Heroism in the Age of Guerilla Warfare

By Masha Shpolberg, Grant WiedenfeldNovember 25, 2014

Heroism in the Age of Guerilla Warfare

WAGNER’S “RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES” in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now underscores the irony of American heroism post-Vietnam. The army’s air cavalry, led by Robert Duvall’s cocksure Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, blares the Wagner theme through megaphones mounted astride Huey helicopters. In choosing its own soundtrack, the squadron manufactures its own cinematic image. Yet, the soldiers’ actions do not live up to either Norse or Hollywood mythology. The choppers swoop down, strafe the picturesque port village, and land on the beach. Troops spill out of the sliding doors and take up positions under fire. Duvall’s cowboy colonel paces the beach with his chest as broad as the brim of his Stetson hat. He admires the waves breaking just offshore and sends out a couple of Californian cadets to surf them. “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain, it’s safe to surf this beach,” he barks amid salvos from unseen Viet Cong. Napalm-bearing jets incinerate the tree line, and the mission is accomplished before the end of The Valkyries’ third act.

In this scene Coppola satirizes the techno-spectacle of contemporary warfare. Battle lines have disappeared. The enemy has become invisible, the motive for the fight unclear. On the one hand, men attend machines. Iron birds demand pilots and steel triggers crave pulling — the extremities of a multinational war machine. On the other hand, the boys just want to have fun. They catch waves while G.I. Joe smothers Charlie. The commander strides around as if he were playing John Wayne; or, as an avatar in a videogame, unkillable. This, for Coppola, is not heroism, but simulation of heroism.

Kurtz, the rogue American commander played by Marlon Brando, seems at first to provide an alternative model. To meet his enemy on more equal footing, he and his followers adopt the guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong. They conduct stealth raids up and down the river into neutral Cambodia, carving out their own territory. Yet there is no valor or justice to be found in Kurtz’s heart of darkness. His motivation has nothing to do with the ultimate good promised by either the communist or liberalist forces. Through the figures of Kilgore and Kurtz, Coppola stages modern war as a wasteland of the ideal.

In Fury, Brad Pitt’s Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier insists, 35 years and three American wars later, that heroic combat lives on. It is as if Duvall’s cowboy walked into an adjacent studio where a film was being shot about tanks in World War II instead of helicopters in Vietnam. Along the way, he seems to have picked up Kurtz’s erudition and death-drive, and adapted them to his Christian worldview. Pitt and the crew of his tank, nicknamed “Fury,” (played by Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Logan Lerman), spend the first two-thirds of the film rousting out entrenched German guerrillas, until — stuck and facing a column of SS men — the lone American tank adopts their methods for the final showdown.

Herein lies Fury’s contribution to the World War II film corpus and to our understanding of heroism. The film’s setting stands out from earlier works such as Sands of Iwo Jima and Saving Private Ryan, in which similarly representative groups of men bond and persevere in the face of death. David Ayer, who wrote and directed Fury, chooses to begin at an unlikely moment: the end of a battle in the twilight of the war. The tank engages in a series of minor scuffles within a Beckettian atmosphere of impending doom. Night does not fall until the finale, and we never see the men sleep until their last breath.

This setting and focus, not to mention the sense of protracted action, summon Iraq and Afghanistan. Like coalition forces in the outskirts of Fallujah, the Fury crew cannot speak the native language (the superhuman Pitt excepted). The tanks roll down narrow village streets on the lookout for hidden enemy combatants, and attempt to protect innocent civilians. Extremist SS men have strung up women and children who refused to fight, a propaganda technique all too reminiscent of recent beheadings. Out on the country roads, young boys with grenade launchers (RPG’s in military jargon) await in the bushes. A land mine disables the tank tread and precipitates the final showdown. With the radio fried, the soldiers are as cut off and isolated as the Navy SEALs in Lone Survivor.

