If you have read a few of my previous reviews here on History Roll, you might remember that many of them covered World War II movies. It is a setting that Hollywood never seems to tire of, and for obvious reasons. When it comes to history, so many of us look to the past for simpler times as an escape from either general or specific despairs of our constantly modern lives. Oftentimes moviemakers are the purveyors of these nostalgia filled puff pieces, and the last world war makes for vivid and easily plumbed source material for said projects. With battle lines clearly drawn between fascists and self-proclaimed defenders of democracy, it becomes a fruit too tempting not to pluck in an industry forever picking from the lowest branch possible. It gets somewhat complicated when the Soviets get involved. As such, our cinematic ruminations (Saving Private Ryan (1998) included) of the Second World War typically amount to a bellicose episode of Scooby Doo where we can differentiate who the heroic good guys and big bad guys are without too much cerebration. Hollywood does, after all, market to the lowest common denominator.
In such a simplistic view of warfare as we usually get when it comes to World War II, we can sometimes forget how truly horrendous and sad is armed conflict. During the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said “War is hell,” as his army burned its way through the state of Georgia. Of course, “burned” is too small a war to describe what his campaign did to that part of the country. People were killed, homes were reduced to rubble, rail lines torn up, and livelihoods were confiscated. In short, society was shattered. All of this is a long way of saying that where Fury shines is in reminding the audience of the horrors of war, and this reviewer applauds it for doing so with World War II. Specifically the film focuses on the closing stages of the struggle in Europe. As Sherman showed the South in the nineteenth century, those final months, weeks, and days of a war can be some of the most brutal, and Fury certainly drives this point home.
One might say, though, that Fury goes too far with the brutality and jeopardizes the integrity of the film’s plot. Its climatic moment comes when Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s (Brad Pitt) tank platoon is sent to defend a crossroads. We are told that if the Germans manage to get by this point on the map it will cause havoc for the American army’s supply chain. When Collier’s tank is the only one to make it to its defensive position, and gets stuck there when a mine blows up under one of its treads, they are left woefully undermanned to defend against the German regiment that serendipitously stumbles upon their position. They make a heroic stand . . . only to fall and let them by, which begs the question: what was the point of their sacrifice? Further, we never see what happens behind the lines when those Germans catch the rear of the American army.
The makers of Fury undoubtedly chose April, 1945, in order to add dramatic effect to their movie. Would these men survive those last desperate moments with the end so tantalizingly close? But then they sabotaged their climax by not delivering on the implied consequences of the “heroes” actions. However, one can also point out that not all moments in World War II were noteworthy for their heroism. These men had a job to do and they did it to the best of their ability. Many of us do this on a daily basis without bullets flying at us. Nonetheless, a movie does much better when we can have people to cheer for and get behind. All of Collier’s crew (save for one) are deeply flawed individuals and the director has no qualms about displaying their character defects throughout. The movie thus leaves the viewer, despite the amazing action, special effects, and grittiness, a bit empty and horrified.
Beyond the gruesome hollowness, keener historical observers will note a few inaccuracies along the way. Grenades do not explode when they should, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) was not killed by fanatical SS troops, and there was little chance Collier’s platoon would have gone to that crossroads without infantry support. While annoying, none of these things are Fury’s main point, which was to underscore war’s terrible nature. Yet even in the midst of such horrifying chaos there can be heroes. While the comradeship is paramount among the crew, their laying down of their lives for each other becomes meaningless within the context of the film. There is honor in such sacrifices, but story-wise it is a bad move. This is something the film forgets and why it ultimately does not satisfy.