On the subject of Hollywood’s version of WWII, I decided to make a follow up. In that post I mentioned two movies in passing: U-571 and Fury. I hadn’t seen these movies in awhile (U-571 ages ago, Fury not since it left theaters) but they both stood in my mind as egregious examples of neo-Liberal American propaganda, so I decided to re-watch them both, and boy they were even worse than I had remembered.
Despite being released 14 years apart they share the same cliché action plots where all of that American nationalist sentiment can be safely funneled down a harmless path. Leaving aside their agendas, these movies suck. But unfortunately enough faux flag-waving will get any mouth breathing Fox News audience all hot and bothered.
U-571 is a movie that despite being a disposable experience still left me with distinct memories — that is to say when re-watching it for the first time in over 10 years I remembered exactly how irritated I was at almost everything this tripe had to offer. It’s painfully corny, fails at the even the most basic action oriented level of story-telling, and re-writes history to suit a nominally “pro-America” narrative of WWII. “America” in this context being the Democrat-run government that fought this war for the sake of creating a new world order, of course.
The movie opens with the titular U-571 attacking a convoy in the North Atlantic. It sinks a merchant before getting attacked by a British destroyer. The submarine dives deep to avoid getting rammed, saving our newly introduced German captain from suffering the same grizzly fate as Joachim Schepke did in real life, but doesn’t stop a flurry of depth charges from leaving the submarine crippled and all of it’s mechanic dead. Naturally they surface and send out a distress signal, using their enigma machine to encrypt the message.
Then we cut to a wedding after-party in the land of the free and get a myriad of introductions for our American heroes. A Naval Lieutenant named Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) was supposed to get his own submarine command, but he’s been snubbed. His commanding officer Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) withheld his recommendation because he just “wasn’t ready” for his own command. Later in the movie Bill Paxton tells McConaughey the reason why — he isn’t willing to sacrifice one of his crew for the sake of the mission, something which the movie starts hitting the audience over the head with in ham-fisted dialogue from there on out. Ever heard of “show, don’t tell”?
All of the ordinary seamen just can’t get enough of McConaughey, and this is where everything really goes downhill. Literally minutes after this cut to America the MPs come in and tell everyone their leave is canceled. They’re whisked off to the docks where their S-class submarine, USS S-33, is being modified to look like a Type VII U-boat, then they get briefed.
An intelligence officer named Hirsch and a marine major named Coonan (who’s luggage consists of machine-guns and explosives) are going to be their guests for an urgent mission, and Hirsch confronts a sailor with a German name to see where his loyalty lies…apparently forgetting that every second man from the Midwest would have had a name like Wentz or Bauer. It’s not until after they set sail that the film’s MacGuffin is revealed — the British intercepted that distress signal from U-571 and used direction-finding equipment, and while the message was encrypted they found out from the French resistance a supply sub departed for that same area and put two and two together. Their mission is to beat the resupply sub and masquerade as U-571’s rescuers to board the U-boat and capture the enigma machine.
Wait what? Why would an American submarine get tasked with this mission if the British found out about it? Based on the map they use their target is much closer to Britain anyways. Would the British really pass this off to an American submarine that has to cross from the opposite side of the Atlantic and race against the resupply sub? Not to mention the Royal Navy were the ones capturing all of the enigma machines in real life (I’ll come back to that later).
The flimsy premise aside, the story reaches new levels of bullshit in the very next scene. We see those EVIL NAZIS aboard U-571 machine-gunning a raft full of British survivors, apparently from that merchant they sank earlier. It’s so casual too, “standing orders from the Führer, we will not pick up any survivors…now get on with it.” Firstly the German captain literally moments earlier complains about how desperately he needs a mechanic. HEY GENIUS, how about check if one of the survivors is a mechanic before you gun them down? And secondly Hitler never gave such an order, Admiral Dönitz over half way through the war in response to the Laconia incident (look up that incident yourself and take a wild guess why he would order something like that). And that order was just to stop picking up survivors as opposed to deliberately firing on them.
