GREENVILLE, Texas — When “The End” flashed on the screen at the conclusion of the film, the audience broke out in applause.
The 75 or so patrons in the Texan Theater had just watched their hero, Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, save the day again.
In the audience, Larry Winters, 79, had already used his handkerchief to wipe away tears at least once during the screening of To Hell and Back, the 1955 film adaptation of Murphy’s war memoir.
“Every time I see that film, I tear up,” he said.
Sitting nearby, Betty Tate, 82, said Murphy — an uneducated Texas farm boy who later became a movie star and a national icon — is “what everybody ought to be.”
Audie Murphy, you ask?
For men and women of a certain age, Murphy represents a lot of things, most of them good. Most of them gone. But in a world where a boy from Texas can return from a hellish war and still evoke tears of inspiration 50 years after his death, the name still touches a chord deep within a corner of the American psyche.
Calling his autobiography and the subsequent movie made from it a “great story,” Tate said Murphy’s legend speaks to something that no longer exists — “What America used to be. Honor, patriotism, selflessness. We don’t have that America anymore. Now we have hate, divisiveness, fear.”
She and dozens of others gathered in Greenville — where Murphy, who was born nearby, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 — to pay homage to a Texan who survived the carnage of combat and rose to fame’s greatest heights, only to stumble when the guns fell silent and the director yelled, “Cut.”
Last weekend was the 25th anniversary of the opening of Greenville’s Audie Murphy-American Cotton Museum, and the 50th anniversary of Murphy’s death. It seemed an appropriate time to reflect on what Murphy meant, said longtime fan Charlotte Thompson, who is nearing 70 and who made the long journey from Maryland to Texas to attend the celebration.
“He defined what America was at the time,” she said of Murphy. Calling today’s youth the “me, me, me” generation, she wonders how many of them would willingly sacrifice as much as Murphy and his generation did, both on the war front and on the homefront.
“He was just an extraordinary man,” said Thompson, who carried an Audie Murphy tote bag, Audie Murphy protective mask and Audie Murphy iPhone cover. At home, she said, she has an Audie Murphy blanket and an Audie Murphy shower curtain.
“He deserves to be remembered,” she said.
But as time passes and World War II and its heroes fade out of sight, will future generations care about a man whose actions spoke to America in a way that seems distant, almost foreign?
Winters isn’t so sure. “What is sad is his legacy is fading away,” he said. “These kids today don’t know who Audie Murphy was.”
Murphy historian Mike West, 72, doesn’t disagree. “I have a feeling that outside of a very few hardcore historians, he will become a footnote,” he said.
To hell, but not back
Slight of build, sickly and displaying no particular penchant for doing anything special, the 5-foot-5 Murphy — an elementary school dropout — joined the ranks of young Americans eager to defeat the Axis powers once America entered World War II.
It was what was expected, what was needed.
Under near constant fire in Europe, Murphy, an infantryman, quickly became adept at three things: leading, surviving and killing. He was forever leading attacks, shooting down German snipers, tossing grenades and taking machine gun nests. His military career — and the film version of his life — ended with him manning a machine gun on a burning tank destroyer and shooting down countless advancing German soldiers.
That act earned him the Medal of Honor and, it seemed for a while, immortality.
He started the war as a private, ended it as a lieutenant. By the age of 20, he had secured every military honor and medal the U.S. Army had to offer. His memoir, first published in 1949, remains one of the most realistic and honest depictions of combat in print. Murphy skillfully balanced lengthy passages of matter-of-fact dialogue between soldiers with to-the-point, almost clinically cool descriptions of battle and its emotional, physical and mental aftermath.
It’s a book full of guts, blood and vomit mixed with humor, hope and grit — written by a man who, in the book’s closing pages, makes it clear he had come to trust a clean and loaded weapon more than any friend or lover.
Hollywood, captivated by his image and celebrity, called. Within months of the book’s publication, Murphy was making his first Western film, The Kid From Texas, an appropriately titled B picture in which Murphy played Billy the Kid as a kill-crazy misfit.
Within a decade, he had appeared in some two dozen films, including prestigious misfires like John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1958 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.
