Monday, October 20, 2014

Movie Review: FURY (2014)

It's been two days, and I'm still processing my feelings about this movie. It was grim, brutal, intensely graphic, and both heroic and depressing at the same time. I walked out of the theater emotionally drained, and the three others I saw the movie with all seemed to feel the same way. If you are looking for an uplifting war movie (is there even such a thing?), walk away, because this ain't it.

The movie is set in April, 1945. For those of you who don't know, these are the last days of WW2 in Europe. The Americans and British are closing in on Berlin from the West, the Russians from the East. Victory for the Allies is utterly inevitable, and the only question is, how far will the Germans go in fighting to the last man, woman, and child before the war ends? At the time, Hitler was ordering the mobilization of the entire national population, forming barely-trained militia units armed with a hodge-podge of weapons, as well as a lot of reserve soldiers who'd previously been wounded or otherwise considered unfit for front-line service. Some of these "Volks" units were tenaciously fanatical, while some couldn't wait to encounter Americans or Brits so they could surrender, and were just happy they weren't facing the Russians!

On the Allied side, you have grim-faced veterans (such as the crew of the tank FURY), who've been fighting the Germans since late 1942 (or much earlier, if you weren't American). However, three years of hard fighting had resulted in considerable casualties, and a steady stream of fresh-faced recruits - many of whom were poorly trained - are heading to the front from "repple depples" or replacement depots. Many of these men are unfamiliar with the tasks and units they are assigned to, and the units they join react poorly to these new men, many of whom are taking the place of old comrades the veterans viewed as brothers. This strategy was one no one liked, and it was viewed, both during and after the war, as ultimately a bad decision on the part of military high command.

Also, particularly relevant to the film, and mentioned briefly in text at the beginning of the film, there was something of a disparity in combat performance between the American Sherman tank and the German panzers, particularly the mid-to-late war Panther, Tiger, and Tiger II tanks. I'm not going to dive headlong into a treatise on American and German tank doctrine and development during the war (although this article over at World of Tanks goes into it in some good detail). There were a lot of factors in play, and it was a much more involved issue than simply "Sherman tanks suck, Panzers kick ass". For one, while the Tiger tank had a much better gun and heavier armor, there were far fewer Tigers than Shermans, and they were slower, drank fuel faster, and were more mechanically unreliable than Allied tanks. Many Tigers were "lost" in the war simply because they ran out of gas, broke down, or bogged down and couldn't get unstuck, and were therefore abandoned by their crews. In addition, by the time of the movie, the Allies dominated the skies over Germany, and attack aircraft were always on the lookout for panzers in the open. Moving a German tank out from hiding during the daytime meant there was a good chance you'd be spotted and destroyed from the air.

With all that in mind, back to the movie. FURY is a tank crewed by Sergeant Collier, nicknamed "Wardaddy". Wardaddy's crew has fought for three years, from Africa to Germany. At the beginning of the movie we find the crew has just survived a big battle, and their tank was the only one to make it out of their platoon. "Red", the tank's assistant driver and bow machine gunner (Shermans had a .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the front of the hull), was messily killed in the battle, the only member of the tank crew to be killed in the three years they'd been fighting. FURY makes it back to HQ, and Wardaddy is immediately assigned Norman, a private who'd been in the army for just eight weeks, and who had been trained as a typist (think the scrawny little guy from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN who gets brought along because he speaks German). Norman has never even been inside a tank before, but because of the way the Replacement Depots work, and the desperate need for fresh bodies to fill gaps left by casualties, Wardaddy has no choice but to take Norman into his crew.

And what a crew they are. The three other men who live and fight with FURY are a salty lot, to be sure. Three years of hard fighting has driven these men right to the brink of sanity, and probably a bit beyond that brink. They're all filthy, the way only men who've been fighting in the front lines for so long can be filthy, and they all show signs of injuries old and new. And, while Wardaddy might be a callous, hard-bitten bastard, he seems to be the most held-together of the four crewmen, because the others act more like escaped mental patients than soldiers. As a way of introducing him to his new job, the crew have Norman clean the blood and gore left behind from his predecessor, a scene that also gives the viewer a very graphic look at how this movie will not pull any visual punches.

I don't want to give away too many good moments and plot points, so I'll just sketch out the rest. FURY joins up in several actions, and Norman gets a "hands on" taste for the real face of War, especially the "total war" Hitler has decreed against all sanity surrounding the circumstances of the war at this point. We see young teenage boys fighting and dying for the Fatherland in what are essentially suicide actions, and how the SS are killing Germans who refuse to fight against the Allies. For those who aren't well steeped in WW2 lore, we're shown that the SS are the biggest scumbags of the German army, and Norman is told to always kill them, no matter what, because they're the real fanatics. This notion actually comes back around in the final minutes of the movie in an unexpected way, and undermines Wardaddy's point somewhat, adding a needed layer of complexity to the usual notion of "Allies = Good, Axis = Evil".

