There are some big spoilers for the movie Fury in this post.
Last night I watched the World War II movie Fury, starring Brad Pitt. I liked it a lot, as I thought it had several things to offer. With Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and others, there has been no shortage of World War II themed entertainment in recent years. If someone is going to tell another World War II story there has to be some reason for it to exist. I think this movie has earned a reason to exist. Before I start on that I should mention that I was a History Major for most of college and I even took a class on Nazi Germany. I have read my fair share of World War II books as well.
I felt like this movie was as much about World War II movies, and war movies in general, as it was about the actual war. First of all the first two thirds of this movie are simply great. The final act was problematic, but even its problems might have been by design, and it is worth discussing. The first two thirds of this movie are jet black. This is definitely war as hell. Most of the main characters are not even likable. The performances, cinematography, action, and story are all perfectly orchestrated during this part of the movie. Even though something like Saving Private Ryan presented the horrors of war, and even showed war crimes near the beginning, there was a sense of the movie paying tribute to the soldiers that fought in World War II. The world of war in Fury is no place that any sane person would ever want to be. There is no dignity and nobility displayed for the most part.
Even though I’ve read that the filmmakers of Fury wanted to be historically accurate, and perhaps they were, the battlefield looks like hell in some kind of Italian opera. Many of the shots seem like different shades of black, with assorted explosions of deep red blood. However, instead of this feeling monochromatic, there is a sense of opera to it. You don’t want to watch, but you can’t look away.
The tension is unrelenting, whether that is behind the lines or in the battlefield. There are two scenes worth mentioning. First there is a tank battle in the middle of the movie that is as well done as any I have ever seen. It’s claustrophobic, intense, and well orchestrated. You never lose the sense of what is happening and what is at state.
At the polar opposite, also towards the middle of the movie, there is a scene of character driven drama that is as intense as any battle. It could almost be in a Kubrick movie. The soldiers have taken a German town. One of the main characters in the film is a young inexperienced soldier played by Logan Lerman. This character is the audiences way into the story. Despite 10 weeks of training, he knows nothing about what war is like when the movie starts. Brad Pitt and the other soldiers educate this character on the horrors of war. Well they are in possession of the German town there is an apartment with two German women, one of whom is young and innocent. Pitt and Lerman’s character are having a meal with the German women when the rest of the tank crew come in. Feeling that they are left out, and wanting the spoils of war, there is a psychological battle between the characters where you feel at any moment things could go horribly wrong. These men have been dehumanized by war. You do not like them as they behave closer to animals than men.
However, the very next part of the movie is the tank battle I described. The battle forces these men, who only a shot time ago were at each others throats, into a kind of brotherhood of war. You root for them when only minutes ago you despised them. This could symbolize not only how war forms strong bonds between men, but also how as movie goers, through narrative arcs, we often root for people doing horrible things.
The end of the movie is where the tone of the movie really changes. It is also, depending on how you view the film, where it becomes problematic. However, I think the problems in the narrative and action are actually by design, and they add to the ideas of the film, rather than detract. The end of the movie finds the soldiers of a single tank trying to hold a crossroads against an entire German SS Battalion. The tank is not even fully functional at this point, having lost its mobility to a mine. The movie almost becomes a typical action movie here, something closer to Rambo than a realistic World War II film. I won’t spoil the final ending, but lets just say that they kill more Germans than is realistically believable.
Although one could argue that the filmmakers simply gave the movie a big action ending to satisfy filmgoers, I don’t think this is the case. I don’t think that a movie that was so steeped in horror and believability through the first two thirds of the film, would simply throw that out the window at the end. The characters go from being highly flawed well written characters to action heroes. The tank battle that I described above still had a believability and realism to it that this final battle lacks. But I think the themes of that battle are taken to their logical conclusion here. This final battle is more symbolic than the rest of the movie.
The final battle is the lie that we have to tell ourselves to keep sending our young men and women into harms way. It is the construct that we need to have to enjoy ourselves watching violence on screen. It is the horror and myth of war in the same film. These are no longer men that have been dehumanized through situations that they have been placed in by others. These are heroes. These are people that should be put on a pedestal because they are doing things that are above the actions of mere mortals. We not only tell ourselves pleasant stories about heroes in real life, but as film goers we allow ourselves to indifferent to any suffering that we see on screen.
This is tough movie, for what is says about war, for what it says about us.