My father waded onto Utah Beach just after D-Day. There, he told me, after the nauseating trip across the English Channel, the seasick soldiers could see body parts in the blood-tinctured sand. He fought until the war’s end in the infantry, marching through the gruesome landscapes of northern France and into ravaged Rhineland forests.
He never said anything about battles or what he had witnessed as the war wound down, but I know he received one of his Purple Hearts for the scars on his left knee, a tangle of knotted flesh badly sewn up after his leg had been shredded by a land mine. The other one might have been for an injury that left him blind for five straight days, which he spent in a tent somewhere. I can only imagine his experience, lying there, hearing the battle just outside and the cries of the wounded near him. He was tough but must have reflected on the prospect of being blind for the rest of his life. Or just getting the hell out of there, wherever he was.
He did not like war movies. For Christmas one year, someone gave him a box set of one of those overpraised movies that tried to dramatize what its producers had concocted as the heroism of the Greatest Generation. He never watched it. Filmed heroics or others’ stories did not impress him. If he were alive today, I might have mentioned but damn sure I would not have the nerve to ask him to see David Ayer’s Fury, starring Brad Pitt and a tough bunch of supporting actors.
The movie follows a five-man tank crew fighting somewhere in Northern Germany in the grim days of April 1945. Cinematically stunning battles, brutalizing sound effects, and vivid performances by the actors fill the film’s 134 minutes. Early on, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) informs his youngest recruit, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), that there will be a lot of killing before the Allies win the war. And there is. You can read all that elsewhere. It is the film’s suggestive ambiguity about war and religion that mainly interests me.
That is because, while I do not know if my father ever fought from inside a foxhole, I do know that though he was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, he never again set foot in a church until his death at age 87. Not a person to use the word “atheist,” religion never came up in our conversations, or God, except for frequent enough use of goddam.
“Best job I ever had”
In Fury, Shia LaBeouf plays Boyd “Bible” Swan. Wearing spectacles and a studious demeanor, he is either reading or quoting scripture intermittently throughout the film. The other soldiers accept Bible and each other. When he meets Norman, Bible interrogates him about being saved. The typical/atypical squad includes a filthy, rugged Southerner, Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), and a hardnosed, cross-wearing Mexican, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña). As for Pitt, he is menacingly aloof. His team has fought through Africa, Italy, and France, and their allegiance to him is unwavering. They have seen the horrors of war, summed up by a dark, repeated line they all mutter: “Best job I ever had.”
Eventually, Wardaddy’s crew find themselves as the only defense between encroaching German troops and weakened, wartorn Americans in danger of having their supply lines cut. Stationed at a crossroads, with the Nazis approaching, Wardaddy decides to stay and fight. He and the crew know it is suicide to remain and, for a moment, the crew considers abandoning him. But they defer to his resolve and, predictably, slaughter ensues for the Germans before the crew is annihilated one by one.
Up to this point, the fierce Wardaddy holds his emotions close, except for a rage against the Nazis. He overhears Bible’s prayers but does not acknowledge them. But after treacherous, bloody fighting, as they are trapped and deathward bound in the mangled tank, he cites the Bible quotes. It is from Isaiah. They have a moment of mutual surprise. Wardaddy knows the Good Book, and he knows that when the Lord asked who to send, Isaiah responded, “Send me.” Bible nods in agreement.
Loyalty or salvation
But the others in the tank neither overtly possess knowledge of Scripture nor acknowledge that they are fighting for Wardaddy and Bible’s beliefs. They are surely willing to die for their country, and they know that they are loyally bound together after surviving this far.
The action is furious, so there is hardly a moment to process the film’s psychological and religious turn. Wardaddy says they are in a righteous fight, then he recites a passage from John 2:15, which is, approximately, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him….And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God lives eternally.” Bible concurs. Wardaddy and Bible are, to the shock of some of us in the audience, not only intent on saving the nearby endangered troops in this fight to their death, as is their duty, but apparently also engaging in a version of personal salvation. And they have taken their fellow soldiers along for the ride.
At this point, I began to think of my father. Apart from his antipathy to war movies, he would have been, well, furious at being led to the slaughter on the grounds of the promise of salvation. In the film, to be clear, the soldiers know they have chosen to fight with Wardaddy, but it is not clear they know about his motives beyond his guts, duty, and patriotism.
I do not know what director David Ayer means by adding these overtly religious and moral issues into his film. In terms of filmmaking, the questions posed regarding Wardaddy are not effectively established. Though there are hints, Ayer does not sufficiently prepare us for Wardaddy’s convictions. Nevertheless, Fury brilliantly offers up a complex, though ambiguous and troubling, set of issues.
Religion and war
In the last scenes, as the fury of the battle is crossed with a fury whose origins seem to have been from a belief in a deity capable of it, some of us in the audience retreat. Should love of country, military duty, and personal belief be conflated? Should others unknowingly be led into harm’s way or die because their leaders hold certain beliefs? If other nations wage war on each other over religious beliefs, how should a pluralistic, multiethnic, poly-religious country react if they — we — are not directly involved or attacked? How are religion and war related?
All of which leads to the question about foxholes and unbelievers. My father would most likely have grimaced and left unanswered the matter of what his beliefs were when facing death. Or war, the fucking war. But as far as I ever heard, no matter what he signed up for, it was not to follow an officer to his own hell, which he never believed in.
Nor heaven, either.
For a review of Fury by Robert Zaller, click here.
Above right: Shia LaBeouf in Fury. (Photo by Giles Keyte - © 2014 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)