By Matt Smith and Eric Plaag
Earlier this fall, we saw the release of David’s Ayer’s harrowing World War II tank epic, Fury. The film rattled both Eric and Matt, and it seems destined to appear on both of their soon-to-be-released Top Ten Lists for 2014. In this TheSplitScreen discussion, Matt and Eric wrestle with what makes a good and meaningful war movie, why audiences sometimes fail to connect with the embedded meanings of those films, and how cultural perspectives on war are often at odds with the war films that are contemporary to those perspectives.
Matt: Fury is a World War II movie unlike any other I can remember. By its very nature as a war film it shares many hallmarks of the best films in the genre, but it uses them to fairly stunning affect. The film has done moderate though disappointing business at the box office, and this is no doubt partially due to the difficulty of watching it, particularly the way it treats what is commonly thought of by Americans as a “moral” war and the last “good war.” In Fury there is nary a hint of nostalgia, and the sense that World War II was any more noble an endeavor than Vietnam or either of the Gulf Wars is thrown damn near out the window. Sure, the characters, particularly Brad Pitt’s Don Collier, know who the SS is and what they’ve been up to, but more time is spent with the weight of the war in all its horrific glory and its effects on the men who fought it than on any moral grandstanding outside of the savagery enacted by Collier on members of the SS. As an article over on the fantastic blog War is Boring put it, the movie is a great war film as well as an extremely dark and heavy psychological horror.
It is this horror that most interests me (surprise, surprise).
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a World War II film that plays upon how non-heroic an exercise it actually was. War then, as in every other case, was an ugly, nasty, violent, dirty, horrible thing. There are overtures to manliness made in this movie, and there are, as mentioned above, some mentions of America’s moral superiority over the Reich, but these things are severely undercut by what we are shown on screen, which amounts to little more than atrocity on all levels. While the genre of the war film has dealt with the horrors of war quite frequently, World War II is usually romanticized, revered, and the soldiers themselves held up and venerated as heroes. It’s totally unsurprising that that narrative is the one we have told ourselves as national mythology, with Tom Brokaw naming his book about wartime Americans The Greatest Generation. What we see with Collier, what we see with “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), from “Gordo” (Michael Peña) and “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal) is the psychological damage the war inflicted upon those who fought it, and how they slowly began to slip into a psychosis as the war progressed. By the time they arrive in a German town to liberate it from SS leadership, we in the audience are left totally on our own, unable to even identify with them in a traditional sense. Quite simply put, Fury turns the genre on its head. In so doing, it highlights why some war films work very well and linger in public consciousness–Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, and The Thin Red Line are great examples in this regard, despite my not actually liking some of them–and how some do not linger favorably in popular culture outside of genre fans or nostalgic re-watching by lay-historians and enthusiasts of the war.
Eric: When I was a kid in the mid-1970s, probably my favorite war film–indeed, the one that first introduced me to and prompted me to appreciate the genre–was Kelly’s Heroes (1970), the Clint Eastwood/Telly Savalas/Donald Sutherland romp in which Eastwood’s unit and Sutherland’s tanks race the rest of the American army to the French village of Clermont late in the war, hoping to rob a bank there of a substantial horde of gold bars. As in Fury, an SS Panzer commander (Karl Otto Alberty) stands in the way of our “heroes” and their mission, inflicting severe damage on them and killing several of the Americans. In the end, though, a strange truce is brokered–one in which the SS officer agrees to blow up the bank in exchange for a share of the gold. If all of this sounds a bit ridiculous, I should emphasize that the film is routinely ranked by critics among the best war films of all time.
I mention this film in particular because its hijinks are galaxies apart from the visceral brutality that is the calling card of Fury. One might start, of course, with the fact that Kelly’s Heroes is a comedy of sorts, and Fury most certainly is not, as a way of explaining this difference. There is also a self-consciousness throughout the Eastwood flick, an awareness of its principal actors’ careers that is perhaps no better exemplified than in the negotiation scene with the SS commander, which reads as a deleted scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, staged inexplicably on a World War II set and replete with an Ennio Morricone-type score. Fury‘s actors, including Brad Pitt, are barely recognizable and certainly not playing to type. Even the negotiation scenes that are crucial plot pivots in each film are telling. The one in Kelly’s Heroes lasts less than 30 seconds, and its improbability is one of the film’s best punchlines. When one contrasts those dynamics with the torturous negotiations between (and among) two German women and Collier’s tank crew that serve as the veritable core of FuryKelly’s Heroes and dismiss it as a bit of late sixties fluff.