In fact contrary to what U-571 and Australian conspiracy theorists would have you believe there is only one purported incident of German submariners machine gunning survivors to death, it was committed by U-852 on May 3rd 1944 and the victims were from the Greek merchant ship Peleus, and even that was not confirmed as intentional — Capt. Heinz-Wilhelm Eck ordered his crew to sink the still floating wreckage with gunfire, it was night time and apparently a few poor saps clinging to the wreckage were unknowingly killed. The mere fact that Eck had included the event in the ships log at all calls into question whether it was intentional, but that didn’t stop the Allies from executing him and two other sailors post-war. The people who made U-571 think they can get away with such blatant lying propaganda. Anyone well-read on the Battle of the Atlantic would recognize this as a lie, but unfortunately the vast majority of people couldn’t be bothered to do the research themselves.
Back on the S-33 there are a few obligatory dialogue scenes before the Americans encounter the U-boat they’ve been looking for.
There’s a brief boarding scene filled with typical hip-firing Hollywood bravado, and the American sailors take the sub without much trouble despite the German crew being improbably well armed; literally every second one of them has an automatic weapon. They set scuttling charges and start transferring the enigma back to the S-33 when surprise surprise! the German resupply sub shows up and torpedos their ride home, killing the majority of the crew and forcing the remainder still on U-571 to crash dive for an action sequence. (But not before Bill Paxton’s badly wounded Dahlgren gets a cheesy send off and succumbs to the waves)
Yes, not only was S-33 able to locate the exact position of this drifting submarine from a report that is days old at this point (and 1940s direction-finding equipment wasn’t that accurate anyways) but the German resupply sub has shown up at the exact same time and while still submerged identified the disguised S-33 as hostile, despite the same U-boat drag fooling a surfaced U-571 just 20 minutes earlier….yikes. And honestly one of the only believable things in this movie is the disguise of S-33, the only giveaway that it’s not a U-boat is the lack of a raked bow, and that’s mostly submerged anyways. Oh well, maybe the hydrophone operator overheard them speaking English? And that’s to say nothing of the awful explosion effects on S-33. There isn’t even a water plume from the torpedo, just cheesy looking fireballs.
At least the model they used for the sinking looks good.
The fight between the submarines is also curious. It ends with the supply sub being torpedoed using only sonar. Again the technological ability on display here is way ahead of its time, while there were plenty of submarine-on-submarine kills in both World Wars only one was achieved while both were submerged (HMS Venturer versus U-864 in 1945, and that was after they encountered each other surfaced), all others were cases of either a surfaced sub being bushwhacked by a submerged opponent or they were both surfaced. Sonar just wasn’t precise enough for something like this. And there is also the fact that the German “supply sub” shown in the movie is obviously a Type IXC U-boat, while actual German supply subs were all Type XIV “milk cows” (deeper draft and no torpedo armament), but that’s a technical nitpick.
So this movie has just zipped through it’s first half, and then almost all of the characters get killed off. An apologist would try to claim the writer was going for shock value, but the problem is who cares? The only reason I was interested in any of these characters was the promise of what they might do later. There is no time for actual character development, just a series of soulless set ups that don’t pay off.
Jon Bon Jovi of all people rears his head as Lt. Tyler’s best friend (this is back when he was trying to transition to acting), and does a pretty good job too until getting unceremoniously killed off by a chunk of metal to the face. I was especially disappointed by the demise of David Keith’s character, or lack thereof. He’s with the crew still on U-571 when S-33 blows up before he disappears for the rest of the movie. Why? His entrance into the movie was so played up and auspicious, but that doesn’t even warrant a death scene? Someone should have explained to writer David Ayer what the “Chekhov’s gun” principle is all about: you put dramatic emphasis on characters or objects that will have significance in your story, not fall off the map like in this screenplay. (except the evil German captain of U-571, despite being in handcuffs after capture he is only one of two survivors when the Americans resurface to rescue any sailors still in the water)
The second half of U-571 consists of the remaining crew trying to get the enigma machine to England, but of course actual character building and transition aren’t a focus so 10 minutes later they get spotted by a reconnaissance aircraft and get shoe-horned into the next action sequence, this time against a German destroyer.
They blow their disguise and shoot the Destroyer’s radio shack with their deck gun before diving within a hairs length of the hull to avoid the return gunfire. Why is there a German destroyer randomly roaming around in the Atlantic anyways? Historically it was a rare event when they did sortie (to escort blockade runners) and they never went out alone especially in the wide open Atlantic; they were usually intercepted leading to some major engagements. But a single German destroyer on patrol? This movie needed to be about Soviet sailors in the Baltic for it to be plausible.
The subsequent depth charge scenes drag on for nearly an hour, the only change comes when the Americans play dead, until the captured German captain tries to alert the destroyer with Morse code (“I AM U571, DESTROY ME!”) before getting a wrench to the face from the intelligence officer Hirsh of all people, up until that point the squeamish wimp of the group. The depth charges going off left and right so rapidly around U-571 is ridiculous (how many depth charges does this destroyer have?) and tiresome, not to mention they all detonate within a few feet of the hull which would destroy any submarine and kill everyone in it instantly.
Luckily Mr. Lincoln Lawyer comes up with a plan to surface far ahead of the destroyer and sink it with the aft torpedo, but first they have to fix an air leak to get that aft tube working again or else they’ll be sitting ducks on the surface, and that air-leak happens to be in a flooded area. David Ayer contrives this to serve an unbelievably dumb character arc. Remember how Paxton told McConaughey he was too soft to sacrifice his crew? Well only the two smallest crew can fit in that flooded space and they likely won’t survive, so Tyler has to choose who gets sacrificed to fix the pumps: the kid from The Sandlot or the actor who would later star in Blue Bloods? The time it takes to make that choice is a whopping two seconds and its bye-bye Sandlot boy, who of course fixes the leak just in the nick of time before drowning.
The sinking of the Destroyer is another example of awful explosion effects; it’s very obviously superimposed over the frame before the ship itself becomes a pre-rendered image in the next shot. I’ve seen better effects in PlayStation 1 video game cut-scenes. And of course the massive fireballs return: I have a theory that U-571 is set in an alternative universe where all warships are constructed of gasoline-laced steel alloys.
So our heroes live, abandon U-571 as it sinks, and then get picked up some time after by an American float plane off the coast of England. The end. Bleh.
So what was the point of this movie? It ain’t about capturing the enigma. From the half-way point onwards all of the enigma stuff is white noise, and it becomes clear that the director just wanted an excuse to have Americans commandeer a U-boat. I haven’t even talked about the continuity errors, of which there are countless.
If they were trying to make a movie about the capture of an enigma, they could have told the real stories, only they would have to settle on portraying Brits instead of Americans if they wanted something relevant to the outcome of the war, since the first American captured enigma was two years (and two enigma captures) after this movie takes place. Admittedly the first enigma capture (by HMS Bulldog) wasn’t a very exciting story: U-110 was damaged and slowly sinking but the crew abandoned ship too early, so the British calmly boarded it and removed anything useful, including enigma. No shootout or any other Hollywood glamor. The second enigma capture by the British was more entertaining, but if the filmmakers behind U-571 were so determined to tell an American story they could still have made it about the capture of U-505 in 1944. Although it occurred so late in the war that the enigma wasn’t important to the outcome, you could stretch the story into it’s own movie since it was part of the larger US navy operations off Northwest Africa, which included the loss of USS Block Island (the only major American carrier lost to German action) just a week earlier. There is also the added bonus that U-505 is still around today.
