Fury is am American war film starring Brad Pitt. That is not a good intro for a lot of people, but this is a very, very strong film. What I mean by that, I will come back to.

The film deals with the action of the members of one American tank crew deep in Germany near the end of the Second World War. It starts in a preternatural darkness, and there is rarely much light. The German nation is defeated but fighting on almost as suicidally as the Japs did. The SS are stringing up civilians for not being warlike enough, and children, women, and the infirm are pressed into service. The casualties on both sides are horrific because too many of the Germans are committed to fight unto the death. The German nation was betrayed first by the Wehrmacht when it sold out to Hitler, and then by Hitler when he abandoned the people he had found to be unworthy of him to their enemies. The really fortunate ones just had to deal with the Americans and British; the others had to face the Russians, a peasant army fuelled on vodka and revenge, and on an altogether different plane of humanity.

As it is, the Americans and Germans in this movie have seen and done so much killing that any humanity that is left looks vestigial. Pitt and his crew have been together since the day after D-Day. There is hardly one iota of military discipline in sight, and the two commissioned officers we see are harried warriors just like the rest. The only bond is the comradeship of survival, and a trust in their leader who has kept them intact.

I cannot say whether this is how it was. I was not there. I do know of my own knowledge that some parts take some latitude on weaponry, and some might think the same with the drama. We do know that the American tanks were lighter and more combustible than the German, and the film does show us tanks as cavalry. It is a little hard to see how a town just taken by the US should come under heavy artillery fire, but this film is a poetic drama rather than an historical picture show. It is more like an opera on the snarling waste and cruelty of war and the thinness of the wafer between us and the molten lava beneath us. Its ending is Wagnerian, the full Gotterdammerung.

The film had its own dramatic logic for me – in the end, these men had nothing else but each other and an affinity with death. If you pick up this thread, it is moving in a way that runs very deep in the history of the drama of the West, and in its epics. It also accords with what US psychologists found causes men to keep going in death-threatening savagery. It is nothing other than loyalty to each other.

The story is largely seen from or around a young man – a fresh faced kid – who is assigned to the tank after only eight weeks in the army. It makes your skin crawl when you hear the kid say this. We know the Americans committed this kind of war crime on their own in Vietnam, but in Europe in 1945? The shocking initiation starts, and culminates with Norman being required to shoot a German taken in an American uniform. When the kid gets the hang of it, and machines Germans from the tank, he gets abused for not letting them burn to death – we see one such victim shoot himself. The young man in the part does it well, and I thought, with one possible exception, it avoided cloying.

Pitt avoids being too handsome for the part with a basin cut, and he is now over fifty. His private war involves his hiding his fear from his men. The rest of the crew are an ethnic motley from Catch 22, a mix of wanton depravity and pathetic piety. At least one of them would cause a whole town to lock up its daughters in the nation that gave us Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven. Although Berlin is almost in sight, and the end is both near and certain, it is the Americans who always face the odds in this movie.

The high point of the human drama comes with a scene involving Norman and Pitt and two German women, one quite young. It is a very tense scene. In the East they would have been pack-raped indefinitely, and there is a threat of this here. Just how far does the animalness of these men go? Put differently, is there anything left of the veneer of civilization?

And what about the other war crimes? Germans found in American uniform were lawfully shot as spies. SS officers were shot out of hand for the same reason that Hitler and Himmler would have been – the film expressly links them to the German civilians left hanging by the road. It is idle to talk about war crimes against people like those. But what about the ordinary German soldier who has been engaged in killing as many of your mates as possible in a war that is only going on because of the perfidy of Hitler to his own people? When he is out of ammunition, can he just hold up the white hanky, and expect to be put up until the rest of his mates have been killed? Who, after all, started it? The film puts this question acutely, and I wonder at the impertinence of those who are happy to stand in the shoes of God and give judgment – not least because none of them will have known what war like this was like.

I said that this movie is strong. If it gets you, it will do so with the force of an opera by Wagner, and the depth of a tragedy by Aeschylus. You just feel throughout the movie that you are being exposed to something elemental. It is as if you are being tested. It was strong enough to make me walk out into the daylight outside the Regent in Ballarat feeling different to when I walked in. This film is in my view a very substantial achievement. It is in its own way a war film for those who do not like war films, but it may be some time before I feel the need to see it again.

And, to be consistent, I say the same about Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

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