Matt may be right in saying that genre destabilization has something to do with the success, in their time, of such widely disparate films. I’d argue, though, that there is another, more significant factor that is the foundation for the resonance of both of these films in their moment, and it’s exactly that–the moment in time when they first struck the national consciousness–that is often the crux of any war film’s success or failure. Kelly’s Heroes appeared at a time when the news out of Vietnam was not just bad but downright embarrassing and when confidence in military order and mission integrity was at an all-time low. Released in June 1970, it came on the heels of the November 1969 public revelations about the My Lai Massacre and other atrocities committed by American soldiers in the Vietnam theater of operations. With growing resentment toward Nixon’s bungling of the war and national polls in May 1970 showing 56% of the American public believing that American intervention in Vietnam was a mistake, it’s easy to understand how a film about a bunch of likeable, hippyish soldiers getting something for themselves for their efforts might appeal. It was a bit of escapism that reinforced the collective national feeling that the film’s audiences knew better than their American military commanders.
What, then, does Fury‘s critical and box office reception (good but not great, on both fronts) tell us about its place relative to its moment? The Philadelphia Enquirer‘s Steven Rea, for example, has complained that the film is technically good but isn’t entertaining, in large part because of its horrors, while others have echoed similar sentiments. The New York Post‘s Kyle Smith dismisses the film’s violence as pornographic, the Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr complains that the film is “mechanical, claustrophobic, and unrelenting,” while other critics have lamented the film’s lack of a heroic, poetic, or tidy resolution. I’d argue that these criticisms have as much to do with the present events of the international stage and our national discomfort with them as they do with any flaws of the film itself. How, for example, are we to feel about the nearly weekly ISIS video press releases of executions of journalists and captured Iraqis, and why are we so eager to censor them? How are we to combat such gross and resolute evil when we encounter it on the battlefield without becoming that which we hate? How are we to find a humane solution in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan or even the Ukraine when no answer seems satisfactory and the enemies do not seem worthy of that humanity and compassion? These are the very questions that Fury wrestles with throughout; I suspect that the critical and audience divide over Fury reflects that tension and our discomfort with the film’s insistence that we not look away from these issues.
Matt: I certainly think the horrific nature of Fury and the impulse to deny that horror in critiques of the film comes from our current situation in the “Global War on Terror” and the disillusionment that stems from it. I think it’s significant that the film focuses on a tank crew who spend much of the film “buttoned up” inside a hulking machine they cannot escape from. This is not entirely unlike the inescapable realities of modern warfare, which is perpetual, horrible, and sees its current iteration as a truly American interventionist form of international policy in the wake of World War II. The legacy of “total war,” particularly as envisioned by theorist Paul Virilio, is palpable in this film. Sure, Collier can kill as many SS soldiers as possible, and the American battalions can readily cross the borders into nearly any German town with limited impunity, but the war itself continues, lurching along even as the Reich and Hitler know that they’ve already lost. If nothing else, Fury functions as the history of how we got to where we are now, with never-ending conflicts in numerous countries, various forms of world policing, and an ever-growing military-industrial complex we were first warned about by a World War II veteran and President of the United States.
The scene between Collier and young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman)–who is brought into the tank crew at the beginning of the film as a replacement for their second pilot who was killed in a recent skirmish, the first of the original crew to die since they began serving together in North Africa–in the home of the German women that makes up the gut wrenching heart of the film is really difficult to watch with all of this in mind. Not only does it get to the awful truth of what warfare does to completely innocent civilians, including the children liberated earlier in the sequence from their conscripted service in the SS, but it also shows American soldiers in very stark contrast to the earlier World War II films. There is no reverence for these men or any nobility in their actions. If anything they are the monsters in the scene, especially once the remaining members of the crew find their way into the quiet dinner Collier had set up for them, barging in and threatening rape and pillage on the two women living in the home.
In many ways this scene is an inversion of the family dinner scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In that scene, if you remember, there is a palpable sense of dread as Sally is confronted with the madness she has somehow stumbled into. But in Fury the monsters are not in the house, they are in the streets; they have come into the domestic space of the two German women and threaten all manner of disreputable behavior, possibly even death. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a scene like this in any non-Vietnam based American war film. And then, after all this horror has begun to surface in the very tranquil domestic space, we get some truly emotional moments as the soldiers begin to acknowledge themselves and their positions in ways we haven’t seen previously in the film. Shia LaBeouf’s “Bible” in particular is a revelation here, tearing up as he reflects on all the awful things this family of his has gone through, the awful things they’ve done, and how full of shit Collier is in acting like playing house for a brief moment after the liberation of this town might change any of it. This is of course followed by the intrusion of even more horror as a series of bombs rains down on the town from German planes, the women dying anyway, even as the monsters have now left their peaceful home. The horror of war is always threatening to the domestic space.
