FURY (2014)

FURY_poster

War is hell. David Ayer’s FURY (2014) makes this abundantly clear. It’s April of 1945, and we’re deeply entrenched in the WW2 European campaign as the American troops along with our allies are pressing onward behind enemy lines into Germany. In comparison to the mighty power of the German Panzer, Panther and Tiger tanks, American troops were out-gunned and ill-equipped in their M4 Sherman tanks but forged on nonetheless. Historically speaking, this last month of war with small platoons traveling into enemy lines was a rather dangerous and harsh place and time. [This following review may contain SPOILERS.]

Although FURY (2014) is a fictional account, it follows the real depictions of the 2nd armoured division. This “Hell on Wheels” hardened group began under George S. Patton’s command trailing from North Africa (Casablanca), to Sicily, to landing on the Omaha Beach in Normandy, then crossing France into Germany near the Elbe River where our story begins. We meet army sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), tank commander, and his loyal 5 man crew as they come back to camp having just lost their 5th man. They barely have time for chow when their new replacement arrives, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). He is incredibly green, claiming his only military skill is typing 60 wpm.

This crew has seen a lot of war and stuck together through it all. They’re dirty, gritty, jaded, yet remain committed to their task. The newbie fella doesn’t fit in initially, at all. They quickly go straight into battle and Norman is tested. He fails to respond to a sighting of an SS soldier and which results in a fiery loss of life. There is a tense scene when Wardaddy demands Norman to learn to fight, to adjust to his new job of killing Nazi soldiers in order to save their own lives. He resists at first but by the end of the film, Norman evolves into a fighting “Machine,” having adopted his own fury.

Each of this five man crew has their own personality but all are loyal to each other, especially to Wardaddy. They consider “the FURY” (nickname of their tank) their tiny home and they refer to this hell, after each close call they endure, as “the best job they’ve ever had.” Each are affected by the traumas of war but manage to hold it together with prideful purpose.

There is a very interesting scene in a small German town where Wardaddy and Norman find two local women hiding in their apartment and make themselves at home. It’s strange at first because you’re not sure of their intentions. More so strange because the scared, innocent, and attractive young woman named Emma, despite the language barrier and her town being captured by these American soldiers only moments prior, immediately expresses a trustful attraction to Norman and the two soon go off to a bedroom for consentual sex. REALLY? The tone is presented as a brief escape to “play house” with civil manners and etiquette but their make-believe playtime is shortly interrupted by the other three men. They are drunk and aggressive, brashly destroying any civility. War interrupts further and this scene symbolically becomes a loss of innocence for Norman in so many ways.

Brad Pitt as Wardaddy plays their strong leader. He’s intelligent (and his ability to also speak fluent German comes in handy), strives for balance of morality, deserves the respect he’s earned by his men, yet secretly struggles with the horrors of war. He also has a passionate distaste for the SS. He’s definitely got our vote. “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal, so it’s hard not to think of him as Shane from The Walking Dead) is the roughest of the group, culturally and social-skills-wise but at one point he admits to Norman he thinks he and Wardaddy are ‘the good men’ of the group, offering his humble respect. But like the others, he works hard and is dependable. “Gordo” (Michael Pena) serves as slightly more easy-going of the crew with an edge of light humor.

But it’s Shia LaBoeuf as “Bible” that is the stand-out performance here. Oh sure, we’ve all heard of his recent ‘crazy behavior’ in real-life and know of his early career as a child star (for most, that alone is a ticket to crazy town) and many tease him for his TRANSFORMERS roles in all their prettier-than-real-life Michael Bay glossiness. But I will stand behind this man as a great actor in this role. “Bible” is a man trying save the souls of others, or perhaps keep his own intact, as he balances quoting scripture while killing Nazis. His performance is often very intense and deeply moving and authentic.

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent” says Wardaddy in a poignant exchange with Norman. This quote really sums up the core message of this film. I’ve seen many war films covering WW2 and other wars. But I must say this may be one of the most realistically violent war films I’ve ever experienced. I am very fortunate in that I cannot admit to ever experiencing wartime in person, but if the history books and personal accounts are true, I imagine this is about as close as it comes. As Wardaddy prophetically reflects to this violent transition of war in Europe, “It will end, soon. But before it does, a lot more people have to die.”

