Reviews Too Late: Fury

by wjw on February 9, 2015

Fury_2014_posterI’m sitting here doing my taxes, which normally means that I’m diverting myself from the task by watching action films, most of which are sufficiently predictable that they don’t require my full attention. And here was Brad Pitt in Fury, newly available on Xbox for a token sum.  So hey, I downloaded it.

Fury is a post-9/11 war movie, for all that it takes place in World War II.  After 9/11, war became sacralized, along with warfighters.  War has become a holy endeavor, an absolute neverending sacrament of blood and violence, a struggle against the unholy Other intended to be fought with an utter mercilessness and brutality matching that of the enemy.    And the warrior, permitted every enormity, is a figure whose holy actions, no matter how depraved, may never be questioned, because their actions are, in effect, a sacrament.

In a pre-9/11 film, you knew who the bad guys were, because they did bad stuff.  The SS were bad because they murdered and tortured and were sadists and killed for no good reason.  In a post-9/11 film, the heroes are permitted to be just as ruthless and murderous as the bad guys.  In Fury, you can’t really tell the difference between the GIs and the SS, at least by their behavior.  Except that one group is American, and therefore sacralized, and therefore justified and holy, and therefore not to be questioned.

The film takes place a few weeks before the German surrender, and we’re told that German resistance has grown ever more desperate as the allies closed in.  The tank Fury, commanded by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt), has lost its machine gunner, and is presented with a replacement in the form of clerk-typist Norman (Logan Lermon), who’s never even been in a tank before.  The tank crew treats the newbie horribly (which is not untypical, since nobody in a veteran unit really wants to get to know someone who’s life expectancy may be measured in mere hours).

Driving toward the battlefield, Norman proves reluctant to gun down a bunch of 14-year-old Hitler Youth armed with antitank weapons (who do in fact horribly kill an American tank and its crew), so Wardaddy decides Norman is in need of toughening up.   At the first opportunity Wardaddy forces Norman to shoot a helpless, screaming German prisoner in the back.  That’ll put hair on Norman’s chest!

Another opportunity to turn Norman into a proper warfighter comes a short while later, when Wardaddy and Norman encounter a couple of German women in their apartment.  While Wardaddy wants nothing from the older woman except a hot meal and a chance to wash, he more or less orders Norman to take the younger woman into the bedroom and rape her.  Norman tries to be kind of nice about it (he holds her hand, at least), and he’s much more gentle than the Russians with their “Frau komm,” but it’s clear that Rape is OK if it turns you into a Real Man, which in this case it does, because a short while later Norman admits that he’s beginning to enjoy gunning down Germans.  Mission accomplished!

Now I’m not going to get all namby-pamby and say that American soldiers didn’t kill prisoners, or didn’t rape women, because they have.  But this is the first film I’ve seen in which these actions aren’t presented as regrettable necessities, or horrible failings, but are valorized and presented as something that Real Heroes do.

(Incidentally, the crew of Fury decorate their tank with souvenirs, including the medals of Germans they’ve killed.  One of these was the Mother’s Cross, given by Hitler to the women who popped out the most cannon fodder for the Reich.  So apparently Wardaddy killed somebody’s mom and took her medal.  More heroism!)

While the film is big on rubbing our faces in war’s dehumanizing brutality, it ignores something that’s equally true of warfighers, which is that soldiers are capable of the greatest compassion and humanity, from looking after their comrades to caring for wounded enemy, or helping injured civilians, or caring for their children.  We don’t see any of that.

Instead I found the crew of Fury so repellent that I wanted the Germans to hurry up and dispatch them, which eventually they did, in a completely unbelievable scene in which the tank hit a mine and was stranded at a crossroads, and the crew inexplicably decided to defend the tank against a battalion of SS armed with lots of guns and antitank rockets.  (There were various reasons for this decision, but I’ll spare you the long paragraphs it would take to explain why this was bullshit.)  Fortunately for our heroes, the SS prefer human-wave assaults, and their RPGs are pretty much duds, so Wardaddy gets to kill a couple hundred bad guys before he’s finally sent to that Alamo in the Sky from which no man returneth.