It’s a bad sign when the only things that aren’t crap in a movie are some of the minute technical details: “Hey, is that a M55 Reising sub-machine gun the marine major is using? That’s interesting.” The most entertaining part of this shit show isn’t the movie, but the reaction when it came out, especially in Britain. Tony Blair of all people railed against it in the House of Commons as an “affront to British sailors”. Well, I’m not exactly a fan of Tony Blair (or Anglo-Saxons in general for that matter), but he and I are of one mind on this trash.
Now we come to the second movie I want to talk about: Fury
Fury is set at the end of the war in Europe and follows Brad Pitt and his crew, tankers of the 2nd Armored Division, in their Sherman tank (the titular Fury) as they push into Germany. From the get-go this movie attempts a faux-gritty approach that rings hollow from all of the CGI blood and flashy tracer effects, not the wisest choice for a “realistic” war film.
I will try to be more brief with Fury, if only because Michael Akkerman has thoroughly eviscerated this movie, and I’d highly recommend you check out what he has to say.
It’s a tedious slog with unrealistic crappy battle scenes, a horribly boring middle third, and then an utterly ridiculous finale where a single disabled tank is able to inflict massive losses on an entire Waffen SS battalion. Firstly, its worth noting that the U.S. Army did not do all that well against in Europe during either war: the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918 failed to achieves its outlined objectives in exchange for massive US casualties, it was in fact the more successful British and French attacks up north, combined with the revolution at home and collapse of its allies, that led Germany to agree to an armistice. The US Army might have been able to do better had the war lasted longer, but it didn’t. In WWII the US Army had a rough time up against a fraction of the enemy army in Europe. Usually people use the qualifier “most of the German Army was facing the Soviets” but it’s worth noting that even if you isolate it to the war in the west, only a minority of Allied troops were American as late as summer 1944. The Western Allies may have been on the winning side, but they didn’t exactly prove themselves to be better soldiers when 80% of the enemy was fighting elsewhere (the American commitment in the Pacific was dwarfed by comparison to the Eastern Front) and they held a complete numerical advantage.
Hollywood nevertheless acts like American troops in Europe were not only better than their opposition but that they were underdogs, as if virtually all of their victories weren’t from a crushing superiority in resources and numbers afforded by the Eastern Front soaking up the opposition, as time and time again movies like Fury and Saving Private Ryan depict outnumbered and outgunned Americans performing last stands against a vast horde and effortlessly cutting down German infantry. The usual excuse is that the German Army by 1945 was just “old men and young boys”. Tell that to Fury, most of the Wehrmacht and SS troops shown are clearly in their 30’s, and on top of that while there were mass surrenders all over the place to American troops (more thanks to the brutality of the Soviets towards German POWs than anything they themselves did), that didn’t prevent heavy American losses whenever they met determined German resistance. Even in April 1945, American casualties were still much higher in Europe than in the Pacific.
Case in point, lets take a look at what happened to the 2nd Armored Division itself in April 1945. After the Battle of the Bulge the Germans stripped their Western Front of most mechanized formations, weapons, and equipment and shipped it all to the east for a last stand against the Soviets. The German units left behind were no longer mobile and many weren’t properly armed, and so in late March thanks to the prioritization given to the Eastern Front the US and British armies crossed the Rhine and quickly surrounded the remaining ill-equipped German forces to the east of the river, especially in the Ruhr area, while their advanced spearheads dashed east towards the Elbe river against almost no opposition; there was quite literally not a single major German formation between the Ruhr Valley and the Elbe River. 2nd Armored Division formed the primary spearhead of General Simpson’s Ninth Army, operating alongside the 30th and 83rd Infantry Divisions, and everything went smoothly for them until they ran into actual opposition around the city of Magdeburg in what is today Saxony-Anhalt.
