Americans love war, and there’s no war we love better than World War II. We’ve mythologized it more heavily than any other in our history, even the American Revolution. The story is easy to digest: we swept in on the wings of eagles and rained righteous red, white and blue fury down upon the Nazis, coming to Europe’s rescue and saving all the Jews. We did no wrong, our motives were pure — we were heroes, through and through. We tell ourselves this over and over in our culture, through numerous books, TV series and films. The new movie Fury is the latest big budget manifestation of this obsession. It looks to be suitably gory and rah-rah patriotic.
Documentaries aren’t much different than fiction films on this topic. There’s a whole sub-genre of reality television dedicated to every conceivable aspect of WWII. Before the network was taken over by aliens and conspiracy theories, the Good War was the History Channel’s bread and butter. In fact, historical wars are largely the realm of television documentary filmmaking, far moreso than cinema. True, there are reams of Holocaust docs, but few devote themselves to the nuts and bolts of combat and the soldiers’ experience the way TV shows do. For that reason, it’s to television that we turn for a suitable doc option for Fury.
In 2007, PBS superstar Ken Burns turned his attention on World War II, abridging the entirety of America’s experience in the conflict in his 14-hour miniseries The War. It’d be a bit much to suggest watching a whole TV series in lieu of a single two-hour movie, so instead focus on the sixth episode of The War, “The Ghost Front.” The episode covers events from December 1944 to March 1945, a similar timeframe to that of Fury, which is set in Germany near the end of the war in Europe. It starts with the Battle of the Bulge, recounts the siege of Bastogne and the Allies’ bombing campaign and concludes with the invasion of Germany (where Fury picks up).
One more thing links these two films. Fury, as befits the reputation of its director, David Ayers, has already received a good deal of buzz around it’s brutal depiction of violence. Being a Ken Burns documentary, there’s not anything graphically shown in The War that will turn the viewer’s stomach in the same way, but “The Ghost Front” does go into what it’s like to experience that kind of savagery first-hand. A significant portion of the episode discusses combat stress reaction, also known as shell-shock or combat fatigue. Surrounded by sensory overload and psychological stressors, soldiers would go into a daze, a dangerous yet uncontrollable phenomenon. That’s a sensation that no film, no matter how graphic, can induce in a civilian audience.
The War contains pretty much everything one would expect of Ken Burns, for good and ill. It’s well-produced, incorporating all the editing techniques Burns has perfected over his career and the voice talents of many quite talented actors. It’s a good overview of its subject, though even at 14 hours, it can’t cover everything. It’s as dry as one would expect a PBS series to be, and it gives lip service to objectivity while ultimately validating most of the controversial decisions taken by the American military during WWII (such as dropping the atomic bombs). But it’s still a more nuanced and intelligent take than you’re likely to get out of a Hollywood action flick.
The War is currently streaming on Netflix.