Fury, directed by David Ayer
This just in—Shia LaBeouf can act. That’s the first in a string of good things I have to say about the serious Tank Movie that is Fury. This may be my favourite American war movie ever. It’s the war movie that I’ve been hoping some American would make since it became customary in my family, following my father’s lead, to decry the jingoism that has seeped into every American filmic retelling of the events in Europe between 1939 and 1945.
We Canadians are always stunned when we hear from American media that “World War Two began in 1941.” The Yankie-centric message is so profoundly insulting to the Poles, Austrians, Czechs, Russians, Finns, Brits, and their Commonwealth Allies (never mind the Chinese, for whom a bitter theatre of war was opened in the early thirties) that its arrogance makes those of us with a sense of history hold our noses. And even films as superbly crafted as Saving Private Ryan cannot avoid the cant of American exclusivism when the efforts of every nation’s soldiers fighting on the Western Front after D-day are dismissed in one unconsidered phrase about Montgommery’s competence as a general. Too much Canadian blood was spilled by December 7th, 1941 for any of us Northerners to feel anything but contempt when we hear this nonsense.
There are only two recent American movies about WW2 I know of that avoid this, and they do so not by celebrating with false bonhomie the Alliance that won WW2, but by focusing their narrative on what should be the proper function of a war movie: to remind us that war is a frightful affair, shocking and dehumanizing and to be avoided if at all possible, and then to be fought with unrelenting courage if not. The first is The Thin Red Line, which is set in the Pacific theatre, and now, Fury.
This film does not proclaim the great American Victory over Germany that never was, it exclaims the wasteful tragedy and loss that was everyone’s lot as the Allies pressed toward Berlin. It does not sanctify with righteousness the American soldier, it asserts that the bad guys and good guys are not easy to tell apart on a battlefield, although the screenplay does reserve that special place in hell for the SS which they so richly earned. The concern of this film is with the psychology of warmakers, and takes a crew of a Sherman tank as a case study. Director David Ayer is clearly a bit of a war nerd (what American film maker has ever actually acknowledged “The Brits and the Canadians” as co-equal partners in creating the Falais Pocket?), and when have we ever been treated to the actual details of life inside a Sherman (or any other) tank.
This film’s action sequences are so carefully choreographed that you feel the unexpected utter chaos of battle, yet you can actually understand what’s going on tactically in the battle, and understand the rising action of a scene. This is most notable in the tank battle between three Shermans and one Tiger tank, and you understand how vulnerable a thing a tank could be, and how only courage and initiative could create an expensive victory. You also come to understand in these sequences what fearsome power was wielded by artillery and tanks (mobile artillery), a point seldom made in war movies which have historically focused on infantrymen.
However, my favourite scene is the film’s beautiful mid-action pause as Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) and his neophyte young recruit take refuge in the apartment of a German matron and her niece. The scene is filled with tension and tenderness. The subtext of rape and murder plays under the scene, and yet it manages to celebrate a hope that simple humanity might at last reassert itself in this mad muddy world. The writing in the scene only betrays us as a convenient and conventional resolution blows out the candle on that hope.
Then it’s on to the final act of the screenplay, another choreographed battle in which the tank crew must face the brutal finality of their story arc, and it is in the moral choices made by the crew that the story finds its classical shape. War is a tragic and wasteful thing, and heroic resistance comes at a high price. The violence that follows is another set piece of action, yet by the time the last explosion has happened, and the last bullet has been fired, we have already learned the lesson that all tragedy teaches: that from the soldier’s perspective, the human impulse to do the right thing is always a terrible choice. Hector sallies forth from the walls of Troy in defense of his city; that he does not return alive is exactly why he, and not Achilles (not coincidentally, another Pitt role), is the greatest hero of the prime and greatest war story, the Iliad.
Amongst the negative reviews I’ve read of Fury, one of the derisive comments is that we have seen this before, that the tropes of the classic war story (the epic battle, the use of the neophyte soldier as plot device) are familiar. That the ground has been often mined is true. The tropes are as familiar as the Greek model I’ve mentioned, or as Henry V. What makes this film excellent in my view is its focus on morality, not that peculiar American impulse to tell the audience that the American war was somehow different from everyone else’s. This film proclaims that the experience of war is truly, to borrow a word from an egregiously unhistorical film in which Mr. Pitt also starred, inglorious. The stars and stripes are absent from this landscape, and we whose countrymen fought ingloriously and anonymously, we whose war began in September of 1939, can watch this film without holding our breath against the foul odour of American exceptionalism.