How to Interrogate a War Film

The Wikipedia page on “Second World War films” offers brief synopses on a grid: “Rape of Nanjing,” “German Occupation of Poland, 1939-1945,” “July 20 Plot to Assassinate Hitler,” “Action/Comedy: 106th Inf. Div. Soldier in Battle of the Bulge.” Now, with the release of Fury, we can add “Guys in a Tank as the War Ends.”

That tank is commanded by Brad Pitt, and in it with him are Shia LaBeouf (wiry, philosophical), Michael Pena (morose, solid), and Jon Bernthal (blunt, bullying). We first see the tank isolated in a mist-shrouded field, surrounded by the detritus of an evidently horrifying battle. Our Brad jumps a Nazi, stabs him through the eye, and we know that this is going to be a Serious War Film. A team of men eking their way toward the then-inevitable end of the conflict, almost superstitious about not hoping too much for its conclusion, lest they jinx it.

Into this fragile mix comes Logan Lerman, a 22 year-old actor whom we last saw originating the concept of exile in Darren Aronofsky’s fascinating honest struggle with scripture Noah. Lerman is the virginal soldier thrust into uncertain and terrifying circumstances. It’s the measure of his performance that he makes the potentially clichéd character credible from moment one; and the arc of change through which he goes may only take a couple of days on the clock, but it’s a believable life cycle in movie time.

Indeed, the best thing about Fury may be that all of its clichés precede the beginning of its story. Diverse group of men at war – check, but this isn’t The Dirty Dozen, it’s The Traumatized Five. Jaded commander required to mentor a kid when he just wants to go home – check, but the mentoring looks more like primal scream therapy and sadistic hazing than Luke and Obi-Wan: Pitt’s character teaches Lerman’s what he’s up against by literally forcing a gun into his hand and pulling the trigger to shoot a Nazi in the back. Meet pretty girls along the way and have a bit of furlough between killing – check, but the furlough isn’t all that relaxed, and the girls are tragic figures who are almost as afraid of the American soldiers as the German ones. Fury is one of the more original Hollywood war films, and that’s what keeps you watching – you feel like you haven’t seen this before, and you want to know how it ends, partly because you really care about these characters, so invested are these fine actors – especially Lerman – in making them come alive.

Writer-director David Ayer controls the action brilliantly – much of the it is within or moved around on top of the tank, the paradox of claustrophobia meeting industrial-strength aggression has perhaps never been better portrayed. Though perhaps “better” isn’t the better word here – because Fury’s aesthetic class are not matched by its philosophical muddle. It’s trying to say something important about war—the initiation into and distortion of young men by violence—but it’s still playing on the fringes of the questionable argument that WWII was the noblest of wars, never mind the fact that the conflict had its roots partly in the vengeance-based response to Germany after the first attempt at global domination.

On that Wikipedia page for Second World War films,  you can’t yet find “Serious Examination of the reasons why the Second World War took place,” nor “Documentary reenactment of Nicolson Baker’s Human Smoke, the hidden story of nonviolent attempts at preventing the war,” nor “Questioning the way WWII is used to justify future wars.” Those films haven’t been made, or haven’t been made loudly enough to be noticed. But they should be, especially when the stories we tell shape the limits of what we consider advantageous, undesirable, or even possible. For most of us, most of the time, our experience of war is reducible to that of being entertained by movies about it.

Of course, some war films (Apocalypse Now, Come and See, Prisoner of the Mountains, the documentary Why We Fight), seek to challenge the very notion of war as a moral good, facing into its futility, the way it breeds its own repetition, and its status as a revealer of the shadow side of humanity. A few others (Amen, Joyeux Noel) seek to open up a conversation about reducing violence amidst the insanity of war; and one (Inglourious Basterds) even might be read as satirizing war films on the basis that its tasteless to turn killing into entertainment. But most war films – especially Second World War films – are caught in the paradox of wanting to say that war is hell, while not questioning that some war is also good.

Saving Private Ryan is a clear example – a film whose makers wanted to portray the terror of what was undergone to defeat Hitler, but which never quite asks if there were alternatives to mass slaughter in that regard. It isn’t so much an anti-war film as a “war is hell, but sometimes necessary” film. It’s difficult, of course, to make Hitler your villain and to posit nonviolence as your antidote. Even The Lion King, with its invocation of Wagnerian Supermen surrounding its villain Scar, climaxes with a murder we’re supposed to celebrate – and the makers know we will, because Scar, you know, he’s like the Nazis.

It’s still controversial today to suggest that there might have been ways to end the war without the near-supernatural fire from the sky in Japan, or the total devastation wrought agains the German people. Yet the aforementioned Human Smoke gives extraordinary, challenging insight; and the work of pacifist theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Dear invites a reflection on how wars could be ended before they begin if we would take decisive action to live with integrity now, and take the risk to build societies of mutual interdependence rather than neighborly suspicion.

I once heard Hauerwas respond when asked if he would “just roll over” when Hitler invaded Poland, that to wait til the day of the invasion to ask that question reveals the reluctance of human beings to do the hard, long work of peacemaking, and that he could only respond to the question by way of analogizing his own experience: as a man of the church he would excommunicate anyone who joined the Nazi party. It might not solve the problem, but it would be something, and would avoid waiting until the argument for nonviolence would be even less likely to be won.

You can only answer a question from the place you inhabit, and so I recognize the privilege I have of not being a politician or military strategist. I am a writer, and storyteller, so the point here is not to discuss the relative evil of the impact of Hitler and whether or not he should have been stopped. It’s insane to doubt that. The question for me is about the impact of typical Second World War storytelling.

Does the fact that the serious alternatives to total war were never seriously attempted not invite, demand even, a serious film to be made about it? Does the continuation of the narrative that says we do terrible things in war, but there is no alternative being dressed up as mass entertainment not also help nurture the continuation of a political narrative that makes war more palatable in the real world? Can we find ways to tell stories about integrated warriors, representatives of a humanity that is evolving and actually seems to be weaning itself off addiction to the myth of redemptive violence? Is the clearest way to evaluate a war film—and Fury is a good place to start—to ask simply: is this story a triumphalist one or an act of lament?

Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland currently living in the United States. If you enjoy his writing here, you should really check out his two books on cinema an despecially his latest, Cinematic States, in which he travels throughout his adopted homeland considering what makes America America through the lens of its movies.