Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An exciting action story set in a real jungle locale and distiguished by its realistic flying
scenes, Murphy's War nevertheless was poorly distributed in the confused release year of 1971.
Devoid of a romantic angle, it has some magnetic performances but nothing exemplary, and its
realism leads to a grim revenge finale that comes off as a bit heavy-handed. It gets an
A+ for production & ambition and a B+ for final effect.
When the RNMS Mount Kyle is sunk by a rogue German U-Boat off the South American
coast, the only survivor is Murphy (Peter O'Toole) a nervy cockney seaman who'd like nothing better
than revenge on the Germans responsible. The only local whites are Louis Brezon (Phillipe Noiret),
a caretaker for an oil company, and Dr. Hayden (Sian Phillips), a charity medico. They advise Murphy
to lay low, whereas he's committed to finding and somehow destroying the U-Boat. his chance comes
when a pilot from the Mount Kyle, Lt. Ellis (John Hallam) turns up - with his flying-boat intact.
Murphy recovers the airplane, and prepares to do battle with it - only he'll first have to
teach himself to fly!
The key to Murphy's War is of course the irascible, stubborn sailor played by Peter
O'Toole, who starts off as a lovable cynic but transforms into a vigilante mob of one. The
schematic Silliphant screenplay does everything but motivate Murphy's character change. One moment
he's acting like nothing moves him in the least - the Royal Navy, officers, war news - and the
next, he's a knight avenger. We see Murphy's love of mechanics and gadgets, but not the inner workings
that move him to challenge the efficient and ruthless Kreigsmarine sub captain (Horst Janson)
to a duel to the death.
Had that important hurdle been cleared, the rest of the film would have fallen into line
beautifully, maybe to become a classic. Phillipe Noiret is winning as the slovernly dutiful dredge-boat
operator, and Sian Phillips convincing as a hard-nosed doctor dead set against Murphy's every move.
Her innocent radio communication brings the Germans back, and results in bad news for the helpless
flying officer recuperating in a hospital bed. The river natives are the ones who suffer for Murphy's
acute case of Gung-Ho-itis, a responsibility that Phillips never lays at Murphy's doorstep. For his part,
Janson is that new breed of movie Nazi, the kind who has birthday parties and accepts loving
gifts from his crew, before killing in cold blood.
Director Peter Yates had hit the big time with the car chase action of Bullitt, and here turns
his technical skill
to submarines and flying boats. Murphy refits the damaged plane and teaches himself to fly by skittering
across the water - not so unlikely a proposition for a man so mechanically inclined, and keen to
soar like a veddy proper officer. He boasts of scoring a direct hit on the Nazi sub with his gasoline
bomb, but when he doesn't check to see what real damage has been done, proves himself
to be just as asinine as the superiors he criticizes. Ignoring Phillips's pleas that an armistice has
been declared, he goads the meek Noiret into
commiting his seagoing crane and dredge to the task of battling a sub armed with machine guns, cannon
and torpedoes. Even Noiret defects, and just in time.
The flying scenes are giddy and exciting, and the cat and mouse game between the Germans and their one-man
enemy is a deadly chess game with escalating odds. O'Toole is always captivating, even as he adds to his
repertoire of characters that don't quite come together, like Lord Jim. Noiret plays a good simple man,
and Phillips is perhaps poorly served by the cutting, as her role is just too brief to make a strong impact.
Paramount's DVD of Murphy's War comes in a sparkling enhanced Panavision presentation, using a
print that shows a bit more wear than expected, especially in the titles. Color is good, and the audio
is clear, especially the sound of the Victrola record Noiret plays incessantly, and Yates eventually
uses for ironic effect. There are no extras, which is a shame, because it would be nice to hear if
the seagoing and airborne shoot went smoothly, or became a nightmare like the filming of Jaws.
As happens with assembly line DVD production, the Special Features menu lists no real Special
Features, but includes a disclaimer reassuring us that the Special Features are unrated.
Ah. There is a choice of English mono or Dolby Digital track, which I suppose qualifies as a Special
Feature. But how does the MPAA rate a musical score?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murphy's War rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 11, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson