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Murphy’s War (1971)

by on March 28, 2011
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“Murphy’s War” has the bones of a great movie but forgets to add the flesh.

In general, I appreciate films that are understated and minimalist, especially when tackling big subjects like war and revenge. It makes the message more powerful when the filmmakers aren’t underlining and highlighting it for the audience. But director Peter Yates and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, working from the novel by Max Catto, construct a story so lacking in relatable characters that the movie seems to exist as pure allegory.

The film is most remembered now for being the most significant of only two onscreen pairings between Peter O’Toole and his then-wife, Siân Phillips (the other being “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”). Phillips is best known to my generation from the TV miniseries “I, Claudius” and as the evil Reverend Mother in “Dune.” She has a wonderful, sharp-featured face with large, expressive eyes and a slightly otherworldly quality — think Angelina Jolie without the menace.

She plays Dr. Hayden, a Quaker doctor living in a remote Venezuelan coastal village in the waning days of World War II. O’Toole plays Murphy, an Irish merchant seaman whose ship was destroyed by a German submarine. After being rescued and patched up by Hayden, he vows revenge despite the fact he is only a mechanic and armistice could be declared any minute.

It’s a treatise about one man’s obsession, and yet we never really feel like we get into Murphy’s head. Why exactly does Murphy feel compelled to throw away his life trying to kill the Germans? The submariners machine-gunned his crew mates to death in the water in order that no signal about their location could be given, but this is hardly the worst war crime committed by the Nazi regime.

There’s a suggestion that Murphy was something of an outcast on his ship, the Mount Kyle, evidenced by the fact that when a lieutenant washes ashore badly injured, he’s distressed that the only other survivor is Murphy. Later, having heard the doctor broadcast about a survivor claiming to have seen a submarine, the Germans arrive at the village and shoot the lieutenant in his hospital bed, not realizing Hayden was talking about Murphy.

This is the point at which Murphy, who had seemed content to ride out the war in exile, determines to take out the submarine. He fixes up the lieutenant’s crashed seaplane with the help of Louis (Philippe Noiret), the French custodian for a distant oil company. The last half of the film is taken up with Murphy’s fixing the airplane, learning to fly it through trial and error, and a bombing run on the sub using some improvised Molotov cocktails. When this fails, he commanders Louis’ barge and attempts to ram the U-boat.

Eventually, both Murphy and the submariners die when the hot-headed Irishman uses the barge’s hoist to pick up a live torpedo the sub shot at him from where it beached itself and drops it on top of the submerged vessel, which had run aground. The crane crashes onto Murphy, pinning him as both barge and sub sink into the waves.

Illogic reigns throughout this scenario. Let’s start with the Germans. Why in the world would the Nazis order a submarine to Venezuelan waters as their regime crumbled, under orders of strict secrecy? And then have them hide out in a river? There are no possible strategic assets in that area requiring such measures, and the U-boat skipper (Horst Janson) carries out his orders reluctantly, as if he knows they are inhumane.

And even if it were somehow necessary, having the submarine appear off the coast of the village and the men coming ashore with machine guns is surely not the way to ensure such secrecy. Hayden had already broadcast Murphy’s warning, so the cat was already out of the bag, so to speak. The doctor had scoffed at Murphy’s claims of a submarine, so their appearance simply turned rumor into hard fact, with hundreds of witnesses.

The flying scenes are the highlight of the film, wonderfully shot and daringly maneuvered by the stunt pilots, though they too don’t really stand up to scrutiny. The idea that a shot-up airplane could be restored to flight in a couple of days strains credulity, but not nearly as much as the notion of a man who’s never been in a cockpit before being to able to a get plane into the air, let alone learn to maneuver it without instruction.

Beyond these logistical matters, though, is the pervasive sense that I never felt connected to any of the characters. They seem to exist with no backstory, no motivation or inner presence. Why would the murder of an officer he hated compel Murphy to take up his fanatical revenge? Why has the beautiful Hayden chosen a life of solitary celibacy? Why is Louis so malleable and passive?

“Murphy’s War” not only never answers these questions, it never even asks them.

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