U-571 and Fury: how Hollywood movies lost the plot.



There are many WWII movies that I dislike, but two stand out: ‘U-571’ and ‘Fury’. I hadn’t seen these movies in awhile (U-571 ages ago, Fury not since it left theaters, I caught it edited for TV) but they both stood in my mind as egregious examples of Hollywood none sense, 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 bad history, these movies suck.

U-571 is a movie that despite being a disposable experience 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 stilted narrative of WWII.

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 to find its location, 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 ridiculousness in the very next scene. We see those 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. The order was just to stop picking up survivors as opposed to deliberately firing on them, it was over half way through the war and in response to the Laconia incident (look up that incident yourself and take a guess why he would order something like that).

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. 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.

0:13 you can even see the gas being sprayed in the air before it ignites

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. All the Germans die too except the evil captain, who despite being in handcuffs 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 submariners in the Baltic for this 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 one 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. That would destroy any submarine and kill everyone inside 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 American aircraft carrier lost in the Battle of the Atlantic) just a week earlier. There is also the added bonus that U-505 is still around today.

U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

It’s a bad sign when a movie is only able to nail some little known technical details: “Hey, is that a M55 Reising sub-machine gun the marine major is using, an exclusively naval issue firearm? That’s interesting.” The most entertaining part of this 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”. Wow.

Fast forward to another movie fourteen years later. We come to the second movie I want to talk about: Fury.

I’ll be more brief with this one.

Fury is set at the end of the war in Europe and follows Brad Pitt as Sgt. Don Collier and his crew, tankers of the 2nd Armored Division, in their Sherman tank (the titular Fury) as they push into Germany. It’s plot rapidly begins to resemble that of the movie Training Day, with the newbie being initiated by a group of violent men who believe they represent “justice”. The big difference (other than the war on drugs being swapped with WWII) is that Fury has the gaul to present the group as “the good guys”.

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.

It’s a slog with unrealistic battle scenes, a tedious middle third, excessive cursing even by today’s standards, and then an utterly ridiculous finale where a single disabled tank is able to inflict massive losses on an entire Waffen SS battalion. Did I mention the walking stereotypes that make up the main characters? In WWII the US Army had a hard time up against a relatively small portion 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 80% of the enemy was fighting elsewhere (the American commitment in the Pacific was dwarfed in comparison to the Eastern Front) and they held a complete numerical advantage. That doesn’t negate their victory, but it does negate depictions of a weak and easily defeated enemy like what is featured in Fury: it’s a universe where German AT guns can’t hit Sherman tanks moving across an open field, where German snipers prioritize their own civilians as targets over American soldiers, and where an army clerk named Norman (played by Logan Lerman) goes from a feeble pencil pusher to a battle hardened Nazi-killin’ warrior over the course of a single day. The only exception in the movie is a tank ambush where the inaccuracy works the other way around: 76mm armed Sherman tanks aren’t able to punch through the front armor of a Tiger at a range less than 200 yards.

Really, it’s the final battle scene that grates on me to the point it overshadows the rest of this movie for me, which isn’t a good sign when the rest of the movie wasn’t good to begin with. Sgt Collier and his crew, after losing the other Shermans in their platoon, are deployed to stop a German advance at some crossroads. They have their tracks knocked out by an AT mine but Collier proceeds to make a last stand anyways. What follows is pure Hollywood; they nearly wipe out an entire SS battalion, which happily waddles around to their deaths, until the rampage is finally needed by a pair of stick grenades.

Hollywood acts like American troops in Europe were not only better than their opposition but that they were underdogs, as if their victories weren’t brought about by a crushing superiority in resources and manpower 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 20’s and 30’s, and on top of that while there were some easier American defeats over encircled and equipment-depleted German forces (Ruhr Pocket) and mass surrenders all over the place to American troops (more thanks to Soviet brutality 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.

M26 Pershing’s of 2nd Armored Division moving through Magdeburg, Germany

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 them to the east for a last stand against the Soviets. Most 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 Valley, 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 and the Elbe. 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 Division was held off at the city, and then established a bridgehead over the Elbe at Schönebeck on 11 April, while the 30th Infantry Division 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 better 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 more recently, although since then Steven Zaloga covered it in his book Downfall 1945, as did Nathan Prefer in The Conquering 9th: The Ninth U.S. Army in World War II, and even Dennis Giangreco mentioned it when he was interviewed by Bernhard Kast of Military History Visualized.

The pontoon bridge used by 2nd Armored at Schönebeck

By the way, the German formation that defeated 2nd Armored at the Elbe and held off the 83rd ID? 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 Volksgrenadiers. 2nd Armored certainly had its moments, such as eliminating the spearhead of the 2nd Panzer Division during the Battle of the Bulge, but that doesn’t excuse Fury.

Smugness always encounters reality

I saw this movie in theaters (I’ve since stopped watching hard R movies, it conflicts with my faith and I gain nothing from it, and they’re usually boring anyways), 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 something was familiar! So David Ayer followed up his previous WWII movie with this 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.

0:36 “A lot of what I learned about World War Two came from television and movies as a kid”
Yeah, we can tell, David.

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 details that only someone familiar with the American dash 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 to “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 kidding, 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. Only, Saving Private Ryan has much better set-pieces. The problem with Fury isn’t really the acting or directing, but rather the screenwriting. WWII movies are more likely than most to have cliché-ridden snooze-fest writing, and the script for Fury follows the sad trend.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about Fury and U-571 is the amount of genuine effort that went into them as productions, cheesy fireballs and tracers notwithstanding. Building a functional submarine or using the last functional Tiger tank are neat no doubt, but boring none sense is still boring none sense even if you put sprinkles on it. Although even some of the smaller details are flubbed: what SS unit do the Germans at the end even belong to? Looking at behind the scenes photos, the German SS tank commander in the Tiger tank just beforehand is wearing an “Adolf Hitler” cuff title, indicating he belongs to the 1st SS Panzer Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division and it’s associated 501st Schwere-SS-Panzer-Abteilung ( heavy SS tank battalion), and I assume the battalion at the end are supposed to be from the same unit too. The problem is that LSSAH was fighting the Soviets in eastern Austria during this time, nowhere near Lower Saxony or Saxony-Anhalt where Fury takes place, as were many other SS Panzer divisions under Sixth Panzer Army. Just a the cherry on top, LSSAH’s heavy tank battalions had Tiger II’s and not I’s like in the movie, and hadn’t had I’s since Normandy.

In fact, the only Waffen SS divisions — there were only some very small formations other than that — left on the western front were fighting the US Seventh Army way to the south in Baden-Württemberg, those being the 17th and the 6th SS divisions. SPR pulled some similar hijinks when it had a motley force of Rangers and Parstroopers against a Kampfgruppe from the 2nd SS Panzer Das Reich Division backed up by Tigers, when there were One: no Tigers facing the US army until August, and Two: 2nd SS was deployed against the US Army, but nowhere near the Merderet River where the defense of the fictional town of Ramelle takes place. SPR could just as easily have had the 17th SS division with Panzer IVs attacking that town, but that’s not as sexy as a full on attack by a big name SS Panzer Divison with Tigers. If all of that seems nitpicky, I only bring it up because the directors and writers of movies like this claim to make up for their simple uninteresting stories by attention to minor historical details.

Regardless, as much as I like the time and dedication to the production over uniforms and sets, more time on story-telling could have at least made a convincing movie.

Oh well.

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