Presumably, Ayer has chosen this backdrop so that in its dusky light the heroism of the men may shine forth all the more brightly. He does not insist upon the skirmish’s relevance to the larger enterprise, foregrounding instead the crew’s commitment to their immediate duties and to each other. In the spirit of the slogan “Support Our Troops,” he divorces judgment of the individual soldier from judgment of the overall conflict. After all, Iraq and Afghanistan have produced no decisive victory that could justify particular acts of valor or particular deaths. Instead, Ayer offers a spiritual justification that blends male chauvinism with apostolic martyrdom. Rather than flee or hide, Pitt leads his crew to fight to the end out of self-respect and loyalty. Where Coppola, Kubrick, and Tarantino veered to satire in their war films, Ayer revives the tragic mode.

The very name Fury connects the film to the tragic tradition through a host of associations. In ancient Greece, the Furies were vengeful “infernal goddesses” that meted out punishment in works such as The Iliad (that first epic of dudes bonding at war). Faulkner’s modernist epic The Sound and the Fury takes its name from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” All these works focus on characters too far gone in violence to return to peaceful life. Macbeth proclaims in Act 3, Scene 4, “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

Much of the film’s gravitas derives from Pitt’s initial struggle with green recruit Norm, played by Logan Lerman. Norm, as his name suggests, brings civilian moral “norms” to the battle-hardened crew. Pitt warns Lerman that “ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” and forces him to execute a captive Nazi. Jeremy Renner was nominated for the Academy Award for an equally “blood-steeped” protagonist in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 war film The Hurt Locker. Pitt will no doubt get a best actor nod here despite his character’s origins in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, in much the same way Jeff Bridges’s post-ironic “the Dude” took home the Oscar for Crazy Heart.

Fury’s other parallel to contemporary warfare does not lie in history but in the virtuality of fiction. As reviewers like our friend Mads Neumann have pointed out, Fury adapts Call of Duty and other combat video games to the cinematic screen. Those games, in turn, based their scenery and stories on Saving Private Ryan and other war films whose spectacularity was predicated on the individual soldier’s point of view: close-ups, gore, rumbling explosions, point-and-shoot camera angles that would make Kittler and Virilio squeal. What elevates Fury’s first-person shooter style above a fantasy of combat immersion is the reality of drone warfare. It is not clear if Ayer is conscious of these implications — if he is, he does not show the acute conscience of Harun Farocki. The radical German filmmaker’s unspectacular 2011 MoMA show Images of War (at a Distance) staged the gallery as a drone control room. Farocki partitioned the dark gallery space with illuminated screens that juxtaposed images of soldiers sitting in cubicles with low-res images from war video games. Godard-like intertitles commented on the bizarre situation, drawing obvious parallels between the movie theater and the theater of drone warfare. Ayer crafts heroes suited for this new kind of war, but places them nostalgically in 1945.

“Remote control” precisely describes the quality of heroism of “Wardaddy” and other post-9/11 heroes: Matt Damon’s Bourne, Daniel Craig’s Bond, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Self-consciously stoic detachment is what enables the chiseled male body to leap into perilous action. Casino Royale illustrates this mentality when Bond, a guerrilla warrior of sorts, repairs his wounded image in the bathroom mirror. After death poison and goon killing have made his trigger hand tremble, he coolly downs a glass of Scotch and stares down his reflected self. By imagining himself remotely, Bond is able to take control and perform heroic stunts. Pitt’s Wardaddy spends most of Fury downing a similar cocktail of mental restraint and narcissism, albeit under different conditions.

Wardaddy has no actual mirror in Fury, but he does see himself perpetually in reflection: through the eyes of his men and colleagues. Norm, in particular, provides Wardaddy with the adulatory gaze he seeks, eventually graduating to a kind of alter ego. Most peculiar in this respect is the grooming scene in the German apartment. Brad bares his chest and washes himself with hot water in the center of the room, purifying his image. A captive Fräulein provides a sexual gaze on this remarkably ageless hunk. Norm, standing aft, is shocked at burns that cover Wardaddy’s naked back. Ever unfazed, Wardaddy commands the recruit to deflower the Fräulein’s teenage cousin, and in so doing complete his education.

