“Fury” and futility – a review

fury-movie-poster

Rarely am I stumped by a movie. Usually, I like the film, it is okay or it is bad.

But every now and again, a movie makes me work at an opinion. David Ayer’s Fury is one of those films, the 2014 film being released this week on Netflix.

Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Peña, Fury tells the story of an American tank crew in the last year of World War II, pushing deep into Germany but heavily outgunned by German Tiger tanks.

And there is my challenge with this film. I have now explained the entire movie to you, because there is no real point to the plot.

It is seriously as though a camera crew showed up on a battle site one day and followed a tank crew for a few days as it wound its way through various other battles into the belly of the Nazi beast.

Thus, I cannot really tell if this movie is an amazingly stunning metaphor for the futility of war—there is no glory here—or if it was just a badly penned film.

logan-lerman-and-brad-pitt-in-fury

Ideals clash with reality

To be fair to Ayer, who not only wrote, but also directed and produced this film, there is a human interest side to this story as the war-weary, battle-hardened tank crew is joined by doe-eyed recruit Norman  Ellison (Logan Lerman) who just days earlier was a typist for the military bureaucracy.

Thus, as the tank—the titular Fury—lurches from battle to battle, we witness the corruption of a pure heart by atrocities committed not only by the enemy, but by his fellow soldiers. And we see the toll this corruption takes on the boy’s tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who personally starts that downhill process.

But again, to what purpose?

fury-respite

War taints even the most peaceful moments

Almost all war films seem to be based on men fighting toward a higher purpose, whether it is a battle that turns the tide of the war—e.g., Sands of Iwo Jima; Tora, Tora, Tora—or a moment of humanity amidst chaos—e.g., Saving Private Ryan—or men fighting for sanity within that chaos—e.g., Good Morning, Vietnam; Catch 22; Apocalypse, Now.

For me, Fury had no such pretense.

Yes, the Americans are the “good” guys and the Germans were the “bad” guys, but neither side in this film was any nobler than its counterpart. Within the confines of this movie, this was carnage and hatred purely for the sake of same.

As to the film itself; all of the actors did an admirable job, wearing the carnage of war on their faces and in their souls. Brad Pitt at his harshest expressed an internal dignity if not nobility. Shia LaBeouf was restrained. And Michael Peña really didn’t have much to do.

fury-movie

Truthfully, this film might have been stronger as a silent movie, as it was the facial expressions and battle scenes that told this story. The dialogue offered little to the visceral impact of this film (emotions are drained pretty early).

Beautifully shot, this is a grisly film and not for the faint of heart or stomach. Bullets and bombs don’t just pierce a body; they rip it wide open. The fallen remain fallen, to be ground into the mud by jeep tires and tank treads.

For all of these reasons—and it was a slow burn for me—I am coming down on the side of Fury being the embodiment of the ultimate futility and barbarism of war.

In this movie, even if you saved the person of Private Ryan or Ellison, the soul is long gone.

Remember

A good choice for Remembrance Day, highlighting purposeless sacrifice

Falling into autumn

Last week, I took my camera out to catch a glimpse of nearby Toronto’s Kew Gardens and the fading remnants of our Remembrance Day commemorations.

Blood red poppies

Remembrance Day

Every year, as October transitions into November, I go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11. It is a tradition in my family and across Canada to append the crimson flower to our lapel as a reminder of the bloody sacrifices made a century ago.

I also wear it to honour my great-grandfather Francis Sowden, who came home from the Great War, unlike so many others, including siblings on my great-grandmother’s side who are sadly just names without faces to me so many years later.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

Recently, I have heard people complain that the commemorative symbol of the poppy has been co-opted by those who want to hail it as a symbol of the glory of serving in the military, if not actually the glory of war itself. This bothers me.

I greatly thank all those who have, do and will serve in the military both in Canada and abroad, many risking their lives to keep others safe. Although I was an unthinking idiot in my youth, I have learned that these people, while frail humans, are noble titans who see conflict as a last resort.

For all that nobility, however, the poppy must remain a separate symbol.

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

The poppy reminds us of the horrific toll of war. It is a crimson stain upon our lapels that taints us all and reminds us of the fragility of the peace that surrounds us. The bloody hue taunts our civilized smugness with a warning of how easily we can fall into the pit of violence, whether as individuals, communities or countries.

While we wear the blood red poppy to honour the fallen of World War I, we also wear it as a badge of shame that the war ever took place, and that the war to end all wars wasn’t.

This dual purpose must never be diminished. We must strive to be better.

And next year, as October transitions into November, I will go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11.

I will never forget.

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

Bloodied remembrance

Flag soldiers

I have no room for anger or hatred in my life, but I find myself perplexed, frustrated and saddened by the events of this past week that saw three men, three soldiers killed or wounded. And all of the efforts to understand or explain the reasoning of the two perpetrators, both killed, do nothing to assuage these feelings.

The two soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, near Montreal in Quebec, were crossing a parking lot in front of a recruitment centre when they were run over by their assailant. One of the men wasn’t even in uniform.

And in a messed up irony that could only accompany a death, the third soldier in Ottawa was standing guard over a war memorial to his fallen predecessors. His only defence from the gun man that took his life? An unloaded gun pointed at the ground out of remembrance and reverence to The Unknown Soldier.

For soldiers to fall in battle or in zones of conflict is painful, but somehow more acceptable as a known risk. For men to die while pursuing peaceful administrative activities or activities of honour is simply unfathomable.

While I am not yet ready to weep for the deaths of the two murderers, I mourn for their families and their communities, who have suffered losses as well. Without more information, I cannot blame anyone other than he who drove the car, he who pulled the trigger.

But even as I grieve, even as I question, I take heart and solace in the arms of my community. The people of Canada have not cornered the market in fortitude and endurance, but we are strong. And in times like this, times that matter most, we speak with one voice, we grieve with one heart and we love with one soul.

Despite the pain of our loss, we only grow stronger when events like this happen. And when faced with the uncertainty and fear of these events, that strength, that resolve will keep us whole, will keep us secure.

The coming Remembrance Day will be a touch sadder this year because the poppies will be more bloodied and the graves they mark will be a little fresher.

Peace.

 

Only the names of the deceased officers have been released: Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, 24 (left, above), and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53.

soldier_andfield_of_poppies

Trench – A short story (Part Two)

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(Click here for Part One)

At the sound of distant splashing, Francis opened his eyes. His face had slowly deformed the mud until it almost seemed a mask in which he might have suffocated. Trying to turn his head, he winced. Somewhere in the night, it seemed, his bones and muscles had fused to become an almost immobile mass.

Slowly, painfully, he pulled his arms to his chest and pushed himself up onto his knees. His body wanted to scream but his instincts said he needed to remain silent.

His world was a grey cloud. As it often did, a heavy morning fog had settled into the trenches, blurring the lines of reality and imagination, preventing the senses from reaching more than a half-dozen feet in any direction. The light said it was day, but that was where his universe stopped.

The splash sounded again, closer. Francis had seconds to debate friend or foe. He opted for safety, launching himself across the gap to the other side of the trench, burying himself behind the remnants of crates. Silence was key.

German voices pierced the fog. At least he assumed they were German. He knew Welsh and English, but just enough of the words sounded familiar to suggest he wasn’t hearing French.

His heart was ready to explode and he willed his breathing to calm, the rapid exhalations forming eddies in the fog that he was sure would give away his position.

From the mists, two boys in German uniforms emerged, poking their rifles into the detritus that lined the trench, presumably looking for food or ammo. They plodded through the puddles, secure in each other’s company, unaware of the din they created.

One soldier cried out and attacked the side of the trench.

His compatriot turned to find him tugging at the buried corpse. Placing his rifle to one side, he joined the other and between the two of them, they pulled the dead soldier out, the mud protesting their invasion with a loud sucking noise.

The first soldier reached inside the dead man’s great coat, feeling around blindly until his hand lighted on his quarry. Smiling at his partner, he extracted a sodden square of leather, teasing apart its folds and sliding out military script. His partner, meanwhile, was filling his pockets with items from the dead man’s kit.

Francis watched the vultures loot the corpse, his mind racing to comprehend the incomprehensible. This was one of their own.

