“Fury” : The American Tank War in Germany

Along with other traces of “Band of Brothers” realism Brad Pitt’s new film “Fury” contains a fairly lengthy sequence in which a charming young German woman supplies the cub-soldier who figures implicitly as the narrator (and sole survivor) with his first experience of physical love in circumstances which strictly correspond to forced sex, or even rape. For better or worse, Die kleine Fraulein dies prettily in an ensuing bombardment thus leaving the sensitive GI with an embittered soul – or is it a dose of Machiellian realism? – and turns him into an efficient tank-corp killer primed for hands-on lesson doled out by a avuncular Brad in out of the no-quarter-given episodes of the film when die-hard Nazi prisoners get their come-uppance.

"Fury" - Inside Germany in a Sherman Tank

“Fury” – Inside Germany in a Sherman Tank

The story melds Sergeant York, Platoon and just about everything else in cinema history in which individual fortitude in American uniforms wins the day over villainous enemies. A special twist is, Brad speaks German and so mediates all the exchanges with the enemy – both the ladies and the SS “pigs” whom he is so adept at liquidating – and whose kinship to the former remains fuzzily uncertain. (Part of the ‘play’ here is about good Germans and bad Germans, and then American Germans as purgers of German badness with presumed benefits for the Angela Merkels of our world.)

Inevitably, Brad gets killed in the end-up when  a cluster of German grenades explodes inside his tank – one he could toss back in practiced Ballpark fashion – but, miraculously enough, he makes a pretty corpse rather than a burst jar of raspberry jam that similar casualties in the movie are reduced to. Poetic licence or what?

And since Brad plays the part of Aenæs to young cub’s Virgil (or Virgil to his Dante), there is plenteous tight-lipped philosophizing in the occasional lulls in battle – not least the epigrammatic snatch of dialogue in which our muscle-bound hero tells the erstwhile hero of the typing-pool, now fortuitously drafted into a tank crew: “Ideals are pretty but history is violent.” A roomful of suicided German Ubermensch is the immediate context for this observation.

The question of the “chocolate-bar” rape is weirdly unfocused in the film, which seems to want to say that sex and war are joined not so much at the hip as the penis. It seems to want to say that spoils of war is something which cannot be avoided and the best outcome is that a middle-class kid does romantic rape instead of the hard men of the platoon who would not be so pretty about it.

I’m always a believer in the power of the studio “dramaturges” who think through the implications of any film-script for a handsome fee – and hence the shading of the rape transaction in “Fury” seems to me the result of a calculated bet about the receptivity of the current audience to such representations. Currently, audiences know that armies are unpleasant formations and are looking for ways to mitigate the unpleasantness their ours.

Enemy Territory

Enemy Territory

Being on the “right side” is one of these. And because the other side is stringing up “cowards” of all ages and genders from the lamp-posts – as graphically shown – it’s very, very hard to be on the wrong side, even leaving what we know about the Holocaust out of it. Aside from the fact that Brad Pitt wants to be Clint Eastwood with gym-packed shoulders – a bit like an iguana – what I take from this film is a desire to underwrite the war in the Gulf with the mixed heroic values of the war in Europe.

Talking of Brad’s physical appearance, in the rape-scene I mentioned he strips off to bathe in a panful of warm water while his younger colleague takes up the offer chivalrously couched in these terms, “Either you take her or I will”. Here the camera reveals that his back is burnt to a second-degree frazzle by previous adventures not narrated in the film. The aforementioned German ladies in the scene seem duly moved by this epiphany of heroic suffering. But the dramaturge will not have missed the fact that it also references the “choke tree” of Black American renown – and, true to form, a sole black actor makes his appearance in the sexy cenacle at the end of this scene.

I am undecided whether his presence signifies that the primary victims of racial violence in American history are here in wartime Europe to even the score against the primary perpetrators of racial violence in world history – or whether he is here to say, “hey girls, this could have been a much worse rape”. In any even, the tank is a funny weapon. And in this film the American Shermans – though billed as lighter than the Panzers – look as if they could do a bit of rape and pillage on their own accord.

PS: I said “tortuous” above. I did not mean anything to do with “torture”. I meant “long-drawn out and contorted”.

2 March, 2015

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