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Murphy's War

Murphy's War
Paramount Home Video
1971 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 107 min. / Street Date June 10, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Peter O'Toole, Sian Phillips, Philippe Noiret, Horst Janson, John Hallam, Ingo Mogendorf
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Production Designer Disley Jones
Film Editors John Glen, Frank P. Keller
Original Music John Barry, Ken Thorne
Written by Stirling Silliphant from the book by Max Catto
Produced by Michael Deeley
Directed by Peter Yates

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.

(various spoilers)

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 11, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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