It’s an old idea and a good one. It’s so good that writers return to it time and again. It’s the idea of being driven by an obsession to the point where nothing else exists anymore. There is no ‘beyond’ point – life just doesn’t exist outside of the obsession.
In Murphy’s case, his obsession (or more accurately, his idée fixe) is a German submarine. During the final weeks of World War II he and his crewmates are torpedoed and sunk by the German sub before being butchered in the water as they attempted to swim from the burning, sinking wreck. Murphy survives by playing dead and is rescued by an outland mission and returned to health. He then recaptures a downed water-plane and rebuilds it, before teaching himself how to fly.
With the help of another man he builds bombs from dynamite and petrol and, finding the camouflaged sub, he bombs it. His success is short lived, however, when it returns and seeks retribution for the bombing, leaving Murphy in a quandary as to what to do about it. With his idée fixe running unchecked, he takes on what can only be looked upon as a suicide mission to destroy the submarine once and for all. One of many ironies is that the war has ended quite publicly in the meantime, raising more than one eyebrow as to Murphy’s true state of mind.
Peter O’Toole plays the Irish Murphy to perfection, utilising every line and manic expression at his disposal to portray a man driven insane by his circumstances and his need for revenge. While his Oirish accent may need some tweaking at times, he still gives a convincing performance as the ostensible Murphy. The rest of the small cast is basically background and subtle support to Murphy’s story, and they all perform just fine, filling out this 102-minute film. O’Toole is no stranger to the borderline mental illness role and without him in the titular role I wonder how effective this eerily still film would have been.
On a distant reach of the Orinoco River in Venezuela the film meanders through the last sullen days of the war, lending the previously noted eerie stillness to the proceedings that only serve to amplify Murphy’s compulsion to destroy the enemy. It’s a method used to tell a different sort of war story that worked so effectively in films like Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line. Murphy’s War will appeal to fans of more than the blood and gore side of war films; those stories that portray not just the physical degrees of injury but the mental battle soldiers had to fight with themselves.
The picture quality is quite good for a film from 1971. There are plenty of film artefacts in this cinema aspect 2.35:1 film; some quite disastrous and obvious, however the majority of the film doesn’t suffer too much for their unwelcome intrusion. (The film is 16:9 enhanced as well). Everything else looks okay, including shadow detail and blacks. Colours are even and the aspect ratio is well used to capture some very nice scenery shots of the jungles and river and the sea as well.
Audio is a Dolby Digital stereo offering that does the trick, though there are more than a few stock sound effects ladled in from elsewhere. Dialogue is a reserved affair, keeping wordplay to a minimum in favour of physical acting, but there are numerous accents you may have trouble with occasionally. There are also plenty of scenes in German that aren’t subtitled, though it’s not too hard to guess what’s being said. The score is from John Barry who does such a fine job of sweeping, epic scores and here it is little different to some of his other excellent contributions to film.
There are no extras to report, seemingly lost in the jungles or sold to river pirates or something.
This is a good film that tells a good story, though the brooding tension does seem to drift along just a little too long. Unnecessary parts of the film are dragged out making what is essentially a 70-minute film into this 102-minute offering. If you can look past that, particularly the ending where the tension is stretched out far too long, this is an enjoyable and subtle war story that will appeal to people not so interested in the explosive, staccato gunfire, barbed wire sort of war film.