Battle for realism

Cinema still: Fury

The first casualty of war, they say, is the truth.

For war movies, the truth is too often not just the first casualty - as the film wears on, facts take a hit again and again. It starts with cliches such as soldiers pulling out grenade pins with their teeth and ends with scenes in which the bad guys (usually the Germans or Japanese) run pell-mell into American bullets.

Fury, which opens in Singapore today, is that rare thing: The war movie that gets the vehicles, weapons and other military details right.

From the slow, heavy thump-thump of the American .50-calibre machine gun and the mad buzzsaw of the faster-firing German MG 44 machine gun, to the fizz-thwack of the Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket and the painfully slow turret rotation speed of the German Tiger tank, Fury is a feast not just for realism fiends, but also for those who want to see an assortment of weapons.

For too long, war movies have taken liberties with military authenticity. Mass-appeal movies of the 1960s and 1970s took shocking liberties with tactics and equipment.

In the famous scene in The Great Escape (1963), Steve McQueen escapes from German guards on a motorcycle that will not exist for another 20 years. In The Big Red One (1980), Israeli tanks stand in for German Tigers.

For the purists, the liberties taken are enough to take them out of the movie completely.

For war movie nerds, Fury is a double pleasure. Not only does it achieve authenticity in military hardware, but the movie also employs actual vehicles, instead of painting them in with computer graphics. There is nothing like seeing real steel on the move.

To be fair, computers were used in one important aspect. As the tanks are museum pieces - the German Tiger 1 tank seen in a key scene, for example, is the last working Tiger in the world - they cannot be damaged. So computers were used to paint in flames and bullet and shell hits.

As they are wont to do so, tanks are shown "cooking up" after penetration by a shell - not exploding but burning up slowly from the inside as fuel and ammunition ignite.

But even Fury, for all its touches of realism, takes some liberties for the sake of cinematic spectacle.

The tank-versus-tank fight in one scene, for example, correctly shows that it would take a platoon of American Sherman tanks to kill one German Tiger tank, while suffering heavy losses on the American side. But such duels were rare on the Western front.

Also, American soldiers are shown firing from the waist, without aiming, while walking across an open field, fully exposed. That sort of behaviour would be unthinkable for a trained infantryman.

The movie that has been the most influential in the authenticity movement in war dramas is Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Spielberg made it a point to show death and carnage, images that other World War II films tended to leave out. Until then, that conflict was seen as a clean war, both in the moral sense and in the lack of violent visual imagery in cinema.

Once Spielberg had let the genie out of the bottle, any movie that failed to show 20th-century warfare as anything but a meatgrinder looked hokey and immature.

Fury takes on the legacy of Saving Private Ryan and ups the ante.

The film, rated NC16 here for violence, has bullet- and shell-caused decapitations and dismemberments aplenty, as well as a couple of gruesome knifings.

In the 1970s and earlier, war movies tended to be simple statements of triumph; of good over evil, of the heroism of good men. Then the Vietnam War happened and those messages went out the door as the American public questioned the conflict's purpose and felt a huge loss of faith in the leadership of the country.

Francis Ford Coppola gave the world Apocalypse Now (1979); Stanley Kubrick released his Full Metal Jacket in 1987; and Oliver Stone released his take on the Indochina conflict, Platoon (1986), the year before.

In their hands, a truthful war movie took on a psychological and moral meaning, rather than just in historical accuracy.

American troops had killed men, women and children in foreign lands and its leadership conducted secret bombing raids in Cambodia.

The overt note of triumph in American war movies disappeared when it was shown that war damages people, no matter how justified the conflict.

That notion of soul-damage is now almost standard in war movies. And heroes are not immune.

In Fury, Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier is shown walking away from his men so he can have a small mental breakdown; his tank crew are likewise psychically damaged from three years of conflict.

In a scene that takes place in a German living room, two of the tank crewmen are shown to be too volatile to behave in a manner that puts normal people at ease - they look ready to attack or to defend themselves from attack.