He was as surprised as the German soldiers when the chest of one caved in at the bullet wound. The recoil of his rifle telling Francis that he had pulled the trigger.

By the time the unwounded soldier figured things out and was rising to his feet, he too found himself with a bullet in the chest. He gaped at Francis, who slowly emerged from his hiding place, and his eyes rolled into his head as he fell to his knees and then face down in the mud.

Francis shook, bracing himself against the crates lest he too collapse into the puddle. The dead soldiers—the men he had killed—lay at his feet. Francis tried to feel anguish at his crime. He tried to feel joy at his survival. He felt nothing.

Not cold. Not wet. Not even numb. His world had closed in on him, smothering him.

This was the first time Francis had fired in battle, all previous conflicts amounting to little more than scurrying from trench to trench, fox hole to fox hole, keeping you head low lest it be removed. The first time Francis had taken a human life, and yet he was intrigued that he felt no different than had he just slaughtered a hog for its meat or put down a rabid dog.

Francis dragged the soldiers onto their drowned comrade, laying their rifles next to them. He then stood silently, scanning the air for any sound, the splash of footsteps racing to the rifle shots. He heard nothing.

He pulled aside the coat of one soldier to find a filthy uniform underneath, not just torn in places but the material actually rotting away. A photo dangled precariously from the soldier’s pocket. He retrieved it and saw a youth, the soldier, standing in front of a portly woman near a well. He wondered if this was the boy’s mother. Flipping it over, the back was inscribed with German.

Without knowing why, Francis pocketed the photo and rose to his feet. As he lifted and flipped over the soldier’s military kit, he was startled by the rumble of artillery in the mists far ahead. The line had apparently moved in the night. Time to rejoin his unit.

Shouldering the German kit and his rifle, Francis stepped over the fallen soldiers, picked his way past the puddles and dissolved into the mists.

*****

Two months ago, while organizing my grandmother’s things after her funeral, I found an ancient, moth-eaten bag in her attic. Opening it, I discovered a German bible and a mixture of English and German war rations, as well as a photograph of a boy and his mother.

The back was inscribed in German, which I asked a neighbour to translate for me.

“Be safe, my beloved boy, and come home soon. Mama.”

No name. No date. Just a message of love and worry.

That my great-grandfather had his kit and photo suggested the boy did not make it home and his mother’s heart broke.

I keep the photo with me as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made on both sides. Sacrifices that let me lead the life I do.

I will never forget that.

 

Please note: This story is a fiction, although my great-grandfather Francis Sowden did serve in the first World War.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission, but utmost respect and reverence.)

Trench – A short story (Part One)

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Ass over tea kettle, Francis plunged into the trench, its existence in the darkness signalled by nothing but a lack of anything, his fall broken by ice-crusted water and gelatinous mud.

Spewing the filthy frigid water from his mouth, Francis tried to regain his footing, his body too cold, his mind too much in shock, to tell if anything was broken. Every movement, however, was a mired mess as the cloying mud that perpetually threatened to steal his boots worked in concert with the glass-sharp ice to hold him down.

Francis wasn’t a weak or timid lad by any estimation having learned some hard truths about life while fighting to survive in a Welsh orphanage before finally relocating to a rural town outside of Ottawa in Canada. He knew what it was to toil in the fields, to be completely responsible for your own welfare, to stay alive. But  this, this was stupid.

How could a month of running around a farmer’s field in full pack have prepared him for this? Better to have him run up the Ottawa River in full flood that teach him to worry about gopher holes and broken ankles.

This wasn’t the France he had read about. The France of Dumas and Monet. This was some sort of crazed underworld that only the cold and wet prevented him from calling Hell. Perhaps this was Canadian Hell, he thought as he tossed his gun to the side of the trench.

Using his knife to clutch the dirt, he slowly achingly pulled himself from the muck. His hand struck a fragment of barbed wire that used to sit atop the trench wall. A barb pierced his skin but he actually found the pain refreshing as this was the first thing that had broken through the numbing cold. The wire also gave him a bit more leverage.