This is all a long way of getting back to the main point: the threat to domestic space is always the catch-22 of modern warfare, by which I mean warfare since World War II. We say we are defending freedom and our homefront even as we disenfranchise entire foreign populations and disrupt their private lives with unspeakable acts of violence and destruction. Looking into that dinner scene, which really is the dark heart of this film, perhaps critics found that horror inescapable and thus themselves incapable of processing it fully. Returning to the theories of Paul Virilio for a moment, who has himself written extensively about modern warfare, mostly due to his own horrific experiences as a child in France during the war and the ensuing compulsion to document and think through our own inextricable march toward destruction via total warfare, I wish to focus a bit on determinism as it relates here to Fury’s portrayal of World War II. Virilio is famous for saying that “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck,” and I think it might be interesting to see what you make of all of that in relation to this film, Eric.
Eric: Virilio’s point, of course, was that technological advances necessitate the occurrence of the integral Accident, in response to which all subsequent technology (and presumably all subsequent military strategy) is simultaneously trying to escape and compensate. I see a different kind of determinism at work in war, though, one that Fury addresses quite nicely. One way that this resonates with me is in considering the strategies employed by both sides as part of tank busting. I think back on World War I, and even the American Civil War (which brought us the machine gun, land mines, and tanks, though we think of these as later developments), where the weapons makers invented new and terrible ways to kill, as if the horrors of the old ways were not bad enough. They did so largely in response to a technological need to either subvert compensation by the opponent against existing technology or to accelerate the speed of the enemy’s destruction while also inflicting a psychological toll. World War I, for example, brought us countless “innovations,” not the least of which was the triangulated tip of the bayonet, whose purpose was not only to penetrate the enemy’s body but also to disembowel him on the bayonet’s removal through the suction created by the triangulation. Doing so did not necessarily kill the enemy more quickly, but it sure made an impression on his countrymen and comrades. Similarly, we see in Fury the use of white phosphorous rockets by infantry to both penetrate the armor of the tank and subsequently burn holes through the bodies of the men inside, torturing them in a horrific, inescapable, and unnecessarily prolonged death. These technological and psychological “innovations” have in turn deterministically shaped the men and their strategies in employing these technologies. We see several scenes in which one American soldier will tell another to let phosphorized Nazi soldiers burn, both for the gratification of the American soldiers as killers of men and as a message to the surviving German enemy. There is a pornography to it, a reckless, prurient joy in seeing men die so gruesomely; indeed, the men often lose sight of their immediate objective as they stop to cast their gaze.
Norman, of course, is the lone representative of the civilized world’s–perhaps even the domestic world’s–resistance to the determinism of war. He shoots the lit-up Nazis to spare them the pain. He refuses Collier’s direct order to kill a captured Nazi, asking to be killed himself in order to be spared the task. He hesitates in bedding down the young woman in the German village, even though she pleads with him to go with her to the last remnant of domestic space in her apartment in order make her suffering end more quickly. In short, Norman insists–vainly at first–that there must be a different, less despicable way. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Norman’s character is the direct parallels and yet vast dichotomy between Norman and his progenitor, Corporal Upham from Saving Private Ryan. The actors (Logan Lerman and Jeremy Davies, respectively) are nearly identical to one another in appearance and demeanor. Both are typists whose skills with words and weapon of choice (the typewriter) are meaningless in the live theater of battle. Neither is prepared to handle a real weapon, let alone the horrors they will encounter. And yet Norman stands for something where Upham does not. Upham’s reprobate cowardice never wavers, not even in Saving Private Ryan‘s final moments, when he shoots a captured German soldier solely to save his own reputation, to be able to say that he had killed, then orders the other Germans to flee in order to avoid capture. Norman, by contrast, learns to co-exist with that which he cannot understand. This cannot have been unintentional coincidence on the part of Fury’s makers.
No, I see more direct philosophical parallels between Norman’s evolution in preserving his humanity and the motivations and arc of the deeply haunting character Private Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel) in Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Like Norman, Witt is bewitched by a desire to preserve his humanity in spite of the environment in which he finds himself. A deserter who has lived among the Melanesian natives for some period of time before his recapture by American forces, Witt ultimately embraces his fate by volunteering repeatedly for dangerous missions once the American forces land on Guadalcanal. In a horrific nine-minute sequence at the film’s heart, when American forces take a Japanese camp in the jungle, Witt bears witness to unspeakable atrocities, the maddening chaos of total war, and exactly the kind of cruelty by American soldiers that we see in Fury: “This great evil. Where’s it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbin’ us of life and light, mockin’ us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?” These are the words that Norman–a man of words–never seems able to find, and yet they are written in his visage at every horrific juncture with Collier’s men.
