Hollywood does not know how to make a film about war. This has been proven on so many different occasions, often averred on this blog, across the spectrum of time and experience, that I almost wonder why I’m bothering to write another essay on the subject. There are other projects I could be working on – short fiction, advocacy for responsible foreign policy, poetry, running. Developing personal relationships. Finding a useful pursuit beyond criticizing gross failures of imagination, when – to be perfectly frank – nobody’s listening, anyway.
When I watched the preview of Fury I immediately tweeted about it – words to the effect of “Saving Private Ryan with Tanks.” I have not watched the movie, as Michael Cieply did before reviewing it for The New York Times, but I’ve read his review, and combined with the two-plus minutes of preview I endured (several times), I feel confident delivering my reaction to the movie in full. Here’s me lifting my glass to the previewers, and Cieply, who seemed to feel pleased that the film was made, because I will not waste my money on it, it’s certain to be trash. Worse than that, the type of trash that deceives its watchers into thinking they’ve done something useful, or honored their grandparents, or I don’t know what.
Here are some excerpts from the beginning of his review: “Raw.” “The Good War this is not.” “Hero.” “Relentlessly authentic.” “Poised to deliver what popular culture has rarely seen.” “Executed prisoners and killed children.” Later on in the review, after exposition on the significance of a movie dedicated to the tankers, and the crews of Sherman tanks, “Much of what [Pitt’s] Wardaddy does may shocked viewers who have watched American soldiers behave brutally in Vietnam War films at least since ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but have rarely seen ugliness in the heroes of World War II.” “In his harsh initiation of a new gunner, Mr. Pitt’s Character crosses lines, both legal and moral. Not even Lee Marvin’s Sergeant Possum in Samuel Fuller’s ‘The Big Red One,’ another knife killer, went quite so far.”
“This time around, the subject will be those damaged tanker-heroes.”
Give me a break.
Without watching the movie, based on the preview, and The New York Times review, I’m going to head out on a limb and claim that if specific catalogue of carnage using different weapons than we’re used to reveals some epiphany about the horror of war, I’ll eat a leather shoe.
I’ll do it. So help me god, I’ll boil one of my leather shoes, and eat it.
According to the review, there’s a scene in the movie where someone from Wardaddy’s crew has to kill a “buddy.” A tank gunner vet quoted in the review claims that he didn’t see that type of behavior himself while serving 28 months overseas during WWII – one imagines that such events happened, even if they were exceptional. So what? There’s a great deal about how this movie isn’t Inglorious Basterds, although there’s another knife scene in it – presumably realistic, to show the grit of war, because according to the review (and the movie’s actors and makers), war is a series of physical actions more or less without negative consequence, unless you’re the person getting killed or stabbed.
A great deal of time is spent in the review on the writer/director, David Ayer, and his bona fides, as though that has anything to do with whether the movie is good, or accurate, or useful. Apparently Ayer has a man-cave in Los Angeles packed with war memorabilia. Apparently he himself served in the Navy during the 1980s, on a submarine crew. Apparently he reads lots of historical fiction and non-fiction accounts of World War II. Apparently any of that, combined with Brad Pitt, means he knows how to write and direct a “good” war movie worth watching.
It sounds like his movie sucks balls.
Here’s how Fury could maybe not be a movie that totally blows, and should never have been made (I’d be happy to eat that shoe if I’m proven wrong, because it will have been worth it to be wrong):
- The violence does not lead anywhere, and is seen visibly eroding good people and changing them in ways they do not like, and does them no good
- Combat is seen as a sequence of misfortunes, ideally misfortunes that befall the actor rather than the subject. Guns jam in comical ways. Soldiers shit themselves. People shake and weep. I’m guessing that Brad Pitt isn’t the sort of character (at least not if he’s being described as a hero) that he played in 12 Monkeys – batshit crazy, crying in the mayhem, barely able to function. No – I’m guessing he’s the guy who sticks knives into Nazi skulls, which everyone knows is cool.
- At least one of the soldiers should do something despicable – not like killing their buddy because they have to, to save him/her (unless it’s a major plot point), but because they enjoy it. I’d recommend the rape of someone vulnerable, say, a French or Jewish refugee. This should point to that character’s basic cowardice as a human being, a point underlined by their altruistic (not necessarily poor) performance in combat. It should go without saying that this soldier would be American.
At some point – maybe Saving Private Ryan – people decided that realistic portrayals of combat were socially useful because they were honest and brutal, and I assume that was supposed to dissuade people from wanting to experience war. If this is an idea that’s floating around in Hollywood, please allow me to argue vigorously against it. Many people I knew in the military (the two other primary contributors to this blog, Mr. Carson and Mr. James being definite exceptions) loved those movies, called them “badass,” and watched them over and over again. The weak secondary characters were disliked, and the enemies were hated. No deeper meaning was extracted from the films. Again – if Hollywood feels that making a realistic movie about tanks, or submarines, or bombers, or fighter planes, or black units, or white units, or Navajo units, or anything fighting Nazis and the SS and the commies is going to make young people feel revulsion toward war, or horror at its deprivations – they’re delusional. Fury will merely be added to a long list of factually probable representations of violence that help beat the drums for another generation of people to glamorize the worst parts of state-sanctioned murder, and prepare them to serve in misbegotten causes.
Which brings me to my final thought, and I’ve had this thought for a while: if the big Hollywood producers were interested in making a good war film about World War II, they could do a lot worse than reading 2666, meditating for a while, and then creating a film that takes Peckinpah’s superlative Cross of Iron and elevates it to the next level. Yes: I’m proposing that the best way to create a useful and accurate anti-war film would be to make the protagonists Germans – preferably German light infantry, the type that got chewed up on the Eastern Front with casualty rates somewhere above 1,000%, then was redeployed to the Western Front to fight the Americans and promptly bombed out of existence, for no good reason at all. The greatest mine for really good, true war stories, in my opinion, is the Wehrmacht – my guess is that nobody in Hollywood has the guts to put that movie together. After all, America’s about winning, and the Nazis were evil, and every German was a Nazi. And so we’ll continue singing ourselves to sleep at night with patriotic tunes on our lips, secure in our confidence that Brad Pitt and his buddies did what they had to because in the end, it was just a bad dream.