Saturday, October 25, 2014
In The Sands of Iwo Jima, John Wayne plays a gruff, battle-hardened sergeant who must toughen his young soldiers for combat. He makes his boys into men and, then, dies heroically in the film's climactic battle. David Ayer's Fury is curiously retrograde: it is nothing more than a tank-based version of The Sands of Iwo Jima with foul language, spectacular and gory special effects, and a similar climax: imitating Leonidas at Thermopylae, Brad Pitt stages a last stand against hordes of German SS men, troops who, apparently, desire nothing more than to die in large quantities assaulting his disabled tank, the titular Fury. Whether lots of obscenity and better special effects yields a better result is debatable, but, in any event, Fury is nothing more than a standard WW II war film slowed to a crawl, lacking the snappy wise-cracking dialogue of the forties pictures, and tediously morose, solemn, self-important and earnest. Within the first few moments, an alert viewer realizes that Fury is completely unrealistic. Brad Pitt's comic-book hero stabs a weary-looking German on horseback through the eye. (Why is their a horseman on the battlefield?) Then, Pitt called War-Daddy by his admiring tank crew strikes a heroic pose atop his tank. Of course, in real life, no soldier in his right mind would present such an inviting target to the foe -- indeed, actual combat soldiers tend to scuttle close to the ground like cockroaches or rats. Fortunately for War-Daddy, there is no one around to shoot him down as he poses dramatically against the smoky horizon. A few moments later, someone starts a desultory shelling of the battlefield, a few acres strewn with wrecked Sherman tanks. Pitt orders his men to drive the tank forward, thus, signaling to the nearby enemy that his tank is not wrecked and, therefore, a viable target. Of course, you want to shout to him: "Don't move the tank! They think your dead!" But drive forward he does. Survivors of tank warfare always comment on the terror induced by heavy armored vehicles, the roar of their engines and the stink of diesel, the clatter of treads tearing up the soil and the way that the earth trembles as the huge machines advance. Oddly enough, Ayer gets none of this into his movie. The tank itself is poorly defined and never filmed in a way that makes any spatial sense of the vehicle's interior. We don't have any idea how the tank works or where its occupants are located within the machine -- we don't know the roles of the tank crew or how they are supposed to interact in combat. Ayer wants us to feel that his tankers are always vulnerable, about to be killed in their fragile metal shell, and so he doesn't provide any sense of the fearsome nature of heavy armored vehicles -- by contrast, the big semi-trucks that George Miller deployed in The Road Warrior were frightening vehicles, studded with dangerous sharp edges and spinning parts, equipment invested with real weight and speed; in Miller's film, the trucks had a tangible, menacing presence and were characters in the movie in their own right. Ayer's tank, which must be vulnerable so that his murderers can be construed as underdogs, seems completely abstract -- an idea and not a vehicle. (Only one shot in the whole film carries any physical force: this is the image of the badly wounded War-Daddy withdrawing into the womblike darkness of the tank, clawing shut the heavy hatch of the turret as he drops into the gloom of the vehicle that he calls his home.) The movie is pointless and, after a fairly exciting duel with a German Tiger tank, the combat scenes have nowhere to go. There is a long sequence in which War Daddy and his men interact with two German women -- that scene is well-acted, has an undercurrent of dread, and seems fairly poignant, although indulging in every possible war-time romance cliché. But the sequence ends with the prettier of the two German girls dead and half-buried in rubble, our heroes mourning the horror of it all, and, then, returning to the front and their last stand and so the scene seems, ultimately, completely inconsequential. The final battle scene is as unrealistic as Mimi's death in La Boheme and lasts as long -- every time one of our valiant tank warriors is gravely wounded, the swarm of German soldiers desists from their assault, withdrawing to a decent distance and ceasing fire so that our protagonists can say their last goodbyes in relative calm and silence. Logistically, this climactic combat scene is totally ludicrous and makes no sense. We have seen the Germans advancing in huge numbers about four-hundred yards from the stranded tank -- and, yet, improbably it takes them ten minutes to get within range of our heroes, thus, allowing for some incredibly stupid and implausible tough-guy dialogue. Then, the bad guys, who are equipped with many Panzerfaust (tank-killing) weapons decide to mount an infantry attack on the immobile but heavily armed Sherman tank -- thereby, allowing themselves to be slaughtered in windrows. Finally, someone fires a bazooka round into the tank. The metal shell of the armored vehicle is pierced, a hit that would instantly kill everyone in the tank in a swarm of whirling shrapnel -- armor-piercing projectiles scale off the inside of the tank and rip the crew members to death with metal fragments. But, in this case, the armor-piercing round merely plows into one of the crew members, blowing him up but resulting otherwise in no damage to anyone else in the vehicle. And so the battle goes on for a half-hour with long cease-fires so that each of our heroes can die with appropriate and melodramatic histrionics. The moral of the movie seems to be this: "Ideals are peaceful," as War Daddy says, "but history is violent." And this is fully as stupid as it sounds. War films succeed either by being entertaining adventures or realistic accounts of horror: Fury fails by both standards.