This reflection comes a few years (now) late, but even though I had meant to see “Fury,” a movie about a tank platoon/5-man-army set during WWII when it first came out, I missed the opportunity. I don’t know if that’s for better or worse.
Because the movie came out a while ago, this isn’t so much a review as it is me thinking about the War Movie genre in general, and what strengths this particular one has–and what it lacks. The movie itself does some things that I like (as far as extras go, you see PoC and army nurses, which is a small but good detail) and a lot of things I don’t like. I could talk about the treatment of a German civilian, Emma, and her treatment by the men operating Fury (mostly: bad) as well as what the movie itself does to her (she exists to have sex with Norman, to be ridiculed for it by the other men in the tank excepting Don, and then as soon as that purpose has been fulfilled, to be killed in a bombing–she’s an object), but that’s not what I want to focus on.
War Movies, particularly contemporary War Movies vs. Old War Movies (pre-Vietnam, as a point of reference), place emphasis on truthfulness, or at least as close to verisimilitude as they think they need to be in order to convince the audience that they aren’t lying. Even with fictional stories that are partly based on multiple accounts that did happen, there is a desire to show the true grittiness of war. It would be a falsehood to sanitize something based on accounts from, in the case of “Fury,” WWII because the audience knows it isn’t true. By 2014, we had seen “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and before that, “M*A*S*H*” and actual broadcasts from Vietnam which, though a different war, still brought it into American living rooms. So with War Movies (and War Stories and War Poems), there is an expectation that there will be some level of gore encountered in any given picture because that is, unfortunately, a reality of actual war. That said, to whose benefit is placing a major focus on that gore working for?
Within the first 15 minutes of “Fury,” Norman, a desk clerk sent to the front lines in the final weeks before victory over Europe occurs, is made to clean out his seat, which was previously occupied by the now-dead assistant driver. This means cleaning up the blood from the body and, as Norman finds (and the audience is shown–twice), remaining parts. He sees a piece of the dead man’s face, including a moustache, left from when he was killed. I had to ask myself–was it necessary to show this? Maybe–if we hadn’t already seen the mostly-headless body being taken out of the tank or Gordo, the driver, holding his hand unwilling to accept that he was gone. The trend of showing maybe more than necessary lasts throughout the movie: the tank rolling over bodies that are still alive and later pulverizing a dead one into the walk, multiple soldiers from both sides engulfed in flames after being hit by explosives (one of whom kills himself to stop being burned alive), and the final aerial shot zooming away from Fury showing the hundreds of Nazi corpses the men managed to kill. Very rarely does the film pull back from showing gore. What does that dead body being run over again by the tank until it becomes part of the mud and muck do besides just being another instance of unsubtle violence against the body?
Some might argue for the same verisimilitude mentioned earlier. There’s also part of the point of the movie: men do violent, atrocious things to each other. War is violent and traumatic and maybe showing the gore does contribute to the dehumanizing effects war has on people, on the body (though the ending doesn’t necessarily support this reading). However, we exist as an America that has seen Vietnam and the recent wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan (and I apologize for the American-centric viewpoint, but by and large these are at the very least Western movies about American troops doing this hyper-violence). The concept of brutality isn’t foreign to us, and we should ask when a War Movie stops being about war and starts being an excuse to show gore.
I’ll phrase it another way: I know a veteran who, upon seeing a trailer (not even the movie) for “American Sniper,” felt as though he was about to have a flashback to his own time spent at war in a very PTSD kind of way, and I have had a conversation with another who mentioned that he would have freaked out in Arizona if not for the cacti because the desert brought him back. Engaging with something that has caused trauma can be used to help cope, but in controlled ways, and for some reason, I doubt the gore is for the benefit of any veterans seeing the movie. (That’s not to say that there aren’t vets who do enjoy these movies, though.)
Additionally, and maybe this is naïvity on my part, but I don’t think Americans or audiences in general think of war as something bloodless. At a certain point, the pieces of someone’s face do nothing for the progression of plot, the adding of symbolism, or to educate the audience. It’s there to be gory for the sake of being gory.
Not that it’s necessarily a new thing in media about war; if I were to rewrite a paper I did six years ago comparing how war is shown in “The Iliad” vs. “The Naked and the Dead,” I might update it to include the graphic depictions of violence in both and how that, at least, will probably never change. However, it isn’t wrong to examine the “why” behind these choices, either. When does it stop mattering to the story and become gratuitous? Maybe when it seems like a scene better befitting a Tarantino movie, I guess.
Brad Pitt does kill Nazis in both “Fury” and “Inglourious Basterds” (and Trojans in “Troy,” since “war never changes”).