No one doubts that war is Hell, but for Hollywood it remains good cinema. Perhaps because of the passage of time, or because of the rise of the comic-book superhero flicks with all their excessive effects, World War II, the obvious favorite for war films, rarely appears on the screen. The violence and brutality of war cannot compare with the soaring adventures of Spider-Man or the mutant talents of the X-Men.
Aside from the decidedly mixed success of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," which appeared in 1998, probably counts as the last significant picture to deal with the war. (In a sickening irony, among its many awards, the movie earned special decorations from the Department of Defense for Steven Spielberg and the U.S. Army Rangers for Tom Hanks; I wonder how many dead young men on Omaha Beach never won a medal.)
Arriving amid considerable fanfare and promising something new for the form, "Fury" indeed includes some elements that never show up in the long history of its genre. It begins with a strangely evocative image right out of a Western -- a lone horseman in the distance, riding slowly, not across a prairie or a desert, but toward a field strewn with destruction -- smoldering pieces of equipment, smashed guns, ruined tanks. As the rider, a German officer, inspects the scene, a man jumps out of a tank and cuts his throat, a moment that establishes the bloody intimacy of this vision of war.
The attacker is Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) called "Wardaddy" by his men, which nicely summarizes his character and work in the story. Collier commands a Sherman tank called Fury, fighting inside Germany in April 1945, when though the war seems won, the fighting continues. Hitler has declared total war on the Allies, conscripting young boys and old men into the ranks and calling upon his people to fight to the death.
That situation leads Fury and her crew of five into a series of engagements, rescuing a platoon surrounded by enemy soldiers, taking a couple of towns, shooting and killing hundreds of Germans. Aside from the several episodes of combat, the personal side of the story involves the initiation of a raw replacement, Norman (Logan Lerman) into the realities of war. A clerk-typist sent to a tank crew through the familiar inefficiency of the military, Norman learns, under the tutelage of "Wardaddy," how to face horror, how to grieve, and most important, how to kill and even how to enjoy killing.
The movie shows with some conviction the familiar sequences of cinematic warfare -- artillery barrages, tank cannons blasting away at other tanks, machine gun bullets clanking off armor plate, buildings, vehicles, and people consumed by flames -- capturing the chaos and terror of battle. Its story of a hardened veteran mentoring a novice also follows a familiar path with a predictable conclusion.
Since a tank crew of five cannot provide the microcosm of ethnic and geographical diversity of the usual Hollywood platoon, the movie lacks a strong internal character dynamic. Norman's crewmates are a trio of crude louts, bullies with a hint of psychopathic sadism in their dealings with him and the German civilians; in a war movie, the soldiers should exhibit at least a little character development and a modicum of humanity to distinguish them from the enemy. Except for their devotion to their sergeant, these soldiers possess little in the way of any vestige of like-ability.
Although it clanks along on the heavily traveled path of war films, "Fury" deserves some credit for a shocking and generally unpleasant depiction of military behavior. I don't think I have ever seen a war movie in which American soldiers kill unarmed, surrendering prisoners; although he demonstrates traces of sensitivity and humanity, "Wardaddy" commits that act and even forces the resisting Norman into it as well. Americans don't like to think their soldiers commit atrocities, but "Fury" suggests otherwise.
Perhaps after the revelations of army conduct at Abu Ghraib, audiences no longer experience shock and even shame at such incidents, most of which no doubt go unreported or covered up by the military. Perhaps the appearance of "Fury" suggests yet another instance of how war brutalizes its practitioners and how America has lost itself.