The Yellow Birds Ending, Explained: What Happened To Murphy?

2017’s ‘The Yellow Birds,’ is a wartime drama film directed by Alexandre Moors about an American soldier’s traumatic experience in the Iraq war. The film stars Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, and Jennifer Aniston. It follows the story of two young army men, Bartle and Murphy, as they tread dangerous grounds during a time of war under the guidance of Sergeant Sterling. After the war ends, Bartle returns home and faces Murphy’s mother, Maureen, who is desperately searching for answers about her son’s inexplicable disappearance.

‘The Yellow Birds’ depicts the gritty, dark reality of war and its effects as felt by a pair of fresh, young soldiers. If you’re curious to find out more about Bartle and Murphy’s time in Iraq and the repercussions that follow, here is everything you need to know about the ending of ‘The Yellow Birds.’ SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Yellow Birds Plot Synopsis

Brandon Bartle, 20, and Daniel Murphy, 18, new enlisters in the U.S. Army, meet during the early stages of their training and quickly become close friends. Bartle is a detached young man with a complicated relationship with his mother. Inversely, Murphy is shy, bright-eyed, and close to his family. The army hosts a party with relatives visiting before shipping their troops to Iraq. At the party, Bartle’s single mother fails to show up, and he meets Murphy’s parents, spending the evening with them.

Afterward, Murphy’s mother, Maureen, approaches Bartle and tells him to reach out to her if he ever needs anything. She also tells him that if something unfortunate happens to Murphy, she would prefer to hear it from Bartle first. Bartle promises to look out for Murphy, and the two part ways.

Later after the soldiers arrive on foreign soil, Bartle and Murphy’s lives are drastically changed. They face violent, traumatizing horrors, including civilian deaths and camp bombings. As the violence takes a toll on Murphy’s spirit, his commander, Sergeant Sterling, expresses doubt in Murphy’s potential. Bartle is quick to stand up for his friend and backs Murphy up.

Nevertheless, after Murphy gets badly injured during an attack, he cracks under pressure and breaks down. When Bartle tries to comfort him, the pair notice Jenny, one of their fellow soldiers whom Murphy has a crush on, having a similar breakdown in the distance. However, shortly after, the enemy bombs the camp, and Murphy watches Jenny die in front of his eyes.

Later, when the war ends and the troops are sent back to civilian life, Bartle returns alone to his home in Richmond, Virginia. The war significantly changes Bartle into a silent, depressed, and temperamental man. He avoids his mother and friends, including his ex-girlfriend, Tess. When he gets out of bed, he only makes regular trips to a convenience store to buy beer and dawdle around town. Things take a suspicious turn when CID’s Captain Anderson starts knocking on Bartle’s door with questions about Murphy and Sterling.

Bartle evades the authorities, as does Sergeant Sterling. Meanwhile, Maureen desperately seeks answers about her son’s mysterious disappearance and takes it to the media. She tries to reach Bartle and shows up at his house. However, Bartle is reluctant to meet her and runs away upon noticing her. He tries to stay overnight at the convenience store he frequents, but the cashier declines his request. Bartle’s temper gets the better of him, and he gets into a slight altercation with the cashier. Captain Anderson shows up in the nick of time, finally catching up to Bartle.

The Yellow Birds Ending: What Happened To Murphy?

Towards the end of Bartle and Murphy’s time in Iraq, Murphy grows increasingly depressed. He becomes isolated and stops talking to anyone, even Bartle, his closest friend. He isn’t able to keep up with the brutality of war and wants to leave this entire thing behind him. After Penny’s death, Murphy loses all hope for a better future and only wants to disappear.

Eventually, when Sergeant Sterling’s squad travels through an Iraqi village, they encounter a headless dead body in their path. Sterling believes it to be a bomb body and disperses his men to search around the perimeter. As the search comes to an end, the soldiers regroup and realize that Murphy is missing. They look through the village block by block but cannot find him anywhere.

Sometime later, Bartle spots an old woman he had seen the last time he was with Murphy. Sterling goes to talk to the woman in her native tongue. She informs Sterling of a lonely barefoot American walking towards the city’s edge. Sterling and Bartle leave their squad behind and go looking for Murphy. They take directions from a cart man, who leads them toward a ruined, abandoned building.

They find Murphy’s body in the bushes, bloody, mutilated, and nearly castrated. Bartle is incredibly disturbed by the sickening state in which they find Murphy’s body and refuses to take his dead body to the camp. Previously Murphy had confided in Bartle that once he gets out of the army, he won’t ever look back. Murphy will deny having served and make this part of his life disappear. Eventually, Murphy makes himself disappear once the atrocities he faces in war become too much. As a result, nameless assailants attack him and leave him for dead.

Bartle believes Murphy wouldn’t want anyone to remember him like this, especially his mother. Therefore, Bartle and Sterling decide to lie in their report and claim to have never found Murphy. Bartle disposes of Murphy’s dead body in a river and lets him float into the ocean. Sterling and Bartle agree that no one can ever find out about this. As such, Sterling kills the cart man, preserving the secret between only himself and Bartle.

Does Sterling Die?

Sterling befriends Murphy and Bartle in the early days during their base training. He instructs the two boys to stick close to him and follow his orders, and he will look out for them. During the squad’s time in Iraq, Sterling exhibits several strange behaviors. Sterling fakes his tears during an emotional speech from his superiors, and in the aftermath of a village’s destruction, he salts their land while muttering things under his breath.

Regardless of his eccentricity, he helps out Bartle cover up Murphy’s death to preserve Murphy’s image. After Sterling returns from the war, he has the CID after him, investigating Murphy’s case. However, Sterling is willing to take the secret to his grave and commits suicide inside his car. Murphy’s death isn’t most likely the only thing that drives him to make this decision.

As a war veteran, Sterling probably experiences intense PTSD. His involvement in the cover-up of Murphy’s death also contributes to some feelings of guilt and regret for him. Moreover, he probably knows the bleak future ahead of him if his secret comes out. As a collective culmination of these traumas and emotions, Sterling shoots himself and ends his life.

What Happens To Bartle?

Bartle’s return from war is an immensely taxing ordeal for him. Bartle had enlisted in the army because he was feeling lost and had little-to-no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Once his service ends, that feeling becomes tenfold. Bartle is severely traumatized after witnessing Murphy’s horrible end.

At one point, he wanders across the town river, where he finds his ex-girlfriend, Tess. From a distance, he watches Tess making out with her new boyfriend. Bartle is reminded of his old life before the war and walks into the river, drowning in it. As such, he mirrors his friend’s final demise with his own suicidal ideation. Nevertheless, Tess notices Bartle and saves him.

After Anderson takes Bartle into custody, Bartle agrees to talk, but only to Murphy’s mother, Maureen. Bartle wants to fulfill his promise and tell her what happened to Murphy before anyone else finds out. After sharing the painful truth of Murphy’s death with Maureen, she asks Bartle if Murphy had any happy moments in the army.

At that moment, Bartle decides to paint a beautiful albeit fabricated picture of Murphy dancing with Jenny at a camp party. He lies for Maureen’s benefit, wanting her to remember Murphy in a brighter light. As for Bartle, he will have to do his time in prison, punished for covering up the death of Daniel Murphy.

Read More: Is The Yellow Birds Based on a True Story?