Friday, October 24, 2014

Movies In History: Society of the Military Horse • View topic - Fury

From the shorter version of this review, at Society of the Military Horse • View topic - Fury

Fury. 2014, directed by David Ayer.


This movie is touring now and has been subject to a lot of anticipation by fans of history and war films. We'll admit here to being a fan of both, with the latter genera being a subset of the former.  It'll probably have quite a few fans, but for those who watch movies closely for detail with an eye towards actual events I suspect it will be a disappointment.  It was with us.

Character development in the film is very poor and U.S. troops are portrayed in a fashion that might be more accurate for the Soviet army of the same period.  The film takes the Gritty Old Guys mixed in with New Guy they don't want to know theme about five notches higher than the norm.  This theme is a stock item in just about every war movie made since 1950 and has been ramped up just about ever time it's been done since Fuller's The Steel Helmet.  Interestingly, its generally absent from films prior to that, and it seems that the entire plot device might have been lifted from S. L. A. Marshall's now discredited study of World War Two infantrymen.  According to later studies of World War Two combat troops, such as The Deadly Brotherhood, this portrayal is false in general, but this film takes this cliche as one of the essential plot devices of the entire film. It isn't as if anyone who hasn't watched a war film hasn't seen this done before, and done better (Big Red One, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan). For a cinematic portrayal of U.S. troops in action, Battleground or Band of Brothers would be a much better option.

In terms of combat scenes, the film would have actually made more sense if it depicted the Red Army in the closing days of the war, rather than the U.S. Army. There was, of course, fighting right up until the last day of the war, but if this film was taken to be accurate it would have us believe that the entire German military was fighting tooth and nail right to the bitter end, when in fact by the stage of the war portrayed the German forces were collapsing in the west with a large number of prisoners being taken. Dealing with floods of German troops attempting to surrender was a major movement and logistical problem for the western allies by that time of the war and the problem became so acute that some units simply took up waiving surrendering Germans towards their rear and German soldiers who were attempting to surrender by that point in the war might end up behind Allied lines for a day or more simply attempting to find a unit that would actually take their surrender.

This movie is yet another one that has built upon the recent trend of showing American soldiers killing POWs.  Studies on this topic show that that outright murder of German POWs was quite rare, although it was the case in any army that the first few minutes of a POW's capture was always very risky.  If a soldier lived through his attempt to surrender and made it for a few minutes, he generally would come out okay.  Wholesale killing of regular German POWs generally did not occur, although you can find the rare example of the contrary.  Refusing to take the surrender of SS troops did occur in some units post June 1944, but even that was pretty rare and tended to be concentrated in units which had direct experience with SS troops killing Allied POWs.  Just as an example of how rare this was, late war a U.S. unit overran an SS unit that had just massacred a group of Jewish prisoners it was moving from one location to another, by burning them alive in a barn, and even in that instance the U.S. troops didn't kill the SS troops, although they hotly debated doing so.

Where this cinematic myth really got launched is difficult to tell, but it is depicted in context in The Longest Day, although in that historically accurate version of Cornelius Ryan's book, its shown in the context of close combat with the U.S. soldier not knowing what the German soldier was attempting, and not understanding what he was saying.  This scene was almost identically taken for Saving Private Ryan, but converted in what is otherwise a very fine film into one in which U.S. Rangers purposely shoot German soldiers trying to surrender, after taunting them.  It's picked up again in Band of Brothers, but in that case the murder is suggested rather than depicted, and it is in fact based upon what was a real event in that instance, although an extraordinary event.  In Fury, however, its shown as routine and even in an unusually sadistic episode in one scene.  Almost no soldier in this movie, even those depicted as highly religious, object, which would be quite unlikely.  Of note, the murder suggested in Band of Brothers was controversial amongst members of that unit, all of whom were elite troops.

German troops in Fury are portrayed as stunningly well equipped and uniformed, when period photographs show a lot of them to pretty worn by that stage of the war. This film takes place over a few days starting in April 1945 (we don't know exactly when it ends, but it would be in April or May 1945).  By April 1945 the German army was using a mix of everything it had and exhibiting a decline in equipment quality in everything.  They were, of course, still quite capable of fighting well, but they were not the same in terms of equipment that they'd been even a few months prior.  Even Hitler Youth units are shown as well equipped and uniformed when period photos show them looking mostly like a bunch of ill equipped scared children.