Written and directed by: David Ayer

Cast:

Brad Pitt – Don “Wardaddy” Collier

Shia LaBeouf – Boyd “Bible” Swan

Logan Lerman – Norman “Machine” Ellison

Michael Pena – Trini “Gordo” Garcia

Jon Bernthal – Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis

Jim Parrack – Sergeant Binkowski

Brad William Henke – Sergeant Davis

Kevin Vance – Sergeant Peterson

Xavier Samuel – Lieutenant Parker

Jason Isaacs – Captain Waggoner

Ana Maria Marinca – Irma

Alicia von Rittberg – Emma

Scott Eastwood (yup, Clint’s son) – Sergeant Miles

Laurence Spellman – Sergeant Dillard

Daniel Betts – Burgermeister

Technical:

Runtime – 134 minutes

Aspect ratio – 2.35 : 1

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STALAG 17 (1953)

stalag 17 poster

Billy Wilder was an Austrian born filmmaker/writer/director… and all-around cinema genius. Born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Austria, Wilder went from being a Viennese reporter to a free-lance writer in Berlin where he started working on film scripts in 1929. As Hitler rose to power, Wilder moved to Paris to direct his first film, as he feared his Jewish ancestry would threaten his existence in nazi occupied Germany. Via his film connections including friend Peter Lorre, he made a new home the United States. Once in the U.S. he found great success in writing and directing films. But it became a very personal film for Wilder when he made STALAG 17 (1953).

Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17

Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17

Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger

Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger

His parents, Berl and Gitla Siedlisker died at the hands of nazis. He discovered that his stepfather had died at a concentration camp in 1942 and his mother was murdered a year later in another concentration camp, Plaszow. Additionally, his grandmother died in 1943 in a Jewish ghetto. While he generally avoided discussing this dark and tragic topic openly, this horrific tragedy no doubt left and imprint on his life. His successes grew with films across the 30’s and 40’s and into the 50’s. But it was during the early 1950’s with films like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and STALAG 17, Wilder felt free to take a more cynical, personal cause approach to his filmmaking.

STALAG 17 was originally a play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski which ran on Broadway, as directed by Jose Ferrer, for 472 performances. When Wilder took it the big screen, Paramount wanted to downplay the German negativity to avoid offending West Germany audiences, so they suggested making the German officers Polish. Wilder refused. And despite solid profits from STALAG 17 (1953), Paramount felt less generous in sharing to make up for the financial loses from ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), which experienced less than stellar performance at the box office. (A film that was ahead of its time and is much more appreciated today.) Wilder made this his last film with Paramount.

This story is based on reflections of the real experiences from Stalag 17B in a POW camp in Austria. The big screen version begins with a voice-over narrative, as several Billy Wilder films did. At the POW camp where the entire story takes place, we are introduced to a cast of characters from one of the barracks and the nazi guards:

William Holden… Sgt. JJ Sefton

Don Taylor… Lt. James Dunbar

Otto Preminger… Oberst von Scherbach

Robert Strauss… Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa

Harvey Lembeck… Sgt. Harry Shapiro

Richard Erdman… Sgt. “Hoffy” Hoffman

Peter Graves… Sgt. Frank Price

Neville Brand… Duke

Sig Ruman… Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz

Michael Moore… Sgt. Manfredi

Peter Baldwin… Sgt. Johnson

Robinson Stone… Joey

Robert Shawley… Sgt. “Blondie” Peterson

William Pierson… Marko the mailman

Gil Stratton… Sgt. Clarence Harvey “Cookie” Cook

[Warning: the following Synopsis will likely contain spoilers…]

Stalag 17

Stalag 17 confrontation

The men have planned an escape for two of the prisoners. They all discuss the details of the route inside the barracks: from a secret opening under the stove, over to the latrine, to an underground path to a spot near the fence by the woods nearby. The men show a unified presence to support the escape plan – all but one, Sgt. Sefton. Sefton is a hard-core cynic and the camp’s unapologetic black market profiteer. Instead of a ‘good luck’ send-off, he immediately starts taking bets against the two men making it successfully out of the camp. He’s certain they’ll fail, claiming the odds are not in their favor.

