Murphy’s War (1971)
“Man is only truly alive when he confronts death.”
From director Peter Yates comes this WW2 tale of a man single handedly taking on a German Submarine along a Venezuelan river. Opening with the slaughter of a British vessel and all it’s survivors, the German sub led by Horst Janson unknowingly lets one survivor drift away. It’s the leading player, Peter O’Toole. Escaping the opening bloodbath seen in a dreamlike effect, O’Toole awakens along the river coast line being tended to by a doctor/missionary Sian Phillips. With minor injuries, O’Toole is up and about in no time and one almost suspects he is willing to wait out the war here in this river paradise where he has befriended local river rat, Philippe Noiret.
When a second survivor is discovered but in bad shape, the dying man leaves us with an impression of O’Toole’s character by being somewhat disappointed it had to be O’Toole that would be the one to walk away from the carnage. O’Toole’s demeanor is to change drastically when Janson’s sub arrives at the village and executes the sailor in his bed. I’d call it murder.
O’Toole locates a plane from the sunken warship and sets about mending it with the intention of waging a one man war against the impregnable sub. Noiret lends a hand and the two outfit it with the world’s largest Molotov Cocktails. O’Toole takes flight in search of the sub’s hiding place and believing he has scored a direct hit, heads back to the village to celebrate.
A might to early as the conflict is about to escalate when Janson’s sub cruises by the village strafing it with bullets and canon fire. He leaves devastation all about but cannot locate the British sailor that tests him.
“You’re a small and ugly man Murphy.”
Noiret sees the obsession in O’Toole’s character and leaves Peter to wage his war alone. A war that will come to a climatic finale with a fitting end.
This was a first time viewing for me and allowed me to catch up to a film that more then one individual has referenced to me when talking movies they recall enjoying from yesteryear. Perhaps I hadn’t caught up with it years ago as I was never big on O’Toole. Of all those hell raisers from across the pond, I always seemed to be more interested in the films and off screen antics surrounding Reed, Harris and Burton.
As for this title, I shouldn’t have waited so long. O’Toole’s character could almost be kin with Bogie’s Charlie Allnut. Initially he’d be happy to sit out the war and like Bogie seems to be a jack of all trades. Bogie needed prodding while O’Toole fueled himself with vengeance to make a stand. Then of course there is the similarity to The African Queen’s plot in itself.
The script for this war time tale comes from Sterling Silliphant who at this time was just coming off an Oscar for In The Heat of the Night and had also scripted the well received Charly in ’68. It’s rather surprising to see him move on to the disaster epics with Irwin Allen in the 70’s. He’s credited on Poseidon, Inferno and The Swarm.
O’Toole’s costar here, Sian was at the time his wife. They had already appeared together in Becket, Goodbye Mr. Chips and would also join Liz and Dick in Under Milk Wood. While Peter has passed on, Sian is still acting at present.
Yates had a pretty good track record going for himself at this time having already directed Bullitt. He’d go on to direct the exceptional Friends of Eddie Coyle not long after this worthwhile flick.
So give it a go.