CINEMA: The Killing Fields


FURY (2014, directed by David Ayer, 134 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC War films are most interesting not just for the stories they tell but for the insight they offer into contemporary attitudes towards war. Former Navy officer David Ayer writes and directs the new WW2 thriller Fury and his story is determined to show us that the best thing about going to war is to reveal what a man can achieve once he allows himself to be dehumanized. It’s an attitude missing from the WW2 Hollywood propaganda films of the 1940s and certainly different from the more morally complex films veterans made after the conflict. Ayer’s Fury seems unique to our times in its unquestioning embrace of soul-deadening violence as a personally transcendent force. It’s the sort of war film one might expect from a country that for a decade-plus has been at war and its appearance should give more peaceful souls a disturbing shudder as we expand our wars in the Middle East.

Returning to WW2 to tell a story is a way for its creator to place a moral certainly in his characters and to deny the paradoxes involved in war. Fury‘s opening moments lay out Ayer’s moral framework with a shamelessly symbolic scene in which Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) kills a lone Nazi soldier and sets free his white stallion. Wardaddy returns to his tank crew soon after, confronted by Cobb (Logan Lerman, star of the Percy Jackson films), a green recruit from accounting who was sent to the front to be his gunner. Germany is still strong but believed to be on the verge of its final collapse leaving Wardaddy and his grim tank crew with the task of smashing one village after another on their way to Berlin.

Before they head into battle Wardaddy makes it his job to desensitize Cobb. We already know that Wardaddy will shoot a prisoner rather than transport him but here he forces the gun into Cobb’s hand and demands he shoot a prisoner in the back. Cobb refuses but after further hazing from the crew Cobb finally attains killing machine status, ultimately joining in the crew’s post-killing chant, “Best job I ever had!”

This joy of killing may exist in the heat of battle but it is not often found in the films that were made after World War Two, when the experience was fresh in the country’s mind. The theme that comes up in so many of those films is that of men trying to hold on to their humanity in a world gone mad. Paths of Glory, Pork Chop Hill, and the war films of Sam Fuller all explored the contradictions of violently doling out death in the name of freedom in ways that denied easy answers. With Fury, Cobb finds transcendence once he inures himself to the idea of killing, finally achieving manhood and respect amongst his battle-hardened brethren.

It makes for a deeply conservative perspective on war and it is a conservatism whose viewpoint is ingrained throughout the film (I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise from a director who just helmed an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle). After tumultuous battle scenes hoping to top Saving Private Ryan, things turn quiet as Wardaddy drags Cobb up to an apartment in a newly occupied village. Wardaddy has spotted a female form in the window and with guns pointed he and Cobb invade the woman’s living quarters. Once there they discover not only the woman with the gun but a young female cousin hidden under the bed, and Cobb and Wardaddy set up a perverse version of a double date. Giving the pair of women eggs to cook, they sit down to eat, after which Wardaddy orders Cobb, “It you don’t take her in that bedroom I will.” Cobb does, and the young couple’s coupling is suddenly framed as consensual sex between two young adults rather than an occupying army’s raping and pillaging. It’s only when the tank’s Latin crewman Garcia (Michael Peña from Ayer’s End of Watch) and his swarthy pal seek to share the carnal spoils that the idea of rape enters the scene. Before the contradictions of this scenario can be hashed out it ends with a big nullifying explosion and quickly we’re moving on for more glory via gory confrontations.

Pitt is so charismatic and the battle scenes are so tense (though not particularly well-mounted) that it is easy to go along with the film’s dehumanizing perspective: you’re either with Wardaddy and his crew or you’re with the Nazis. Shia LaGoof (nee LaBeouf) even anoints the proceedings with bibllical verse as a crew member named “Bible.” This crew of morose psychos nonetheless portray a moral surety our government would like its citizenry to feel towards our current Middle East adventures, and Ayer’s film does a great job here of stoking a wartime-y fervor (lines like “God-damned Nazis!” are frequently shouted). At least Fury strikes a slightly more honest promise for its soldiers, as a cost for your glory expect dehumanization and death. That these ugly realities are not indicted but glorified amounts to a Hollywood prophecy that our current wartime madness will continue indefinitely.