Murphy’s War is a film that Peter Yates directed in Britain after he had a huge success in the United States with Bullitt and, to a lesser extent, John and Mary. It was initially pitched as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra—there are conflicting reports, but Burt Kennedy may have been the director on board for that version. Regardless, it soon became a vehicle for Peter O’Toole, who was then still a big box-office draw but also would dabble in quirkier affairs as well, a tendency that came to a head in the truly bonkers The Stunt Man in 1980.
The finished film is kind of a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess. The film’s producer, Michael Deeley, clearly saw this as an old-school action-adventure film, but the real creative forces behind the film—Yates, the screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, and to a lesser extent O’Toole—saw it as an existentialist anti-war statement, as the film was made at the height of the Vietnam War. Paramount actually backed Yates and Silliphant over Deeley, probably because Silliphant was hot off winning an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night and the Flowers of Algernon adaptation CHAЯLY, for which Cliff Robertson grabbed a Best Actor Oscar (a real rarity for a sci-fi film). They might have seen Murphy’s War as a possible awards contender, but they were seriously wrong.
Peter O’Toole is very good as the Irish Murphy, who is stranded in Venezuela after he is the sole survivor of an attack by a Nazi U-Boat in the waning days of WW2. Murphy then plots his meaningless revenge against the U-Boat. Interestingly, it was actually the first time the Irish actor ever actually played Irish on screen, and despite his hell-raiser reputation, O’Toole seems to have been delightful and surprisingly professional. Philippe Noiret portrays a Frenchman who ends up helping Murphy to plot his revenge, until he literally walks away from the chaos.
However, the film suffers from an identity crisis, and is clearly trying to tap into the youth market that opened after the success of Easy Rider, etc., but is too grounded in old school action-adventure movies to really become a counter-culture film. It also doesn’t have much “action” except for set-pieces, so both audiences they were trying to court were bound to have been left disappointed with the film. The film ended up doing OKish in London, but was dead on arrival in the States and didn’t do well anywhere else. It also was an expensive film for its time, with a $5 million dollar budget. It’s an interesting film, if not a completely satisfying one, but if you’re a Yates completist it’s worth seeking out. Compared to his next two films, The Hot Rock and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, it feels very much like a “minor work.”
The extensive list of extras that Indicator compiled for this release includes audio of Michael Deeley in conversation, archival interview with Noiret on French TV, and an extensive new interview with John Glen, who was a second unit director and editor on the film and would go on to direct the much underrated Timothy Dalton James Bond films. Even the film’s focus puller, Robin Vidgeo, is interviewed for this release! The film historian Sheldon Hall puts the film in its context regarding war films and the time it was made. There is a short documentary on the film’s cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe. The final extras on the disc are an edited version of the film for Super 8, a textless version of the theatrical trailer, alternative US ending credits and an image gallery. The booklet includes the usual mixture of new and archival writing on the film.