Unfortunately, Sefton’s predictions ring true as the entire camp is called to the muddy yard the next morning and the Nazi Commandant displays the two dead bodies in the center for all to see. As punishment, the guards make them fill in the escape tunnel and remove their stove. They can’t figure out how the guards figured out their plan. Two more prisoners are added to this barrack, including an officer, Lt. Dunbar, that reveals to the group how he foiled the nazis via destroying an integral point of transport. Sefton knows Dunbar from his past; when he attempted but failed to make officer level. He makes verbal jabs at Dunbar for being a spoiled little rich boy who he suggests bought his way in to being an officer. At mail call, a prisoner on crutches with a missing leg is able to smuggle in a radio. They briefly listen to details of the troop movements, before guards approach and they hide the radio.

The men let loose in the barracks

The men let loose in the barracks

Shapiro and "Animal" combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance

Shapiro and “Animal” combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance

Nazi guard Sgt. Schulz announces a representative from the Geneva Convention will be making a visit soon. Just in time for Christmas, they’ll all receive a good delousing and new blankets. From the reactions its obvious they are expected to lie about their actual conditions during this visit and the blankets won’t be around for long. Schulz is one guard in particular the POWs enjoy teasing:

Shapiro: Hey Schultz, sprechen Sie Deutsches?

Sgt. Schulz: Ja?

Shapiro: Then droppen Sie dead!

another funny exchange…

Sgt. Schulz: How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns?

Lt. James Skylar Dunbar: We sort of hope you’d laugh yourselves to death.

Their secrets, including the radio and Lt. Dunbar’s recent maneuvers against the nazis continue to find their way into the guards’ knowledge.  Dunbar has been taken by Nazi guards and is being tortured to reveal more details. At this point, they know someone from inside the barracks must be a mole betraying them. The tension in the barracks are growing thick. From Sefton’s cynical attitude and his ability trade favors, they assume he must be the betrayer and all the men band together to beat him. Sefton maintains his innocence, keeping a low profile.

Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery

Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery

 

a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle

a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle

But soon, during a Christmas celebration that is interrupted by an air raid, the mole slips up as Sefton stays behind and hidden when the real traitor makes his contact with Schulz, revealing how he exchanges information- via a lightbulb and the chess set pieces. Now that Sefton knows the enemy’s identity within the barracks, it’s not long before he finds an opportunity to reveal his true colors. It’s also the ideal time to show his own true character, as maybe not as much of a bad guy as all had thought, by helping Dunbar escape himself.

It’s in signature Billy Wilder fashion to tackle a subject like this, one so dark in reality (one that also must have been such a personal journey), and with complicated characters that are not so ‘black and white’ in morality.  But then he twists it so it’s funny and entertaining with his witty dialogue and characters that draw us in because they often surprise us in the end. He takes an anti-hero like Sefton and turns him into the most brave and honorable character by the film’s conclusion, despite himself.

He adds flavoring of characters like Shapiro and “Animal” who deliver the funniest moments throughout with their chemistry and friendship, Animal’s obsession with Betty Grable, and some profoundly real moments too. In example when Shapiro brags that his multiple letters received are love letters as a result of being so popular with the ladies, yet it turns out the letters are repeated overdue bill notices of his Plymouth being repossessed.  And in another ‘harsh reality meets dark humor’ moment, another POW reads his wife’s letter in which she reveals how a baby just showed up at their door and she chose to keep it- a baby that astonishingly possesses ‘her eyes and her mouth.’ He tells himself and his fellow bunkmate he believes it. Later on we see him speaking out loud, repeating that, “I believe it” as he tries to convince himself and wrestles with, struggling to see if this is something he can live with.

These are all heartfelt touch points that Wilder shares with us in his own, and very brilliant way. This review of STALAG 17 (1953) is my birthday tribute to Billy Wilder who was born 108 years ago today. It is shared with other brilliant Wilder films in the BILLY WILDER BOGATHON that Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and yours truly are hosting today. Here is the full list of participants.

kirk with billy big

 

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