Stephen Hunter Recommends
To Hell and Back (1955, 106 minutes) stars Audie Murphy, then a 30-year-old B-grade western star, as Audie Murphy, the 19-year-old A-grade infantryman. And he was, too. Murphy, small and almost pretty (freckled, red-haired, big, innocent brown eyes) killed more than 240 Germans in World War II and earned the Medal of Honor by sitting atop a burning tank destroyer, shooting at people who shot at him, for more than an hour. They missed, he didn't, which is why he ended up on the cover of Life as America's most decorated soldier and became (with James Cagney's help) a movie star. This film, directed by western specialist Jesse Hibbs, is solid by the war-movie standards of the '50s, and without grandstanding and egotism. Murphy is pretty honest about his lowly origins (hardscrabble Texas farm), his near-illiteracy and his unsureness in all situations except the battlefield, where it seemed he always knew what to do. He wasn't a great actor, but let's remember that he was a great soldier -- and in a time disastrously short of heroes, he should be recollected, which leads us to two more heroes.
First to Fight (1967, 92 minutes) is another grindingly orthodox war film whose real-life subject deserved better. That fellow is Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor on the night of Oct. 24-25, 1942, on Guadalcanal, almost single-handedly (with the help of a few machine guns) holding off a massive Japanese attack. He went home, went on a bond tour, got married and could have lived happily ever after. But then he went to Iwo Jima and never returned. The movie, directed by Christian Nyby and starring Chad Everett, vaguely fictionalizes him under the name "Jack Connell." But anyone who knows the story of Manila John, as Basilone was nicknamed, will recognize it here. The movie again is not worth studying, but the life it chronicles is; Basilone is a kind of American Hector -- he knew he would die, and he went anyway.
Hell to Eternity (1960, 131 minutes) tells the story of Guy Gabaldon, a tough Chicano street kid who was raised in a Japanese family, learned the language, and on Saipan was famous as "the Pied Piper," for his ability to slip between the lines and talk the notoriously reluctant Pacific adversaries into surrendering. The Marine was ultimately credited with the capture of more than 1,500 men, including, on one night, 800. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor but was ultimately granted the Navy Cross. The movie, again typical of its era, clean-scrubs Gabaldon's Hispanic heritage into all-Americanness through the vessel of pretty boy and minor star Jeffrey Hunter. It also grandly fictionalizes the surrender of the 800 by giving its hero a face-to-face encounter with a general, played by the great Sessue Hayakawa. Still, while Hunter is the wrong color and too handsome, he's really affecting (this could be his best role), and the energetic director Phil Karlson really brings a savage edge to his evocation of island combat. Sixties icons David Janssen and (yes!) Vic Damone round out the cast, and a scene where a female war correspondent does a striptease is one of the great movie absurdities of all time.