War movies, in my mind, must tread a very fine line in order for me to consider them good. I prefer for them to leave out bombast and propaganda, and I dislike seeing filmmakers pretty up what I regard as a fundamentally brutal and painful exercise in destroying human life. To quote Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” I don’t feel comfortable with anything that purports to show real life also showing war as a ‘good’ thing. At the very least, it should be problematic and leave you feeling conflicted. The problem, of course, is that if the film doesn’t also tell an engaging story few will go and see it.
I also recognize that I have very different expectations and desires for what I’ll call “action movies,” and I’m somehow more ok with an action film showing combat and war in a more glamorous or unrealistic light. The recent A-Team movie, for example, totally ignores many of the realities of war and combat (and physics), and I was ok with that. Some old WWII movies (like Where Eagles Dare) fall into the same category, though they seem to do a far worse job of overtly signaling their lack of contact with reality.
When I saw it, I wasn’t entirely sure where Fury stood with regards to this distinction between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and that left me uncertain of how I should feel. As you might guess by the title of this post, much of the movie delivers an intensely traumatic view of the war… no, that’s not quite it: the movie follows a group of men who have been as traumatized by the war as seems possible, without having them break. Even that may be pushing it, since the men certainly seem broken when you look at them more closely. They’re just still able to do their job, which is killing others before others can kill them. This, in my mind, is part of what makes it such a good war movie. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Fury does have an odd change in tone at one point. It’s almost as though it consciously tries to straddle the divide between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and suffers for it. This doesn’t make it a bad movie, but like I said above, it does leave me less certain of how I should feel. I’ll give you more about this (and some other non-spoilery things) after the break.
I’ve got a few things to mention before I get into the spoiler material. First of all, I really liked that the movie didn’t try to make it clear where combatants were at all times. Battles often felt visually confusing, and not just because someone was shaking the camera; it’s not easy to tell where your enemy is when they’re trying to kill you from hiding, and those moments of horrifying surprise (and of wondering whether you’ve actually managed to kill and stop them) are tense and worrying in a way that many other war films don’t bother to portray.
There are moments of quiet (and not-so-quiet) hatred that are peppered throughout the film, ones that are both disturbing and very revealing. Those, combined with the short shots which show the main characters struggling and often failing to hold themselves together, work wonders for setting the tone and making this movie as trauma-centered as it is. And it isn’t until you see the characters, angry and anguished, totally failing to follow the expectations of civilized behavior, that you get a window into what I think Fury is really supposed to be about. Then there’s that tone change, but I’ll talk about that in a moment because…
As per usual, this section has some *SPOILERS*.
In many ways, Fury is a movie about four thoroughly traumatized expert killers who are terrified by the idea of relying on a greenhorn, someone they regard as being insufficiently traumatized, dedicated to, and skillful at killing. And that says nothing about their desperate unhappiness that some newbie has replaced their old crewmate, some newbie who has no idea what they’ve been through, or what the war has been like. It’s almost possible to lay everything that goes wrong at the feet of the newbie Norman, the audience’s naive surrogate. It’s easy to imagine how different the movie’s events might have been if Norman had been ready to shoot and kill right away. The problem, as far as the old crew is concerned, is that they need to toughen Norman up enough to kill enemies without doing it so quickly that they break him and lose all of their progress.
There’s also the problem of their own trauma: they’re not very good at dealing with other people any more, and they don’t really want to be. Learning how to deal with people, and getting close enough to them to do so, is just an easy way to get more upset when they eventually die. This is a common theme in the accounts of WWII combat soldiers (airmen as well), and while it only gets a nod here the theme runs deep. In fact, the movie is remarkably consistent, right up until almost the end.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Here’s the big *spoiler-ific* bit. Just before the end of the movie, Fury goes from being a war movie to being something a lot more like an action movie. Or maybe, as my friend Willow wittily quipped, it’s a submarine movie on land. Everyone but Norman, the audience’s surrogate, dies. But they die in a desperate last stand, attempting to stop an SS column for long enough to protect the support and logistics people who are several miles down the road behind them. It’s a long and violent scene, one in which we get to see Norman complete his transformation into a traumatized killer and come out the other side as a physically healthy but mentally ruined psychological victim of combat. He’s called a hero, but he clearly can’t comprehend how that could be the case. He’s still fixated on everything that he just went through, and barely seems to understand the people around him.
As long and violent scenes go, I’d even say that it seems well done. But while the movie seemed like it was doing a good enough job of portraying war up until that point (I say pompously, as someone who’s never been in one), the scriptwriter and director (and everyone who had a decision here) somehow ignored the fact that a single Sherman (M4A3E8, I think?) really can’t stand up against several hundred men, even if they’re only armed with small arms and grenades. I mean, it might be possible if the tank could move, but if it’s immobile? It’s a done deal, provided the attackers are willing to flank and use suppressing fire until they can put grenades down the tank’s hatches. This is more or less what eventually happens, except that it takes several hours to occur in the movie.
Then, once this long, violent, and dramatic scene is over, the movie goes back to portraying war and trauma in much the same way that it did for the rest of the movie. I do understand why they wanted to have this heroic scene involving the deaths of most of the tank crew, since it clearly brings the movie to a climactic finish and in some way drives home the inevitable violence of the situation. But the heroic last stand is such a shift from the rest of the movie that I have a hard time believing it. And while the rest of the movie excelled at creating tension through randomly varying between a bizarre form of normalcy and the gut-clenching adrenaline-laced paranoia of combat, this part of the movie feels the most ‘cinematic,’ as it follows the rules of the camera instead of being largely random, with our main characters simply too lucky for their own sanity.
Ok, enough of that, *END OF SPOILERS*
I liked this movie, even though I feel conflicted about it’s tone shifts. I think it is a good war movie, despite it’s lapse in tone, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to watch a film about WWII. Of course, if you’re considerably more patient or have more time that you’re willing to spend (possibly over a longer span), you could always watch Ken Burns’ The War. That will leave you suitably informed and possibly depressed. It’s really damn good.