The Best Picture Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker (2008), set in the war in Iraq, would also controversially take a stab at another deeper psychological truth. The film opens with a quote: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

That quote refers to the lead character, that of Sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner, a man who faces death with every bomb he tried to disarm, but for whom that dance with oblivion has become soothing and necessary). That characterisation of men at war is a contentious one, naturally.

Fury is very much a product of its time.

This is a movie about a conflict taking place 70 years ago that embodies the moral contradictions of wars that took place long after it ended. That combined with an admirable attention to military detail is a bonus for all war nerds.

Shocking take on violence and bloodshed

Review Action

FURY (NC16)

134 minutes/Opens today/****

The story: In the final months of World War II, American ground forces have taken the fight to Germany. The battle-tested crew of the tank Fury - comprising Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt), Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Pena), Grady "Coon-ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal) - must adapt to greenhorn assistant driver Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman).

Norman soon learns how vulnerable American tanks are compared with the armour of the German army.

War movies used to be about heroism and manliness. In recent times, they have been about fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The latter is not necessarily better or more interesting than the former, but the more complicated view of warfare does go some way towards resolving the moral conflict of watching bloodshed on a massive scale as big-screen entertainment.

The work by veteran of the men-in-a-pressure- cooker genre David Ayer (cop drama End Of Watch, 2012) belongs firmly in the modern-day school, made popular in films about the war in Vietnam.

The moral dilemmas of Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) are worked here into a battlefront usually seen as the last "good" war fought by the Americans, a fight in which the enemy was unequivocally evil.

The sly thing here is that when atrocities happen - when German captives are shot, or enemy troops set on fire with phosphorus shells and left to burn as Americans guffaw - the audience also feels like cheering.

Have our moral senses been burnt away by battle, in the manner of the tank crew of Fury?

The process of brutalising the mind begins with the shockingly realistic violence of tank warfare. There are setpiece engagements here that stand out as the most visceral ever filmed.

Shells shriek, clang and ricochet off armour plate; men inside claustrophobically small compartments shout commands and maintain a grip on their fear knowing that a split-second advantage in ground speed, gun-loading or turret rotation is the difference between living and being cooked alive.

Not for Ayer are flashbacks to family scenes or photos of sweethearts pulled from wallets. He expects the viewer to accept the soldiers as three- dimensional beings as he pours on the horror.

All the actors are excellent, despite their thin, almost caricaturish personalities.

One is a Hispanic prone to Spanish exclamations, another is a violent redneck from Arkansa, and new guy Norman is a fish out of water and obvious grab for audience sympathy.

The final showdown at the film's climax is completely over the top, but what it lacks in accuracy of tactics, it more than makes up for in nail-biting excitement.

Top five must-see war movies

Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

This epic biography of T.E. Lawrence - soldier, adventurer, scholar - depicts, in a romantically sweeping fashion, the missions Lawrence undertook across the Arabian peninsula while leading a group of Arab tribesmen against the Turks during World War I. The attention to large-scale planning is interesting, especially in the parts where military actions mesh with political strategy.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg's hugely ambitious and realistic staging of World War II as it has never been seen on film marked a turning point in the way that war is depicted. Small-unit tactics are shown as the men, led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), go about destroying machine gun nests and blowing up tanks with improvised weapons.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

In this work, based on real events and soldiers, the fog of uncertainty that surrounds a battle zone is the focus, not the American special forces sent to capture Somali warlords.

Intelligence is mistaken, accidents happen, the American military leadership is confused and contradictory, the enemy behaves in unexpected ways - the movie lays out why snafu happens.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

The men in the bomb disposal unit in Iraq walk a knife-edge every day, but keep doing what they do.

However, that kind of equanimity in the face of death does not come without cost.

Also, the film displays the various kinds of improvised explosives insurgents use and how bomb disposal units respond.

Lone Survivor (2013)

A Navy Seal team mission in the Hindu Kush highlands of Afghanistan goes awry and the small team is wiped out. One man, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), survives the attack and must find his way home. There is an emphasis here on showing small-team escape and evasion tactics.

johnlui@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 22, 2014.
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