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:  ★★☆☆☆

Women in Combat

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Some years back I was at the old SAS barracks on the outskirts of Hereford collecting some kit for a friend.  I was chatting to an NCO I vaguely knew when a female soldier walked by.  There was nothing unusual about that: although there were fewer women in the army back then, they were reasonably ubiquitous, primarily in support roles as clerks, administrators, chefs and so forth.

This one was different however, because she was wearing the insignia of a ‘badged’ SAS soldier.  That is to say, a soldier who was a full-on member of the SAS rather than being attached support personnel.  I asked the NCO I was talking to who she was and he explained that she was a member of what used to be called ’14 Intelligence Company’, the undercover unit which was trained and operated under the auspices of the SAS in Northern Ireland.  She had served several operational tours in the unit and had been appointed to its ‘permanent cadre’ and thus had effectively become a member of the SAS. Fair enough: you don’t get much more ‘front-line’ than serving in Special Forces.

So it strikes me as a little strange that we are still discussing and ‘reviewing’ whether women can serve in front line combat roles as infantry soldiers or members of armoured vehicle crews.  The reality is they’ve been in the front line with the British Army for years and, in the kinds of conflicts we’ve been involved in recently, the concept of the front line has in any case become somewhat blurred.

The fact is that we’ve been through this before.  It was going to be the end of the world when we allowed black and minority ethnic recruits to join traditionally ‘white’ regiments; soldiers would be so horrified at having to serve alongside gay men and lesbians that morale would collapse and discipline disintegrate.  None of these things transpired.  Personally I can see no good reason why women who are physically able to act as infantry soldiers or tank crews shouldn’t do so.

Over the years, several – trivial and obtuse, in my view – objections to women serving in close combat roles have surfaced.  These are:

Women aren’t physically strong enough.  It is perfectly true that many women will not be strong enough to serve as infantrymen.  Way back in the day when I was an infantry platoon commander, in rural South Armagh, we routinely carried weapons and equipment weighing 40 or 50 kg for patrols and operations lasting several days.  It was hard work for fit, 6’2″, thirteen stone me; many women would not be able to do it.  But the fact is that some would and if they can, and there is no lowering of standards, there is no physical reason not to let them.  In truth, many men are not up to serving as infantry soldiers either.

Male soldiers would instinctively want to protect female colleagues rather than winning the firefight.  I think this relates to the physical strength argument.  Male soldiers will supposedly protect their ‘weaker’ female counterparts but if their female colleagues aren’t actually weaker, I doubt this is very likely.  As it happens, soldiers within an infantry fire team are surprisingly caring and protective of each other because they live, train and fight closely together but trained soldiers also understand that often the most sensible thing is to get on with the task at hand: if you’re clearing an enemy position with bayonets and grenades, you can’t necessarily down tools when one of your comrades is wounded – you need to finish the job.  We train our soldiers to fight and that often means suppressing ‘instinctive’ behaviour, why wouldn’t they be able to override any urge to protect female colleagues?

It’s ‘unfeminine’ to take part in close combat. Over the years, it’s been considered unfeminine to ride bicycles and horses (unless sidesaddle), play football, vote, attend university etc etc etc. Times change. Women fly fast jets and helicopters, crew artillery guns and do a whole range of other things within the military which ultimately lead to them raining death on their unfortunate opponents; I can’t really see why shooting or sticking a bayonet into an enemy is any less feminine than, for example, dropping a 500 lb bomb on him (or her, in this equal opportunity scenario).

When I first joined the army, women were there, effectively, to do the typing and cook the pasties and chips.  That’s all changed now and a good thing too: it was a hideous waste of talent and resources.  Nowadays, women are pretty much integrated throughout the army, except in the infantry and Royal Armoured Corps.  There is no particularly good reason for this restriction other than tradition and whilst many of our military traditions are valuable, this one isn’t and needs to be swept away along with our ‘traditional’ bigotries about serving with ethnic minorities and homosexuals.  If a woman is physically and mentally capable of serving in any role, then she should be able to do so if she chooses to.

Christmas is Coming!

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So if you’re stuck for a last minute present for that special person you want to really impress, you could do worse than delving into the Adrian Weale back catalogue:

Howzabout the ‘Arrse Guide to the British Army’ by my very close friend Major Des Astor?  It’s an hilarious, knockabout guide to what the British Army is all about in the 21st century which will teach you everything you need to know about bulling boots, walting with confidence, naked bars and skiffing.  It’s a perfect Christmas present for anyone with the remotest interest in the military,  humour and la conditione humaine.

The Arrse Guide to the British Army

The Arrse Guide to the British Army – Kindle Edition

If you aren’t worried about hilarious military antics and anecdotes, you might prefer a bit of practical help in getting yourself fit for the long year ahead, in which case I recommend ‘Fighting Fit’.  More than 100,000 satisfied customers can’t be wrong!

Fighting Fit

And finally, if you know someone who needs a serious historical blockbuster, then look no further than ‘The SS: A New History’.

The SS: A New History

The SS: A New History – Kindle Edition