It is 1945 and the final days of the Second World War; in Venezuela, on the Orinoco River, a British merchant navy vessel is sunk by a German U-boat and in an act of desperation to ensure that nobody discovers the Germans are concealed in this part of the river, the Captain Lauchs (Horst Janson) orders the escaping British sailors shot as they try to swim for shore. The only survivor of this is Murphy (Peter O'Toole), who is knocked unconscious but otherwise unharmed, and he is picked up downriver by a mission led by a Quaker doctor, Hayden (Sian Phillips). She disbelieves him when he comes to and explains what happened, but this gives him all the more thirst for revenge...
An unusual war movie, almost a revisionist effort in the manner that the Westerns of the decade were going through, this was based on the novel by Max Catto and adapted by Stirling Silliphant. Shot on location, it didn't look like many other World War II films, with jungle scenery mixing with vast stretches of water, so there was that novel appearance in its favour as there were fairly few productions set in the South American part of the conflict. But before you thought that the actors and story would be swamped by the striking visuals, remember that it was Peter O'Toole handling the lead duties, a man whose characters were obsessively given to big gestures and grand ideals.
From the moment Murphy awakens in medical centre's bed, he is focused on destroying that U-boat, much to the dismay of Dr Hayden who adheres to her pacifist nature in contrast to what the war has done to her patient's view of things. The only other person Murphy can talk to is Frenchman Louis Brezon (Philippe Noiret), who has been left in charge of whatever oil reserves might be in the area by the company owning them, and he proves an ally to his new friend's one man act of war against the Germans. They salvage a British biplane and set about repairing it, the fact that another survivor was found and executed by the Nazis only encouraging Murphy in his drive to punish them.
But the timing of this is significant, as the World War is drawing to a close and Murphy finds that he cannot let his vengeance be halted by that occurrence. He attaches a couple of homemade bombs to the underside of the plane's wing and flies off to drop them on the submarine, something that he manages to be successful in carrying out. However, the point to this is to muse over where war becomes personal when you or your friends have been attacked by the enemy: sure, it's nations against nations, but emotions are going to run high when it is happening to your own self, as it does with Murphy. Therefore what he has contemplated and acted upon is nothing less than a desire for murder.
And the colder-blooded, the better. When the announcement comes over the radio at a crucial stage in the action, our hero chooses to ignore it, no matter that even the Captain is yelling at him that fighting has ceased. If Dr Hayden is the conscience he takes no heed of, then Louis is the friend who tries to make him see that no good will come of his expectations of getting his own back, and that violence will only breed more violence until there is nobody left with a grudge to exert that kind of bloodlust upon. In its way, Murphy's War tells us that war and peace should be kept apart and that we should recognise them as such, and that if we cannot get rid of armed conflicts then we keeping them as separate from the periods where they have no command over us is most important. Sadly, it also makes plain that mankind is often at their most ingenious when working out ways to kill one other. Music by John Barry and Ken Thorne.