Long story short: 2nd Armored was held off at the city, and then established a bridgehead over the Elbe at Schönebeck on 11 April, while 30th Infantry was stuck fighting over Braunschweig far to the west; the commander of 2nd Armored decided against waiting for the 30th to catch up. Over the course of a week that bridgehead was destroyed and two of the division’s three armored infantry battalions were mauled beyond recognition before limping back across the Elbe (technically there was another, smaller bridgehead to the south, but they were pinned in place for the duration). The area of Magdeburg on the west bank was eventually cleared, but the 83rd Infantry didn’t have much luck further south: they advanced to Zerbst before being ground to a pulp by massive counter attacks and prevented from moving further east. This is contrary to what garbage like Wikipedia and others claim; 2nd Armored was not “halted” at the Elbe, it was violently repulsed, which is why the Ninth Army’s commander decided against further attempts to drive across Saxony-Anhalt. This was the American spearhead on the most direct route to Berlin, and the actions at the Elbe comprised one of the last two major battles fought by the US Army in the European Theatre; the other battle was 3rd Armored’s drive on Leipzig after having already slogged their way east from the Saale river, and they met similar resistance despite facing shattered and outnumbered Wehrmacht and Volksstrum units.
I hadn’t even been aware of the fighting around Magdeburg until reading the AAR’s of Combat Command B, 2nd Armored Division over 10 years ago, although since then even Steven Zaloga covered it in his book Downfall 1945, as did Dennis Giangreco when he was interviewed by Bernhard Kast of Military History Visualized.
By the way, the German formation that defeated 2nd Armored at the Elbe and held off the 83rd? The provisional Scharnhorst division, which hadn’t even existed two weeks earlier. There is some extreme irony in the fact that Fury sets it’s story around 2nd Armored and pretends a Waffen SS battalion couldn’t handle a lone disabled tank, when the historical division was humbled at the Elbe by half-rate and outnumbered Volksgrenadiers.
I actually saw this movie in theaters, but somehow didn’t remember the director. When re-watching it, everything became clear as the credits rolled: “written and directed by David Ayer” HA! I knew that whiff of bullshit was a familiar smell! So David Ayer followed up his previous WWII abomination with this dumpster fire of a movie, only this time he was the director too instead of just a writer. Fury and U-571 are probably the most appropriately named movies ever: both titled after the fetishized military equipment that takes center stage rather than any actual story or characters.
The funny thing about David Ayer, and what makes this movie even more unforgivable, is that he clearly understand the history of this specific unit: if you pay close attention you’ll notice that 30th Infantry Division insignia appears on many of the troops in the movie operating alongside 2nd Armored, and at one point “Braunschweig” can be clearly seen on a map of the area that Jason Isaac’s character is using. Those are absurdly anal-retentive details that only someone familiar with the American run to the Elbe would understand (and those actions aren’t very well known), considering how the movie itself is a fictional story and gives no exposition about where they are and what they are doing other than “drive on Berlin”. Why bother if the main story of your film is so fake and forgettable? This is why I’m annoyed with people who defend this none-sense because “it’s just a movie”. No shit, Sherlock Holmes! But why would the director waste so much time on those details? Not to mention the real story is more interesting, it’s just convenient for Hollywood to make up their own. David Ayer strikes me as someone who has seen Saving Private Ryan one too many times: he takes a lot from Spielberg, and in both of his WWII movies (as in SPR) a weak man redeems himself by murdering a German prisoner.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about Fury and U-571 is the amount of genuine effort that went into them as productions shitty fireballs and tracers notwithstanding. Building a functional submarine or using the last functional Tiger tank are neat no doubt, but boring propaganda bullshit is still boring propaganda bullshit even if you put sprinkles on it. Perhaps if Ayer had spent less time ogling over uniforms and sets and more time on story-telling they could have at least been convincing propaganda.
If I were a movie-goer, I’d skip anything by David Ayer. Look no further than Suicide Squad for evidence that even his non-war movies suck.