By Colin Woodward
Plot: A tank unit fights its way across Germany during World War II. Along the way, these grizzled, hard-bitten troops teach a wet-behind-the-ears recruit that war is bad.
That plot summary contains cliches. It was meant to. This movie is a cliche.
Someone needs to write a book about how Hollywood, despite all its supposed “limousine liberals” reinforces traditional and conservative values.
Take Fury. It benefits from employing all the tricks of the CGI era. It looks convincing. The film has plenty of mud, blood, and decapitations. The look and feel of the tank’s innards feels real. The acting, on the whole, is competent. Fury is, essentially, however, a remake of The Alamo, in which Americans fight against overwhelming odds.
The film reinforces this idea with some misleading opening titles about American tanks being outgunned by the better-armed Germans. Yes, the German tanks were far superior to their American counterpart, the Shermans. But the Americans had far more tanks with which to wage war, a fact that one scene in the film ably demonstrates. A Tiger is able to pick off several U.S. tanks before being outflanked by Pitt’s crew, which disables the German tank with a shot to its poorly armored rear.
Saving Private Ryan began a new era of (fittingly) violent World War II movies. But even for a war movie, Fury is grisly. Previous entertainments, from Ryan to Band of Brothers to The Thin Red Line, were gritty. But they had an element of humanity about them. The men of Fury, in contrast, only seem to take pride and pleasure in one thing: killing.
Despite the unusually high gore factor in the film, Fury’s plot elements are standard fare. The soldiers are in the mold of the typical World War II platoon. The tank has a Mexican; a nearly incomprehensible and crude redneck; a Bible-quoting southerner with a William Faulkner mustache; a wan, hapless desk jockey whose been thrown in with the veterans; and the tough-as-nails sergeant (played by Pitt). We’ve seen these characters before.
Lee Marvin would have been great in this kind of movie. But he’s been dead a long time, and so instead we get Brad Pitt as the central character. Pitt’s sergeant is something of a sadist. In one preposterous early scene, he forces the new recruit to murder a captured German soldier—shooting the man in the back, no less. And in the ludicrous final act, the film goes into full John Wayne mode. Pitt’s sergeant urges his men to undertake what is essentially a suicide mission, where a handful of men in a broken down tank try to hold off what appears to be a battalion of SS troops.
The film also contains a long, awkward, and gratuitous scene in which the men have a meal with two attractive German women (who are later blown up by stray German artillery). The women look less like people living in a war ravaged town than they do magazine models. And yet, after we have seen countless men torn apart in battle, the director cuts away from the lovemaking scene. No naked flesh in this movie, mind you. Because that would be too much for the viewer to handle. This movie takes pride in not showing any basic human pleasures.
Great war movies are like great westerns. They need strong and charismatic leading men who you will root for, even when those men do horrible things. Brad Pitt, unfortunately, does not have the quality of the great war movie actors. Here, he seems to lack both gravitas and vulnerability. He can be effective in movies like Oceans 11, when he can be suave and snarky. As far as WWII movies go, he was better in Inglorious Basterds, which had the reliable Quentin Tarantino at the helm and was a fairly tongue-in-cheek affair. This movie needs more of an everyman, perhaps Timothy Olyphant or Jeremy Renner leading the tank across Germany
A classic movie like The Dirty Dozen was amoral and often cartoonish. But it had characters you cared about. It knew the movie had to be about more than the killing scenes. Fury doesn’t understand that it’s not enough to have the Nazis be the villains. Countless movies have done that. At the end of the film, we won’t be pleased just because the Americans exacted a higher body count. We want soldiers who are more than just killing machines.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.