April 17, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Murphy's War

Film: Murphy's War (Peter Yates, 1971)
Role: the titular Murphy, cantankerous Irishman/Nazis' worst nightmare

I think it would be instructive just to look at the poster for Murphy's War instead of writing the synopsis.

Now that is an unexpectedly cool poster. Just take a gander at that tagline. Pithy but badass and coupled with O'Toole looking roguish sucking on a cigarette, communicates practically all you need to know about the film. Okay, so it gives you a timeframe: 1945. It gives you sense of the character and his relation to the action (the submarine, the plane, explosions!). The action is all contained within and/or emanating from O'Toole and this idea is reinforced by the tagline and the title. Who's war? Murphy's. Plus that picture of O'Toole makes him look like a dude you don't want to mess with. He looks crafty. He'll fuck you up, no doubt.

So does the film deliver on its poster? Heck yes! I have massive affection for this film. It's kind of a hybrid of a war picture and a revenge picture and it also falls within one of my favorite obscure sub-genres: the dude building stuff picture. You know how satisfying it is when you watch a guy build a treehouse or clean a gun? How about the thrill of watching Tony Starkwelding the shit out of some Iron Man armor? Murphy's War is almost entirely dedicated that kind of process. Murphy is the sole survivor of a carrier blown out of the water by a German sub in South America. He washes up on this tropical island occupied by an English mission doctor (Sian Phillips) and a French handyman (Philippe Noiret). Immediately, he starts planning his revenge against the doctor's orders and enlisting Noiret's help. He repairs an entire biplane and builds bombs all while refusing to shave, smoking tons of cigarettes and cursing up a storm. In short, awesomeness.

The film is very smart in the way it cuts back and forth between O'Toole's machinations and the German sub, captained by an effectively low-key Horst Janson. The captain just wants to survive the war and get back to Germany. He and his men are exhausted and because they think there were no survivors of the carrier attack, they take their time getting back home. Big mistake. I won't ruin any of the plot points in Murphy's War but I will say that the climax is a brilliant bit of ironic revenge. Yates is a great underrated action director and this film definitely features some of the most thrilling sequences of wartime mechanics I've ever seen.

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