Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Blu-ray Review: MURPHY'S WAR

 by Anthony King

You love your war, don't you?

In Peter Yates' 1971 WWII drama Murphy's War, we watch a man go mad with obsession. It's ultimately a tragedy in that the part of him that was living before the war is now dead; he is but a husk of his former self. But it's not all doom and gloom seeing that this man is played by the one and only Peter O'Toole. Murphy's War offers plenty of tragedy, yes, but that doesn't outweigh the comedy, the thrills, and the beauty of this film equally about war, obsession, and adventure.
The film opens with a shot of O'Toole strung across some pilings while the sun beats down on him and the brown river flowing beneath somewhere in Venezuela. As he regains consciousness, we're thrust into one of the most intense openings of a film I've ever seen. A German U-boat is bombarding a smaller merchant ship. What little of the vessel remains quickly sinks as its crew helplessly bob up and down in dirty water. The Germans begin dispatching of the survivors in the water with large machine guns and small shell artillery. The men in the water scream helplessly and pitifully as they are mowed down. O'Toole's character of Murphy hides among the floating corpses until he reaches the pilings as the U-boat pulls away.

Murphy is rescued hours later, and the following day he comes to, wondering where he is. “Where the fuck am I,” he groggily asks. The woman treating him replies, “Somewhere where we try to avoid that kind of language, Mr. Murphy.” The woman treating him is Hayden, a Quaker missionary, played by O'Toole's real-life bride Sian Phillips. Murphy regains his strength and meets Louis (Philippe Noiret), an envoy for the Venezuelan government who maintains communications between his superiors and the missionaries. Louis educates Murphy about the village and what Hayden is doing there, and doesn't necessarily believe the story Murphy is telling about a German U-boat hiding in their peaceful and quiet river. Nevertheless, Murphy persists, and discovers the single-engine plane on board his ship has been located. What follows is one of the most harrowing experiences I've ever had watching a movie.
With the help of Louis and his crane barge, Murphy gets the bi-plane untangled from shore, repaired, and started up. Not once does it cross Murphy's mind that he could use the plane to get to the mainland to get back home to Ireland. His entire being is now devoted to finding that submarine and exacting his revenge. For the next 10 minutes we watch Murphy/O'Toole try with all his might to get that airplane in the sky. Back and forth, up and down the wide river Murphy pushes that plane as hard as it can go. Up to this point, O'Toole has given a remarkable performance. It's here, though, that he transcends the role. Before Tom Cruise strapped himself to the side of an Airbus A400M, Peter O'Toole drove a WWII-era bi-plane up and down a Venezuelan river at 60mph. The unfiltered, unadulterated look of pure fear on that man's face is something I've never seen before in a movie. The movie is great, but that scene alone makes Murphy's War an early contender for my top 10 discoveries of the year. Murphy eventually discovers the Germans, and his obsession grows. Although Louis and Hayden, his only friends now, try to dissuade him from carrying out his asinine plan, it's an exercise in futility. The ending will be another moment I won't soon forget. It's another distressing scene of delusion that ends the only way this film could.

Murphy's War shows a man lose his mind, but at the same time it's a riveting adventure tale not unlike John Huston's The African Queen (1951). And unlike the many nightmarish tales told of O'Toole's “hellraiser” alcoholic lifestyle, Murphy's War was one of the few productions where O'Toole didn't cause any problems (possibly due to the fact that his wife was his co-star). The problem during production came from shooting on location in Venezuela. Six years later William Friedkin would come across similar difficulties while shooting Sorcerer (1977). It's no coincidence both films were under the Paramount umbrella, with Charlie Bludhorn ultimately calling the shots. Nevertheless, the final product of Murphy's War shows an astonishingly beautiful film, shot in glorious Panavision widescreen by former Losey and future Spielberg cinematographer Douglas Slocombe.
Arrow brings Murphy's War stateside with a region A release that deserves a coveted spot on the collectors' shelf. Brand new to this release is a visual essay by film critic David Cairns called Running Out of War (20 min). With his steely Irish brogue, Cairns narrates a brief history of Paramount, the origins of the film based on the Max Catto novel of the same name, and its production history. Flawlessly edited and packed with information, Cairns has created essentially an abbreviated commentary. Also included as bonus features are three interviews ported over from the Indicator release from last year. First up is A "Great Adventure" (31 min), an interview with assistant director John Glen who shares great personal stories about the production. Next is an interview with focus puller Robin Vidgeon called "Dougie, Chic, and Me" (18 min), which comes off as an endearing love letter to his frequent collaborators Slocombe and camera operator Chic Waterson. Finally is "One Man Army" (18 min), an interview with and appreciation of the picture from film critic Sheldon Hall.

Housed in a slipcover with brand new art, and including a booklet with brand new writing, Arrow has given this film the treatment it deserves.

Bonus features
Running Out of War, a new visual essay by film critic David Cairns
"A Great Adventure," an archive interview with assistant director John Glen
"Dougie, Chic and Me," an archive interview with focus puller Robin Vidgeon
"One Man Army," an archive interview with film critic Sheldon Hall
Theatrical trailer
Image gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain
Illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing by film critic Philip Kemp

Blu-ray release date: January 30, 2024
106 minutes / 1971
2.35:1 (1080p)
DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)
Region: A

1 comment:

  1. "World War Two was just ending. World War Murphy is about to begin"

    Pretty great tagline! I watched this back in 2022, and really liked it (gave it an 8/10 on IMDb). Much like you, the section where he was fixing up the plane and trying to get it to fly were my favourite. You could really feel the peril. (I'm not entirely unconvinced that the plane was in reality, dangerously close to crashing and killing O'Toole). The French guy that was helping him was a great character as well.