Blending elements of classic films including The African Queen (1951) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with a dash of Robinson Crusoe thrown in for good measure, the offbeat World War II drama Murphy’s War illustrates the madness that takes root once individuals personalize international conflicts. Specifically, the incomparable Peter O’Toole stars as Murphy, an Irish sailor who survives a U-boat attack on a civilian ship near the coast of Venezuela and finds refuge in a mission overseen by a British physician, Dr. Hayden (played by O’Toole’s real-life wife at the time, Sián Phillips). Desperate for revenge, even though radio reports indicate that the surrender of the German army is imminent, Murphy repairs a battered plane and then teaches himself to fly. Next, Murphy scouts the location of the U-boat and plans an attack involving makeshift weapons. What happens after this point in the story is surprising and tragic, because the U-boat’s commander, Lauchs (Horst Janson), turns out to be a formidable opponent.
Adapted by slick Hollywood talent Stirling Silliphant from a novel by Max Catto, Murphy’s War tells such a simple story that it could have been presented in far fewer than 107 minutes (the film’s running time). Accordingly, some stretches of the movie feel dull and repetitive, particularly when Murphy argues the merits of violence with peacenik Dr. Hayden, or when he manipulates the emotions of his simpleton friend, Louis (Philippe Noiret), the operator of a cargo ship docked by the mission. Yet the virtues of Murphy’s War easily outweigh the shortcomings. Director Peter Yates, a versatile craftsman with a special proficiency for shooting action, makes the most of the picture’s jungle locations, creating a sweaty sense of atmosphere and maintaining tension throughout the most important scenes. (Regular cutaways to the interior of the U-boat, where German sailors wait out the end of the war with boredom and fatigue, add to the story’s credibility.) Yates also benefits from stellar work by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose long-lens shots of Murphy’s plane zooming over South American rivers are deeply evocative.
Yet the film ultimately rises and falls on the strength of O’Toole’s performance. The actor had been down this road before, since Murphy is something of a cousin to T.E. Lawrence, but O’Toole gets to shift into a different gear because Murphy is a working-class slob instead of an urbane officer. Spewing his lines through a crass Irish accent, O’Toole incarnates Murphy as a creature of pure id, given license and opportunity by circumstance to inflict his dangerous passions on others. Phillips counters O’Toole well, channeling rationality and warmth, while Noiret represents a sweetly nonjudgmental type of friendship. It’s a testament to all of the actors, and to Yates, that the physical apparatus of the picture—notably the plane and the submarine—never overwhelm the human elements. One could argue that Murphy’s War is too clinical, and that the unhinged emotions of Murphy’s mission never generate much of a rooting interest, but the film is so expertly made that it sustains interest intellectually, if not always viscerally.
Murphy’s War: GROOVY