It’s a pity this film is so morally repugnant, because a lot of it was extremely well done.  The claustrophobic atmosphere of the tank was well displayed, as well as the frustrations of limited visibility.  The actual combat scenes were suspenseful and spectacular, and the scene where three Shermans took on a Tiger tank was terrifying.

I was disappointed and annoyed that the filmmakers chose to tell this story as opposed to one of the much more interesting stories from the actual war.  You want to make a movie about tank combat on the Western Front, try the story of the First Polish Armored on Hill 262 in Normandy, and the entire audience will crap their pants with terror.   Or, if your protagonists absolutely have to be Americans, the Battle of Arracourt will satisfy anyone longing for more Alamo scenes of outnumbered heroes fighting waves of enemy attackers.

But as for Fury, I think the good scenes are probably on Youtube already, so check them out there, and you can skip all the annoying stuff in the middle.

mastadge February 10, 2015 at 2:00 am

Yep, that’s largely how I felt. I could get a visceral thrill from the action scenes, but it’s all such a wasted opportunity. When Logan Lerman first joins and Aldo Raine starts going on about how “war isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about scalpin’ Nazis!” I thought maybe the filmmakers meant for this to be taken as horrific, that maybe we had here a film about innocent youth being desensitized to horrific, often senseless violence (“the war is almost over, but a lot more people gotta die before it ends”). But instead it took the perhaps inevitable turn and became a coming of age story — our innocent youth wasn’t destroyed by the horribleness but ran the gauntlet and emerged a Man.

PrivateIron February 10, 2015 at 5:25 pm

I am waiting for one, just one, major studio heroic picture about WWII Poles and I will probably be waiting when I die. We have had how many heroic German/Nazi pics? And now yet another British crack ENIGMA film (the British learned how to keep up with ENIGMA, someone else captured the machines and cracked the initial code. That part might actually be more impressive technically, but it is not punchy or sexy; so the British have to claim to have “cracked” ENIGMA to make it a better yarn.) And there are a lot of great stories out there, just waiting to be told.

PrivateIron February 10, 2015 at 5:30 pm

I would like to say something about the misogyny you described in Fury, but it just left me speechless. Somewhere in between Audie Murphy being embarrassed to offer chocolate to hot Italian girls and this, there has to be plenty of middle ground for non-repellent realism.

Ralf The Dog February 10, 2015 at 10:04 pm

When watching the move, my take was, war is morally repugnant and turns nice people into morally repugnant things. When good people are forced to do bad things, they turn into monsters.

wjw February 11, 2015 at 11:44 pm

Ralf, nobody was forcing the characters to do bad things— other than kill a buncha Nazis, of course.

I get that war can coarsen its participants, but these guys were so far on the coarse end of the scale that I was tempted to cheer for the krauts.

I was reminded of a friend of mine whose father came back from the Pacific War violent, alcoholic, erratic, and basically insane. “The Army should never have let any of those guys come home,” he said. “They should have been taken to a small island and quietly exterminated.” Which, given the state of psychiatry at the time, was probably the best choice.

Etaoin Shrdlu February 17, 2015 at 9:33 am

I think you’re expecting too much of both sides. Most Germans in WW2 were merely fighting because they were told to. Most Americans in WW2 were merely fighting because they were told to. For every psychotic soap-making Nazi, there were a hundred German guys just hoping not to die. For every driven-batshit-insane guy like your friend’s father, there were a hundred American guys just hoping not to die.

I had an interesting . . . not exactly a conversation, more like “listening in incredulity”, with a Vietnam vet one time, as he explained all of the grand jokes they played with grenade-based booby-traps back in the day. It wasn’t so much what they did, as his jocular attitude about how fun and funny it all was. I can understand the mindset and the necessity in war, but I’m glad not to have had to learn to be that cold-blooded about killing random strangers.

BTW, “Saving Private Ryan”, which was long pre-9/11, showed what happens when a namby-pamby insists on freeing a “nice guy” prisoner instead of just executing him — Tom Hanks gets killed when the “nice guy” goes back to his own side and starts fighting again. Is it an atrocity to shoot the “nice guy” in the back of the head? Sure. War is full of such situations.

Or, as Sula would have said, “Human warmth not my specialty.”

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