On the depiction of children as combatants, the film is sympathetic for the most part to the plight of impressed German children, and it doesn't seek to be generally harsh toward them. One scene does depict German girls as being impressed into service, and I generally do not think that happened.  The Nazi regime never was able to accommodate itself to a really full mobilization of women, and indeed it generally viewed their place as being at home, with some exceptions, even late war.  Mobilized German women tended to work in select industries, or in work details, and I know of no instances of them being mobilized as combatants.

Scenes early in the film depicting an armored attack against German troops supported by anti tank guns were well well done. A scene depicting Sherman's in action against a Tiger tank is interesting, but probably overdone. Still, it is interesting.  The Tiger used in the film is the sole working example of that type of tank. The depiction of munitions bouncing off armor is scary and probably pretty realistic. Also realistic is the portray of a penetrating shot as fatal to a tank and its crew even without an explosion, which is rarely shown in regards to armor.

The film is extremely violent, as one would of course expect for a war film, as war is violent.  Nonetheless, without trying to spoil to much of it for folks who might be inclined to view it, at least to some degree, particularly in later stages of the film, a person has the strong sense that they were lifted wholly out of The Wild Bunch, but not in a way that's as novel as they were in that earlier film, and even parts of that film begin to strain a viewers suspension of reality.  Indeed, the film might be somewhat described as Peckinpahesque, except that Sam Peckinpah had a much more developed talent for being able to use violence as a vehicle to bring up troubling moral issues and contradictions in his characters, particularly those depicted in The Wild Bunch, which was specifically filmed to expose Peckinpah's feelings about the type of character that had only recently been portrayed when that film was made in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  In this film there seems to have been a similar attempt to portray some similar moral contradictions in regards to the crew, but it doesn't come off very well.  By the films end the director was resorting to the fairly free use of Biblical quotes to try to get this across.

I will note that the film did portray the subject of religion fairly frequently, and in a less cynical manner than had tended to be the case in films of the 60s and 70s.  This seems to be a bit of an evolving trend.  Shia LeBeouf's character; Boyd "Bible" Swan is probably the best acted character in the move and he is shown as devoutly observant in some unspecified Protestant denomination.  It's hard to imagine a similar portrayal, for example, in another "team" movie Kelly's Heroes and in the famed The Dirty Dozen the only religious character is a bad guy.  The main protagonist of the film, Norman Ellison, is a quietly observant Episcopalian who refuses to compromise his conscience.  Although its not apparent until the very end, even the not very likable Sgt Don Collier, played by Brad Pitt, has an extensive enough religious knowledge to be able to quote the Bible, showing the degree to which he's morally conflicted perhaps.
One minor, and it is minor, plus of the film is that its pretty decent in material details, which those with an eye for history always look for, and which has tended to be a high expectation for this moving going set since Saving Private Ryan really raised the bar in this area. The Shermans are real Shermans (although I don't know what model, there's at least two different models). The Tiger tank is a real Tiger tank. The Germans are armed correctly with the correct small arms as are the U.S. troops, although the use of a Stg44 as a captured tank small arm is unlikely.  Crew use of the M3 submachinegun, however, is absolutely correct.

And, and this is unusual, the use of horses by the Germans is very frequently shown and even shows up as a routine item in the dialog. Indeed, that part is quite surprising.  German officers are shown as mounted, correctly, in more than one scene. The large scale use of horses is noted in dialog including a query by one soldier about whether a lot of men or horses had been noted in a certain area, indicative of German activity.

Some small material details are intriguing but unexplained. Brad Pitt's character Sgt. Collier has an English last name but speaks perfect German with that never being explained. German speaking American solders were not uncommon at that time, but that's almost always because they had grown up in a German speaking family.  A little explanation on that  character trait would have been nice, even if only in terms of a vague suggestion as to the answer.  Sgt. Collier carries a double action revolver and wears three strap cavalry boots, sort of suggesting pre war service in the cavalry, which his character would have been old enough to easily have had.  Boots of that type were almost always associated with mounted service and continued to be manufactured until just after World War Two.  Photographs of tankers wearing them do exist, but such photographs are always associated with units which had at one time been horse cavalry.  To simply find a tanker wearing them, even a NCO, would have been unlikely otherwise.  Double action revolvers had remained common in U.S. Cavalry well into the war as they were thought safer for mounted men than the M1911 automatic pistol, although most cavalrymen carried the M1911.  Some tankers were issued double action revolvers early in the war, however.

Having said that, the movie is otherwise a disappointment and I'd skip it if I hadn't already seen it.

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