By Alex Calvo:
Since the birth of cinema, war has been a perennial source of inspiration for films. However, the resulting genre is anything but uniform. Under the label “war film” one can find a wide spectrum of films, going from mere action filled with special effects (sometimes referred to as “war porn”) to pacifist pamphlets seeking to denounce the futility of a given conflict or of warfare in general. And there are many sub-categories in between, including historical films and biopics of famous generals. Within the historical film genre, one finds a similar range to that observable in military history scholarship, with some works covering a whole war or campaign, while others focus on some limited action or the experience of a small group of soldiers. Fury, which came out late last year and stars Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal, belongs to this latter category.
The viewer is told the setting is Germany, in the closing weeks of the Second World War, but other than that much of the action takes place in the narrow confines of a tank. When not inside the tank we see – at most – a road, a village, or a field, never more than that. This is a film with no generals, no large armies, and no big battles. Engagements feature no more than a few tanks and a handful of troops and other vehicles. This is war up close and personal, war in small scale, war centered on the individual and a small closely-knit group of fellow warriors bent on survival.While not the first war film to adopt that perspective, what stands out in Fury is the balance between the experience of the individuals in the small group and the wider conflict. This is no individualistic, self-centred tale of a soldier’s suffering, disconnected from the reasons for why a war is being fought. Nor is it a mechanistic depiction of a small unit simply following orders on their path to victory and glory. What we find instead, in line with the real-life experience of many combatants, is a group of soldiers determined to do their job, do it well, watch each other’s back, survive, and go home as soon as possible.
This does not mean that the wider political and moral background to the war is forgotten. On the contrary, there is no room for moral relativism in Fury, no attempt to portray the two sides as equal or even comparable, and no room for historical revisionism or the obsession of some media outlets with the misguided notion that the war was won by virtue of strength of numbers and superior firepower alone. As Fury makes clear, regardless of Allied superiority, victory came through myriad small actions and the sacrifice of ordinary troops.
Fury is a story where good fights evil, but is more nuanced than the standard good/bad war films. It avoids cartoon-like characterizations, and focuses on how the motivation to engage in battle comes more from frontline experience – the desire to protect your brothers-in-arms and the raw hatred of the enemy – than from any overarching ideological doctrines. Again, as many with actual combat experience will attest, in many conflicts newly-arrived soldiers will lack the necessary degree of hate towards the enemy to successfully engage them in the field of battle. This was the case even in WWII, a conflict marked by a clear ideological difference between the two sides. The film shows this, taking us through the painful but ultimately essential process through which the tank’s newest crew member comes to understand the rules of the game, not through theoretical lectures on the evils of Nazism, but through a combination of peer pressure, father-like mentoring, actual engagements, fear of death, and the ultimate realization that this is a very different world from the one back home.
Fury is also a story that examines in detail the tight bonds among men who live, eat, and fight together every day, knowing it could be their last. It is done, furthermore, in a realistic way, showing the viewer the different facets of an essential yet often difficult relationship between very different people. This is no group of flawless heroes, they are all different and they often clash, most notably when arguing about the language to be used inside the tank, and then again during the discussions about religion, and most tellingly in their encounter with a German family. These clashes contribute to the credibility of the film, making its characters believable.
The same nuanced approach is in evidence in the way that the film deals with relations between soldiers and civilians, on both sides, and between the crumbling Nazi regime and its population and troops. The suffering of refugees and of civilians caught up in the midst of combat is portrayed openly and in all its cruelty, without embellishment, in a matter-of-fact way, as an unavoidable aspect of war. The same realism is on display when soldiers and civilians meet, including the long lunch scene, one of the most intimate passages of the film.
Central to this very realistic portrayal of combat, and the true nature of war, is the film’s score. Deeply dark, yet full of grit and action when suitable, it succeeds in creating the necessary atmosphere for the viewer to fully absorb the main characters’ experience, and gain a glimpse of what the experience of combat is like. The film’s historical credentials are also supported by meticulous attention to detail when it comes to uniforms and equipment. For example, we see the only remaining working Tiger tank, captured in Tunisia in 1943 and part of the collection of the Bovington Tank Museum. To ensure combat scenes were realistic, the help of four tank veterans was enlisted, among them 91-year old Bill Betts, a Sherman radio operator in the Essex Yeomanry and a D-day veteran, who was shot by a German sniper. While older films like Patton avoid the gory depiction of combat wounds, and Saving Private Ryan’s opening scene gives viewers a no-holds-barred look of a battlefield, Fury walks a careful path, showing the impact of war on combatants yet without distracting viewers from the film’s narrative.
Fury is many things. It is a tale of a small group of men brought together by war, and their ordeal to fight to live another day. It is the story of a newly arrived recruit and his rapid – albeit painful – integration into the group and his discovery of what war and fighting is about. The film is a reminder that WWII was, up to the last minute, a brutal struggle, where despite Allied material superiority there was always the need for close combat, with victory in battle often coming at a staggering cost. It is also an examination of the difficult moral choices one has to make on the battlefield. Fury is also an attack on moral relativism, making it clear who was on the right side of history, while showing us in detail how a green soldier came to understand it.
In a world which has not yet said goodbye to war, where it is often fashionable to commemorate wars without actually looking at combat, Fury is a necessary film. It reminds us that war is violent and painful but sometimes necessary, and that WWII was not won just because of material superiority, but because of the small groups of soldiers who fought to the last moment in unimaginable circumstances.
Alex Calvo is a student at Birmingham University’s MA in Second World War Studies program. He is the author of ‘The Second World War in Central Asia: Events, Identity, and Memory’, in S. Akyildiz and R. Carlson ed., Social and cultural Change in Central Asia: The Soviet Legacy (London: Routledge, 2013) and tweets at @Alex__Calvo. His work can be found here.