One could analyze the interplay of gun and penis, father and adopted son for pages (not to mention the tank itself as both maternal womb and paternal phallus). What stands out here is the remote operation. Pitt fucks the girl by proxy, as it were. The recruit sits inside the tank firing upon the enemy by looking through a periscope — a mirror system that sees outward, not inward. In the same way, the drone pilot projects his avatar into combat remotely, and the movie viewer congratulates herself for being able to stomach the umpteenth sound of bullets exploding ripe tissue, like a warm apple pie in the face. Heroism derives from sustained control and focus, whether the hero finds himself in the thick of things or at a safe remove. (Zero Dark Thirty’s focus on intelligence agents advocates a similar remote control without the same fantasy of the male body, leaving a purely “bureaucratic heroism” — see Merve Emre’s 2013 piece in n+1).

A cavernous interiority opens behind the hero’s remote and tragic attitude, one that Ayer fills with prayer. One particular sound motif epitomizes this inward movement. During the climax of several battles the noise of engines and explosions abruptly fades away. Abstract musical tones glaze over the visual commotion, creating a kind of internal sound sanctuary. Fury’s sound designers borrow this motif from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. (Ayer thankfully dispenses with the pale Aryan devil that would appear to stalk Jesus during the silent climaxes in Gibson’s film.) As these scenes fold the viewer into the protagonists’ subjective perception, they raise the question: why is the viewer denied access to the crew’s past? When Lerman first moves into his tank, his roaming gaze allows us to glimpse several family photographs pinned to the walls. We never learn who is pictured or who awaits each of the men “back home.” The origins of tics and traumas are never revealed, and even Pitt’s mastery of German is left unexplained. Each character in Fury is endowed with more than enough personality, but they only mature into soldiers upon renouncing the self. Pitt instructs Lerman to become a “machine” like the rest of the crew, who perform heroically by disappearing into their roles. Stanley Kubrick’s title Full Metal Jacket puns on this same renunciation of self. Yet Ayer, unlike Kubrick, fills the hard shell of his soldiers with apostolic devotion and prayer.

Fury’s screenplay devotes enough dialogue to the good book to attract the same audience that has flocked to “faith-based” films this year, such as Heaven Is for Real. Shia LaBeouf’s Southern Bible-thumper cites verse almost every time he appears onscreen. The aloof Pitt mostly disregards him until the moment just before the final showdown. As the men share one last drink inside the tank, LaBeouf attempts to provide them with a few last words of comfort from Isaiah 6:8. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” To everyone’s astonishment, Pitt’s Wardaddy completes the verse: “Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” It is all too easy to read this line as a conscious conflation, on Ayer’s part, of patriotic with religious feeling, of civic with Christian virtue, and to ignore the variable that gets dropped from the equation: personhood. Kurtz, in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, saw himself as one of T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” Taking the pure logic of killing to its insane extreme, Kurtz scribbles in bright red ink across his memoirs, “Drop the bomb / Exterminate them all.” Ayer staves off such nihilism by keeping a soldiers’ focus on the task at hand. The only avenue to higher thought he leaves open to them — and to the viewer — is the tragic drama of Christ. Reasoning about the larger conflict, or considering the soldier’s relation to his domestic past (and future), is pushed offstage. Fury acts with the precision of a drone strike and the devotion of a guerilla. The question we are still asking ourselves is: does it hit home?


Grant Wiedenfeld earned his PhD in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University.

LARB Contributors

Masha Shpolberg is a PhD Candidate in the joint Comparative Literature and Film & Media Studies Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on Eastern European cinema and the evolution of documentary film form.

Grant Wiedenfeld earned his PhD in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University.


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