But it was the bread-and-butter B Westerns he was best known for, films like Tumbleweed (1953), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), Night Passage (1957) and the cult classic No Name on the Bullet (1959).
It was on the big screen that some attending the Greenville ceremony first encountered Murphy, and many agree No Name on the Bullet was his best Western because he played himself. Not Audie Murphy, military hero, but a hired gunman with a job to do: kill.
“The quintessential Audie Murphy movie,” West said of the film.
Incredibly, though he was an icon, hero and star all rolled into one, Murphy’s life went downhill when it seemed his career, or at least his life, should keep ascending. He kept making films, but most were not good. He wrote songs and poetry about love, life and death. He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder through it all, using a real handgun to fire at imaginary German soldiers attacking him in his nightmares.
By the end of the 1960s, he was broke, a has-been, a man trying to maintain his footing in a world that no longer saw war as something noble, something to be won with dignity. The futility and unvarnished loss of life in the Vietnam War, all of it played out on the nightly news, made Murphy seem like a relic from a long-lost era.
Though he was in his 40s, on the wrong side of the generation gap, Murphy understood the trauma and confusion that war was causing to an America adapting to change even as it clung to long-held values from the past.
In a July 1968 speech at the Alabama War Memorial, Murphy — who by then resembled an aging businessman rather than a movie star — spoke of the need to hear the concerned voices of the younger generation and answer their difficult questions regarding the war.
“If we hand them a better world than we received, I know they will not let us or themselves down,” he said.
Death did not scare him. “All men are born to die, and if one man must go a few turns of the earth sooner than the next … what has he really lost?” he said in that 1968 speech.
A distant hero in N.M.
Though Murphy once played Billy the Kid, his actual ties to New Mexico were tenuous at best. He never made a film in the state. Oddly enough, just days before his death in May 1971, he visited the Clovis area to discuss opening a branch of a plastics factory he was involved in there.
By then, Murphy, who had also become a big-stakes gambler with a tendency to lose at the racetrack and poker table, had become more of a businessman than performer, scrambling to find a way to stay afloat financially.
Still, several Santa Fe-area military veterans have proud memories of Murphy. U.S. Army and Vietnam War veteran Gilbert Romero, commander of the Santa Fe-based Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said Murphy is “one of our top heroes. He didn’t go to war to win medals, but he won them all.”
Romero, who looked up to Murphy both as a soldier and movie star, plans to mention Murphy during the post’s Memorial Day celebration planned for Monday.
“He represented America with top honors,” he said of Murphy. “He was a patriot.”
Longtime Santa Fe schoolteacher and historian Kermit Hill, who is working with others to put together a veterans’ legacy project that will include the poems and other writings of in-the-trenches vets, said he thinks as time goes on, more people will forget Murphy’s accomplishments.
“I think today if you went out there and asked a few thousand Americans to name a great World War II hero who became a movie star, I would say a very high percentage would say John Wayne, which is nonsense, because he did not serve in the military,” Hill said.
“As far as I am concerned, Audie Murphy is a real American hero. But it’s a sad comment on the way we approach this issue of heroes and veterans that we forget.”
Having survived multiple clashes with danger during World War II, you would think Murphy — who married twice, divorced once and had two sons — would have died a peaceful death.
Not so. Murphy was on a business trip when a private plane he was on crashed in the rain in a hilly region of Virginia on May 28, 1971. He was 45.
It was a mountain, not the Germany army, that took Audie Murphy’s life.
“We don’t want to think heroes die that way, but they do,” West said.
Back in Greenville, Winters finds Murphy’s death ironic.
“Why did that guy go through what he went through and die the way he did?” he asked. “It leaves you wondering.”
He said he holds out “hope” that somehow Murphy would continue to be honored by future generations.
If an encounter with a server in a Red Lobster restaurant in Greenville during the Audie Murphy celebration is any indication, that sense of hope may be futile.
“Do you know who Audie Murphy is?” the man, who looked to be in his 20s, was asked.
“Audie Murphy?” he replied. “No. But I know who Eddie Murphy is.”