There is also a short interlude involving the FURY crew and a pair of German women inside their apartment. It is just about the most emotionally intense scene of the movie, and that's saying something. After the film, we walked out and all agreed that the scene was done so well that we really had no idea which way it would go until it was over, a definite credit to the script, the acting, and the direction. Even halfway through the film, you are not so sure of these guys that you really have any idea what they'll do in a given situation. Also, there is a really disturbing monologue by Gordo, the driver, about the horrors of the Falaise Pocket (where a retreating German army was virtually annihilated by the Allies late in the summer of 1944). The speech really gives insight into the psychological damage these men have suffered over the course of the war.

Eventually, FURY and three other tanks are sent on a mission to hold down a crossroads and defend it against advancing German forces moving to intercept a supply train, which also includes a bunch of rear-echelon troops who'd get slaughtered if the Germans encounter them. Unfortunately, the tank platoon runs into a Tiger tank waiting for just such an opportunity, and the most talked-about scene of the movie unfolds. At first blush I wasn't as pleased with it as I could have been, but after thinking about it, I've come to feel it was done pretty damn well, certainly one of the best tank-vs-tank fights I've ever seen on film. The Tiger used in the battle is, by the way, Tiger 131, the only surviving - and fully operational - Tiger tank in existence. That the filmmakers were willing to bring this tank into the film - the only time a real Tiger has been used in a movie - speaks volumes for the degree of realism they wanted to achieve in the film's appearance.

Needless to say, FURY is the only survivor of the tank battle, and after a mine blows off one of the tank's tracks, they are stuck defending the crossroads alone, in a bad defensive position. Rather than running away, Wardaddy refuses to abandon FURY - his home - and tells the rest of the crew to escape while they can. Everyone is ready to run, but Norman, whose heart has hardened considerably in the last 24 hours, and who probably feels he's not going to make it through the war anyway, decides to stay. The remaining vets are still ready to leave, except that Boyd (played by Shia LaBeouf, in a surprisingly powerful performance throughout the film) stands fast and also agrees to remain. The rest of the crew reluctantly accept their fate, and the five men prepare to take on the several hundred men of an SS infantry battalion closing in on them.

The film's final fight is, to be fair, also the most unrealistic, but I think by this time, we've bought into the movie already, and it's what we want to see - five men in a steel fortress standing fast against wave after wave of fanatical enemies. If this is the scene that causes you to break faith with the film, then I feel like you didn't buy into the movie to begin with. FURY isn't meant to be realistic in the sense that "this might actually have happened", it is more of a war ballad, a story which focuses on the spiritual and emotional war between both sides, less than showing the true history of Unit A fighting Unit B at this place on that date. I suppose in some ways, that makes this movie a complement to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, another movie that focuses more on the heart and fighting spirit of the men and less on re-creating a historical narrative. Comparing the two, the overall uplifting nature of SPR in the first days of the Normandy invasion ("we're here to do a job and protect the world from evil" etc. etc.) is counter-balanced by FURY and the American fighting men ten months later, drained of all emotion save perhaps a sense of detached horror at "what a man can do to another man".

In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie to anyone who can get through some really, really rough and brutal violence. People die in pretty nasty ways, and no punches are pulled. But I think it is worth seeing. WW2 nerds are going to be at it hammer and tongs for years over this film, both for it and against, but ultimately, this is a solid war picture that is going to stand tall for a long, long while.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: TAKE THESE MEN by Cyril Joly
Click the Cover to See on Amazon
While re-reading BRAZEN CHARIOTS, Robert Crisp's memoir of serving in a tank regiment during Operation Crusader (you can read my review of Crisp's book here), I noticed a passage where he mentioned a comrade at the time, Cyril Joly, who went on after the war to write a novel about their experiences. Going to Amazon (of course) and doing a search for Joly, I found his novel - TAKE THESE MEN - and immediately ordered myself a copy.

This is one of the best war novels I've ever read. TAKE THESE MEN is a massive, epic story that takes the reader across the breadth of the North African desert, over more than three long years of war. The British first fight and defeat the Italians, only to face - and be initially defeated - by the Afrika Korps, followed by several years of nearly Trench War-like back and forth, contesting the same expanses of desert over and over again, fighting in amongst the wreckage of previous battles.

While both Crisp's and Joly's works are equally enjoyable, TAKE THESE MEN is much longer, probably three times as long, and much, much vaster in scope. While Crisp's memoir covers the battle one day at a time, Joly's work can often pass through weeks or months in a single chapter, but that in no way diminishes the intensity of its narrative. It is also worth noting for the technically-inclined tread-heads reading this, that Joly's main character fights in no less than four different tanks over the course of the war: the A9 Cruiser, a captured Italian M13/40, an M3 "Honey" Stuart, and finally, an M3 Grant medium tank. Joly does an excellent job of depicting combat with all four tanks, and how they each stacked up against the German panzers and anti-tank guns.

If you have any interest in the Desert Campaign of WW2, this book is a must-read. Although it is out of print, it does appear that you can acquire used copies here and there, and one hopes it'll eventually cycle back into print some time soon. If you can locate a copy, it is definitely worth adding it to your to-read pile, and if you're a student of WW2, this should be required reading.