by David Edgerley Gates
If you've read the Max Hastings book ARMAGEDDON, you get a convincing and frightening overview of the last year of the European war, from D-Day to the fall of Berlin. It was a savage, gruesome fight, with very little quarter given, on any side. FURY, like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, is about a small engagement. It's
Are there generic conventions? I'm not sure war movies can avoid them. The hardened NCO, the green recruit who turns stone killer. The story arc with this kind of picture is usually about initiation, the learning curve, the so-called warrior mindset. I don't have a quarrel with it, but it's a narrative device. Although it rings true, it's still a contrivance, and over-familiar. And then there are things in the movie I wasn't right with. They execute a German prisoner in cold blood. Yes, no, maybe? We know there were incidents like this, even if they didn't make it into the record, or it was reported as shot trying to escape, but the way it was presented, as an object lesson, made me hesitate. Another thing that bothered me was seeing the tanks take point, with infantry creeping along behind. It seems like sound tactics - why expose yourself to enemy fire? - but I always had the impression armor and infantry leapfrogged each other on patrol, feeling out a hostile environment. Maybe somebody here with more hands-on can steer me right. Having said this, otherwise the movie felt honest. I didn't find it exaggerated or false.
Once the Allies pushed across the Rhine - and the Russians crossed the Oder from the East - Germany was finished. The question people ask is why they kept fighting. One answer is of course Hitler's insanity. Another is simply that the Wehrmacht was under discipline, even that late. And yet another is that they were hoping they could hold out for a negotiated peace in the West. Germans were terrified of what the Soviet armies would do to them, as conquerors, and their worst fears were realized, when the Russians did get there. If the Germans could hold the Eastern Front and buy time to make a deal with the U.S. and Britain, they might save themselves. It was a long shot, and never came to pass. In the end, Germany suffered total defeat, and the Russians sacked Berlin. Fury, indeed. More than enough to go around.
BAND OF BROTHERS more or less sets the bar, for my money. I own the boxed set, and I've done the whole thing three or four times. Then again, I had a girlfriend a few years back, who was a screenwriter, and she hated war pictures. Hated. I told her the screenplay for PATTON was a model of movie architecture, but she couldn't bring herself to sit down and plug in the DVD. I get it. The single most effective sequence in PATTON, to my mind, is the war prayer, the voice-over. It also happens to be the only scene where you see men stumble and die, the snow around them lit up with artillery impacts, and you count the cost. Where to draw the line? I haven't fully made up my mind.
We're saturated with images, some real, some imagined, and all of them manipulated for effect. They make us uneasy, or uncomfortable. There's a squirm factor. Robert Capa's famous photograph of a Spanish Civil War solder in the moment of his death, or the Saigon police chief, putting a bullet in the head of a
The dead speak to us from a place we can't know, but we can hear their voices, if we listen for them. The lessons of war can be heard in the voices of the dead. They become interpreters. In this narrow sense, then, war stories have something to tell us. Of course, it's a mixed message.