Movie Review: ‘Fury’ – Saving Private Ryan in a tank…

 

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You can buy it here

I’ve now watched ‘Fury’ three times.  The first time time was at the Kensington Odeon, on a romantic date-night with Mary (I know, I know – at least I took her to Byron Burger afterwards).  But it was released on DVD and to iTunes a couple of weeks ago and I downloaded it, mostly because I was hoping it was actually a bit better than I’d thought it was the first time I saw it, or maybe that it had somehow ‘matured’ a little in the months since I first watched it.

But it hadn’t.

The plot of ‘Fury’ is fairly straightforward.  It’s the very end of the war and the US Army are deep inside Nazi Germany, supposedly mopping up the last remnants of the Wehrmacht.  Of course, it isn’t as straightforward as that and they are still coming across pockets of fanatical resistance, mostly from the SS and groups of politically indoctrinated Hitler Youth.  Brad Pitt is a old-timer sergeant – ‘Wardaddy’ – in command of a Sherman tank and a crew of hard-bitten veterans who have been fighting together since the North Africa campaign in 1942 and have made it mostly unscathed from Normandy to the bitter end.

The film opens in the aftermath of a tank battle.  Brad’s experienced ‘bow-gunner’ (actually, he’d be the radio operator, a skilled job – operating the bow machine-gun is very much his secondary role) has been gorily killed and when they get back to their base, a fresh-faced ‘green’ young soldier is allocated to take his place.

At which unpromising point we de-camp to war movie cliché central (spoiler warning!).

  • The replacement crewman is not really a soldier but a clerk-typist who has been in the army for 8 weeks, has never been in combat and is something of an idealist. (See ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Blackhawk Down’ for more or less the exact same character)
  • Brad’s surviving crew comprise three stock war film characters: a Christian fundamentalist gunner (quite well played by Shia LaBouef as it happens); a Latino driver; and a southern redneck loader.  They’re all completely different yet they love and respect each other, presumably through shared experience. (‘Saving Private Ryan’ again, they could have substituted a Jewish soldier for the Latino to maintain the same cliché level)
  • Brad’s platoon commander is also a fresh-faced young fella.  One of Brad’s hard-bitten fellow sergeants asks him if he’s started shaving yet. (‘A Bridge Too Far’)
  • As the platoon are moving in convoy, they are attacked by Hitler Youths with anti-tank weapons.  New boy fails to open fire on them because they are ‘just kids’ and Brad blames him for the death of the platoon commander who kills himself after being horrifically set on fire. (‘Band of Brothers’, if I recall correctly, and various others)
  • Brad forces the new boy to kill a German prisoner close up. (Very similar to ‘Saving Private Ryan’)
  • In a town they capture, they are attacked by naive Hitler Youths led by an SS officer.  The SS officer is shot out of hand.
  • In the town Brad and new young guy go to a flat occupied by a young girl and her aunt. Young guy plays the piano and gets to shag the girl; Brad, once cleaned up, is gentlemanly, but all is spoiled when the rough soldiery turn up. (I don’t remember where I’ve seen this before but I have; it isn’t dissimilar to the French Plantation scene cut from ‘Apocalypse Now!’ but there are closer examples)
  • Brad and the guys end up hopelessly defending a crossroads from their crippled tank against a ‘battalion’ – actually more like a big company, of fanatical Waffen-SS troops.  The SS baddies are astonishingly tactically naive, despite superior firepower, and get their arses handed to them, but ultimately fresh-faced new boy is the only survivor amongst the goodies. (‘Saving Private Ryan’)

There is no getting away from the fact that, for anyone who has watched even a moderate number of war films in the past ten or twenty years, this is unmistakably a patchwork quilt of tired old tropes.  Yes, war is horrible and people are terribly injured more or less at random; yes, otherwise civilised people do horrible things in war.  But I think we all knew that.

I’ve written on here before about what an awful, pernickety person I am to watch war films with but I was quite excited about Fury because I knew from the advanced publicity that they had tried to make it look as realistic as possible.  For example, they had got one of the last running German Tiger tanks, from the Tank Museum at Bovington, for a key scene which at least suggested that it would all be grittily realistic but this was pretty disappointing too.  The realism was no more than skin deep and there is more to a convincing war narrative than mud, blood and heavy armour.  Tactically, both sides were naive to the point of infantility.  This genuinely detracts from what the film is supposed to be telling us because it’s all so false.  I realise that most people who watch ‘Fury’ won’t have military training and might not appreciate that the situation in which Brad and co find themselves is far from hopeless but this is what would probably have happened:

The five man crew of an isolated, disabled tank discover that a heavily armed ‘company plus’ of supposedly elite infantry are coming their way.  They’ve got several choices:  a. run away; b. heroically duke it out with the bad guys in an engagement which would, realistically, last a couple of minutes; c. even more heroically go and find someone with a working radio to bring in artillery and/or an airstrike to break up the enemy concentration.

The answer, if you hadn’t guessed, is c.

The HBO-BBC series ‘Band of Brothers’ demonstrated that you can make compelling war drama without descending into farcical, cartoon level tactics.  If you’re going to spend this much money on a movie ($68 million, apparently), you could surely go the extra yard to get a decent military script advisor on board.

It isn’t all bad.  There’s some good acting.  Brad Pitt is, as always, tremendously charismatic and a compelling screen presence.  I recently discovered that he’s actually older than I am, the bastard; and I guess in some Hollywood attic there’s a painting of a wrinkled, balding and slightly pot-bellied Brad, ageing away as the ‘real’ version remains forever youthful.  Shia LaBouef is good, as I’ve already mentioned, and Jason Isaacs puts in a decent turn in his second outing, after ‘Blackhawk Down’, as a US Army company commander.

There are also a few scenes which are compellingly realistic.  The brief moments of panic when our heroes are first contacted by the enemy, firstly in the Hitler Youth ambush, secondly by the Tiger tank, are well done.

But there isn’t much more than that and I was left wondering, after all three viewings, why anybody had bothered to make this.  It’s far less than the sum of its parts.

Rating:  ★★☆☆☆

What Goes Around, Comes Around.

Just around the corner from where I live in Kensington is a small mews.  Back when it was built, these were intended as homes for the servants of the people who lived in the very grand houses on Victoria Road, Stanford Road, Eldon Road and Cottesmore Gardens.  At the far end of the mews there was a dairy where, some of the older residents will tell you, the local milkman kept his horse and milk float to deliver milk around the area.

With the general decline in the practise of grand families maintaining ‘indoor staff’ after the Second World War, these mews houses were sold off and became a relatively cheap way for youngish professional couples to gain a foothold on the property ladder in the area.  The houses themselves were small and often cramped but they were in a desirable neighbourhood.

The existence of these mewses meant that even some of the grandest parts of London remained socially mixed.  When Mary and I first got married we lived in a mews house in South Kensington and our neighbours were from various backgrounds:  there was a carpenter in one of the houses; a couple of South American hookers in another; a travel journalist directly across from us; and, oddly, the then leader of the Official Unionist Party at the street end.

Anyway, interestingly, a couple of the mews houses close to us have recently changed hands and guess what?  The new occupants are domestic staff who work in some of the local big houses.

Ah, the circle of life…