Both Norman and Witt ultimately move forward with the monsters they accompany, both trying in their own way to serve as a balance to the horror. Each succeeds in his own way–Witt giving comfort and exuding humanity where he can, Norman teasing out of Collier and his men the last vestiges of their own humanity in large part because of Norman’s example. This is perhaps most evident when Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), the nastiest of Collier’s men, finally tells Norman, “I think you’re a good man. Maybe we aren’t, but you are.” At no point, from either Witt or Norman, do we see Upham’s cowardice, nor do we see either surrender his humanity in the face of war and certain death, in spite of the persistent rebukes from those he fights with. Instead of surrendering to and ultimately reveling in the pain he can inflict on his fellow human being, with both permission and impertinence, both Witt and Norman consistently walk the tightrope of war–doing only what is necessary in order to both save lives and defeat the enemy where he can.
To pull this back to Virilio, the idea of this pornography of suffering in war–whether perceived by the boots on the ground or on American televisions at home–is not lost on Virilio. And if I have a criticism of Fury, it is on exactly this point: There are times when the film reads all too much like a video game, sometimes forgetting that its narrative wants to focus on this paradoxical needle that Norman (and Witt before him) is trying to thread and the implications that narrative holds for us as viewers of Fury. At my screening, I saw other viewers loudly cheering some of the film’s more vicious kills, especially in the final battle at the crossroads. A war movie–any war movie–that does not grapple simultaneously with the consequences for its participants and the implications it holds for its viewers in their own time runs the risk of unintentionally evoking Macbeth’s famous soliloquy about sound and fury. This is another way of saying that I admire the risks Fury takes here, and I appreciate Norman’s character arc nearly as much as I do Witt’s (in what I believe is the finest war movie ever made), but I worry that Fury’s significance is not permitted to resonate fully with its audience or its critics. Pinpointing why it fails in this task continues to frustrate me.
Matt: I don’t know that I’d say the movie fails to resonate with audiences in the way it is intended. I think it might be a by-product of the maxim made famous by Francois Truffaut that to depict war is in essence to glorify it, since the screen holds a certain magic over the viewer. War films in particular have a rather long history of meaning one thing but being taken a completely different way by certain viewers, mostly due to the intensity and realism of the action sequences, the battles between massive armies, and a focus on the technologies of warfare over the emotional consequences of their use. Whenever someone brings up the argument that something is like a “video game” I bristle a bit, not only because the complexities of that medium are often entirely lost on people who seek to criticize it as being shallow in some way, falling far short of artistic enterprise while wholly embracing the commercial endeavors of Hollywood studios. I also remember a scene in Sam Mendes’s underrated film Jarhead in which the soldiers prepare themselves for deployment by watching Apocalypse Now, which is a disavowal of what everyone knows about that movie’s position on warfare and its futility. Yet there they are, a platoon of Marines about to be sent out into Iraq, and they’re pumping themselves up by watching the “Flight of the Valkyries” scene. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily Fury’s fault in any way that it’s not connecting with audiences on that level; maybe it’s just the cultural disconnect from what war actually is and how it affects the people who fight it, who must distance themselves from the reality of war’s insanity in order to do their job.
I can certainly attest to walking out of the theater myself knowing that I had just seen one of the saddest expressions of American foreign policy I’ve ever seen on a movie screen, and the friends who saw the film with me felt much the same way. Fury packs an emotional punch, brimming with despair and horror, and I felt that in spite of my being drawn like a moth to the flame by the action scenes and violence directed at child murdering Nazis. Honestly, can anyone say they weren’t cheering a little in those moments? That is our mythology, after all, the great Nazi killers who preserved democracy and liberated minority populations from fascist rule and murderous ideology.
If I may return briefly to the connection you made to The Thin Red Line, I think what makes Fury more horrific than that film–at least to me–is that here the war itself is not the monster out to crush the soul of young Norman. No, that job belongs to his tank crew, who try to harden and break the will of Norman so that they might stand a chance at saving their own lives. It’s war that dehumanizes the soldiers, sure, but Fury also suggests that it’s the soldiers you’re fighting alongside who dehumanize themselves in order to survive. In this sense the movie functions in a manner similar to a chamber piece, with the force of impact coming directly from a micro view of the horrors of war rather than the sometimes sprawling, philosophic reflections offered by Malick’s film, which I will admit has grown on me in the past few years. But to wrap all this up on my end, and to return to my initial disagreement with your assertion that the film’s “rah-rah” action sequences negate some of its message: By focusing on the microcosm of inhumanity bred even within the small platoon of soldiers we might typically regard as a war film’s heroes–especially in films like Bataan or The Green Berets, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the only truly pro-Vietnam war film–this is, to my mind, a similar but separate effect from that of The Thin Red Line which was made by a filmmaker with much more on his mind than the linear brutality Ayer is aiming for here.
As always at TheSplitScreen, we welcome your views in the comments section regarding this film and our general theorizing on war films, audiences, viscera, and the pornography of violence in general. Thanks for reading.