Francis scooped a seat out of the mud wall and rested. He was uncomfortable. He was miserable. But he was out of the water and out of the line of fire.

The night was overcast—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the sun—and was illuminated sporadically by the distant blast of artillery. A thunderstorm that perpetually threatened but never actually rained.

As he chewed on a piece of meat that he had found in an abandoned farmhouse—it could be cow tongue or boot tongue for all the flavour it had—he smiled at how blasé he’d become about artillery bombardment in six short months.

The noise used to terrify him as he’d watch the ambulance corps bring the still-breathing remnants of soldiers from the front. He remembered several times feeling the sudden warmth of his own urine as he moved from trench to trench in his first days in battle. He quickly learned it was possible to be proud and experience wrenching fear at the same time.

Now, he was completely fatalistic about his chances. His hope was that should he come under bombardment, it be swift. This was not to say he was suicidal, however. Francis very much wanted to live.

More a feeling than anything concrete, Francis turned rapidly toward a sound in the darkness, knowing there was only a 50-50 chance his rifle would fire if called upon.

It was a low noise, the sound of something being tugged in the darkness. Short bursts of sound followed by silence. The sound neither receded nor approached, however. Whatever was being moved and by whom, the going was hard. That and they hadn’t noticed him.

Keeping as still as he could, Francis craned his sight into the shadows, focusing as hard as he could when the distant flashes gave him a moment of light. The noise continued its ebb and flow, unphased by the chaos around it.

Just as he thought his eyes would leave his head for the strain, he caught a furtive movement. On the next distant explosion, it was clear he was watching a rat. For its size, it could easily have been a raccoon, but its scraggly state and focused snout clearly suggested a rat.

With rabies running rampant throughout the front, Francis would normally have steered clear of the animal or tried to shoo it off. These were anything but normal times.

Slowly moving from his perch, Francis slid down the trench wall to the mud’s edge, creeping slowly toward the rat, rifle barrel firmly in hand. A couple times, the rat froze as though ready to run, but then resumed its activity as the artillery covered Francis’s approach.

In a fluid motion, the rat’s skull crunched under the butt of Francis’s rifle. Death swooped in so quickly, the rat never flinched or made a sound.

Grabbing its tail, Francis flicked the rat into a puddle, immersing it to drown any fleas, knowing in his heart that he was more likely to give fleas to the rat than the other way around. He then raised his prize into the air, letting the muddy water drip for a moment, as he pulled his knife back out.

Life on the farm paid off handsomely, as within minutes, he had successfully gutted the rat, throwing the offal as far as he could to avoid unwelcome family members. He had also peeled back the skin to reveal what he knew to be pink protein-laden meat.

Between the wet and the lack of fuel, a fire was out of the question, but Francis had his lighter, which he used to char segments of the rat before he bit into the flesh. The flashes of warmth and juicy flesh revived his spirit somewhat.

As he roasted his fifth piece, however, his eyes focused beyond the burning flesh and fire to take in what the rat had been tugging at.

Through the muck and mire, Francis stared at the toothy grin of a German soldier, drowned in a muddy avalanche of a collapsing trench wall. The soldier’s bottom lip was flayed while the left top lip was completely missing. No wonder the rat had struggled to bring its find home.

Francis stared at the death mask for a moment, before shifting his gaze to the rat remnants in his hand. As though scalded, he threw the rat down the trench and doubled forward, fisting the mud at his feet.

His back arched violently several times as he convulsed a wretching wail, but his starving body refused to release its cannibalistic gains. Instead, from deep within came a mournful cry that rose in volume and violence until it seemed he might turn inside-out.

Part Two in the next post.

(Image is property of the owner and is used here without permission, but a lot of respect.)

Remembrance Day tributes

Remembrance Day Poppy

I have already posted my thoughts and experiences about Remembrance Day and my homage to the fallen.

Below are a few other pages I have found that I think tell profound or beautiful stories.

Korea: Mapping the dead of Canada’s forgotten war     

A war hero lived in my house

My conversation with a soldier today…

Alberta man on a mission to document Canadian veterans

In Flanders fields and John McRae

Remember the fallen    

Rick Mercer rants against shoddy treatment of veterans