Picks and Pans Review: No Name on the Bullet

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Don Graham

When Audie Murphy died in a light-plane crash in 1971 at age 46, a country torn apart by the Vietnam War had little time to consider the life of America's most decorated ever infantryman. Murphy was the baby-faced lieutenant credited with killing some 240 enemy soldiers during World War II. After the war, in a quintessentially American twist of fate, this uneducated, dirt-poor Texas kid became a movie star, riding past the sagebrush in 44 movies, mostly grade-B Westerns.

Now, nearly 20 years after Murphy's death, Don Graham, a University of Texas professor of English, has written this first-rate biography. Graham does justice to Murphy's war heroics, offering proof that in combat in Italy and France this scrawny (5'5½", 112 lbs.) teenager was indeed resourceful, brave, skilled and, as Murphy himself admitted, lucky. But the next 25 years, Graham writes, were an increasingly sad "postscript to battle."

At first, Murphy was hailed with parades and banquets. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. He graced a LIFE magazine cover and, in 1949, wrote a popular memoir, To Hell and Back. Hollywood called, and Murphy became a second-string Western star. Feeling that it diminished him and the men with whom he'd fought, Murphy was leery of trading directly on his combat reputation and starred in only two war films: John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage in 1951 and, as himself, in To Hell and Back in 1955.

Murphy married twice, neither time happily, and chased women compulsively. He also showed signs of what might now be labeled posttraumatic stress syndrome: He slept with a loaded gun under his pillow and had combat nightmares.

By the late '60s, Audie couldn't get a movie role, had huge gambling debts and was involved in such schemes as trying to get a pardon for then jailed Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Graham makes it clear that, after the razor-blade walk of war, Murphy found life mundane: "War both made and unmade Audie Murphy because, unlike all those veterans who were able to resume their lives and put the days of blood and killing behind them, he was never able to recover from the profound lassitude, the boredom, inscribed upon his inner life." It's a sad story and, in its limited way, a moving one. (Viking, $19.95)

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