With his beautiful performance as juvenile delinquent Danny Lester in Bad Boy, a truly stunning near-debut, the most highly decorated U.S. combat soldier in World War II, Audie Murphy, became a movie star. Boyishly handsome, diminutive, but possessed of natural acting ability way beyond the level of a Tom Cruise, Murphy further crashed the barrier between history and Hollywood when he starred as himself in To Hell and Back (Jesse Hibbs, 1955), the war film based on his autobiography, and the biggest hit for Universal-International until Steven Spielberg’s Jaws twenty years hence. Unbeknownst to the public, Murphy paid a high price for his heroism, recurrently waking up from sleep screaming and tormented by his war experience, which included killing 240 Germans and wounding and capturing countless more: a victim of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The son of poor Texas sharecroppers, this lifelong Democrat was a horse rancher and a songwriter whose death in a plane crash while he was only in his forties broke hearts and minds amidst a plethora of legal problems and his campaign for compassion and support for returning Vietnam War veterans. Only assassinated President Kennedy’s gravesite has attracted more visitors in Arlington National Cemetery.
When I was a kid, I loved the western Night Passage (1957), whose direction James Neilson took over from Anthony Mann, and which starred Hollywood’s two Destrys, Murphy (as the Utica Kid) and James Stewart, as brothers on opposite sides of the law. John Huston, who directed Murphy twice (in Murphy’s best film, The Red Badge of Courage, 1951, and The Unforgiven, 1960), described Murphy after meeting him for the first time as “a born killer.” In Bad Boy, Danny Lester’s thieving, punching and all-round surly attitude derive from his stepfather’s having wrongly convinced him that he was responsible for his sick mother’s death. But he is turned around at the delinquent ranch to which he is sentenced, and at the last, more or less transformed into Audie Murphy himself, he is briefly shattering marching in the R.O.T.C. program at Texas A&M. Directed by Kurt Neumann (following Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies) from a story by Robert Hardy Andrews and Paul Short, and a script by Andrews, Bad Boy is a smooth, modest little film that pays progressive attention to Danny’s emotional difficulties without letting their psychoanalysis generically take over. Murphy’s performance emerges convincing, compelling, appealing, complex.
If you have forgotten how good Murphy was, or if you have yet to discover this, a superlative triple bill would be Bad Boy, The Red Badge of Courage and Night Passage.
Alas, Lloyd Nolan is mediocre as ranch owner “Coach” Brown, the man who is determined to reform Danny Lester, although Jane Wyatt is a bit of heaven on earth as Brown’s wife.
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