DVR-ed it late one night and sat down to watch it the following day with the intent of making it one of my "Another Look" entries on this site, perhaps with some added background on Mr. Murphy himself.
But I ran into a slight problem … to my dismay, I found that Six Black Horses did not—for me, at least—stand the test of time. Oh, it's not terrible by any means. Let's face it, any Western with a screenplay by Burt Kennedy is bound to have some interesting scenes and some passages of terrific dialogue. And Dan Duryea always makes for a snide, memorable villain (or, in this case, a sort of quasi-villain). Toss in the lovely Joan O'Brien (underrated and underused in a handful of movies co-starring a diverse cast of leading men that included John Wayne, Cary Grant, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lewis) as a lady of dubious motives, and all the ingredients—including, lest I forget, Audie playing a soft-spoken drifter with blazing guns—should have been there. Yet somehow it never quite gelled in a fully satisfying way.
But enough of that. This isn't a trash piece on Six Black Horses. That's not something I do, and the movie isn't trash-worthy in the first place … But neither is it praise-worthy on the level I was anticipating when I sat down to re-watch it after some forty years.
So, course-correcting, it occurred to me to expand my focus beyond a single Audie Murphy movie and take a look at the man himself. And if ever there was an individual who rated having his life examined and publicly trumpeted, it is Audie Leon Murphy. His story has been told many times—better, often, than I can do here in a few paragraphs on this blog. But I'm going to go ahead and give it a shot, anyway.
Audie Murphy played a hero in the movies—mostly a cowboy hero, mostly in what were considered "B Westerns". But far beyond that, he was a hero in real life. A military hero (the most decorated soldier of WWII), a hero to his family at home, and a hero to thousands of suffering, misunderstood veterans when he began to publicly speak out on the then-controversial subject of what was called "battle fatigue" or "shell shock" … what we now know and widely accept as "PTSD - post traumatic stress disorder".
The sixth of twelve children born to dirt-poor sharecroppers in Hunt County, Texas, Audie dropped out of school in the fifth grade in order to work in the cotton fields to help support his family. He was also supportive in other ways, becoming a crack shot with a .22 rifle and using it to bag squirrels and rabbits for the family dinner table. When a young friend who was hunting with him complimented his accuracy, Audie tersely replied: "If I miss what I'm shooting at – my family goes hungry."
After his father ran off and his mother died, Audie became the singular head of the family. For a brief time, he and his three youngest siblings tried living with his married sister, Corinne, and her family. But it didn't work out and Audie was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to place the three younger children in an orphanage, promising he would get them back out as soon as he could earn enough money and get better settled.
When World War II broke out, Audie felt compelled to join the Service. He was turned down by every branch, until the Army finally accepted him after he lied about his age and backed it up with a hand-written letter from his sister Corinne. When he went off to boot camp, he was a few months under 18, stood 5.5 inches tall, and weighed less than 120 pounds.
The rest, as they say, is history. The diminutive Audie spent 27 months fighting in the European Theater of the war. By the time he was done, he'd received 33 medals, ribbons, citations, etc. —including the Medal of Honor as well as five awards from France and one from Belgium.
He struggled with malaria and was wounded three times, always returning to the front as soon as he was able.
His final and most memorable military action (the one that won him the Medal of Honor) occurred on January 26, 1945 – one day after being named company commander and receiving minor wounds from a mortar round which killed two other soldiers standing near him. In bloody combat just outside Holtzwihr, France, Murphy's unit had been reduced to only 19 able men out of 128. Ordering his remaining men to the rear, Audie held off the advancing Germans (including six tanks and a full squad of infantry) with his M-1 rifle until he ran out of ammunition. He then climbed aboard an abandoned, burning M10 tank destroyer and used its .50 caliber machine gun to continue fighting. With a land-line telephone he began calling in air strikes on the enemy. When asked at one point how close the enemy was to him, Murphy famously replied: "Hold the phone – I'll let you talk to 'em!" For nearly an hour, he maintained this fight, sustaining a serious leg wound. Finally, the rest of his unit rallied and what was left of the German force was driven off, freeing Holtzwihr.
After the war, Audie was immensely popular and widely heralded back home in the states. He returned to Texas for a brief time, bought his sister Corinne a house and got his younger siblings out of the orphanage as promised.
And then Hollywood called.
After struggling initially, Audie got his first big break in John Huston's critically acclaimed film version of Stephen Crane's classic Red Badge of Courage. For the next two decades, Audie would go on to star in over forty movies, most of them "B Westerns" for Universal Pictures. All were entertaining, all were modestly successful. Several—Red Badge of Courage, The Unforgiven (co-starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn and also directed by John Huston), Night Passage (co-starring James Stewart), No Name on the Bullet, The Quiet American, Ride Clear of Diablo—were especially good.
In 1955, after at first strongly resisting, Audie agreed to play himself in To Hell And Back, a movie based on his wartime autobiography. The film was a huge success and for two decades held the record as the highest-grossing film in the history of Universal studios (until a little flick called Jaws came along in 1975).
Audie also did some TV work, including 26 episodes of the Whispering Smith series.
In addition to acting, Audie was a poet and became a well known as a country music songwriter. His two biggest hits were Shutters and Boards and When The Wind Blows in Chicago, both of which have been recorded numerous times by such well-known singing artists as Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Roy Clark, and Harry Nilsson.
Audie has a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Later in his life, he became a successful businessman and rancher, owning ranches in Texas, Arizona, and California where he bred and raised primarily Quarter Horses.
Throughout his adult life, Audie struggled with insomnia, bouts of depression, and nightmares stemming from his battlefield experiences. In the mid-1960s he recognized that he had become addicted to sleeping pills. In typical heroic Audie Murphy fashion, he went to war with his addiction, locking himself in a motel room for nearly a week and not coming back out until he'd fought through the withdrawal and won the battle.
It was also in the '60s when Audie began speaking out on the largely taboo subject of war-related mental conditions still being suffered by WWII and Korea veterans and now showing up in a fresh round of returning Vietnam vets. He spoke candidly of his own problems with PTSD and urged Congress to focus increased attention on this problem and to provide extended health care for those affected.
On May 28, 1971, at the age of only 46, Audie Murphy died in the crash of a private plane on Brush Mountain in Virginia.
He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and his grave is the second most-visited marker there, after only that of President John F. Kennedy.
The headstones of Medal of Honor recipients are normally decorated in gold leaf. But, as requested by Audie prior to his death, his stone is plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier. At his funeral, a friend allegedly commented, "Like the man, the stone is too small."
Ordinary? … Too small? … Not hardly, it seems to me. Not by a long shot.
By physical measurement, he may have only been 5.5 inches in height … But by every other way you measure a man, Audie Murphy stood among the tallest.
Persevere — WD