A Century of Film is an ongoing series where Devin Wilger watches one movie from each year between 1917 and today. For the year of 1936, we have Fury.
One wonders what Fritz Lang would have done with the rise of social media. Fury could easily get remade in a modern context, with the rapid spread of a rumor going through Facebook groups instead of barber shops and grocery stores. There are plenty of modern examples of mob justice gone awry, as people have had received death threats due to their name being mildly similar to that of an actual criminal. Fury is depressingly modern, technology could replace most of the big plot points but the core story doesn’t have to change at all.
Here we have Joe and Katherine - played by a Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sydney respectively - two lovers who are trying to raise the money to actually get married. In order to do so, Katherine goes off to get a teaching job, Joe starts a service station, and they plan to meet up to plan an actual wedding. Problem is, there’s a kidnapping, and Joe is arrested because his pocket is full of peanuts, and there were peanuts on the ransom note. The town of Strand hears of his arrest, rumors get wildly out of hand - a five dollar bill connected to the kidnapping becomes over $10,000 - and decide to take justice into their own hands, burning down the police station in order to kill Joe. He, however, takes his revenge in the form of a trial against 22 of the people in the mob itself. Unlike him they will be actually killed, though for a murder they didn’t quite commit. But they also caused a ton of damage to public property and killed a dog, which the plot doesn’t quite address during the trial - it focuses so intently on the lynching that one begins to wonder why nobody is addressing the giant burning police station in the room. At a bare minimum they all deserve a jail sentence for the destruction of public property and (eventually) perjury.
This isn’t the first time Lang addressed the idea of mob justice, M did the same thing - except in Germany and with a guilty man rather than an innocent one. Many things had happened to Lang himself in the intervening years, from being effectively chased out of Germany by the Nazis, to divorcing his wife because she became a Nazi. The line between sanity and murderous rage was long a fascination for Lang - he did make M, after all, which had many of the same themes. One wonders how much of himself Lang saw in his protagonist here, an innocent man surrounded by people who wanted to kill him for no good reason.
It’s also interesting that the plan for murderous revenge here functions completely through the law, rather than outside of it. Vigilante films aren’t anything new, if anything they’re a Hollywood staple, but mostly involve extra-judicial murder rather than an actual trial. It’s also direct in denouncing vigilante-ism, even if one feels that Joe is at least somewhat justified in his actions - in the film, the only way to be satisfied is to be completely truthful, and Joe becomes steadily more unhinged as he continues to lie. One never really feels much sympathy for the murderous mobs that tried to kill Joe, and the fact that they get off because they failed doesn’t make them any more sympathetic. But one does feel bad for Joe himself, and the complicated emotions that would come from putting a fairly large group of people to their death. It’s also quite clear that Lang has a point to make about people who get swept up in an unruly mob, separating the people and the actions of the crowd. There’s a line about a mob not really knowing what they’re doing, which can feel like an odd defense at first, before you realize that it’s actually a warning, that people can never just go along with a crowd lest the same thing happen to them and they have blood on their own hands. It’s not a defense of the people in the crowd - or, for that matter, the people of Germany, since the context of the time and the man making the film definitely play into it - but a warning that the same thing could happen to anyone if they choose to blindly follow.
This was Lang’s first Hollywood film and it does bear the scars of Hollywood, mostly in that it has a very tidy happy ending which ignores a lot of the issues the film raises in order to have a kiss between the attractive lead actors. The story should be messier, and there are elements of that mess that peek out in the edges - a politician who stops the military from travelling to the town in order to get a few votes, for example, something that seems especially relevant as you witness angry old men with Twitter accounts declaring war in order to feel good about themselves, as well as a very strange scene where a barber talks about how he’s occasionally tempted to murder his customers - but it’s leading to a Hollywood ending that doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the material. This doesn’t mean the ending has to be bleak, though it was originally planned to be, but the ending we do have trades a proper resolution for a bit of kissing.
It has been 81 years since Fury hit screens for the first time, and yet the problem it’s addressing is very modern. It’s a rare old movie that seems to demand a remake, pushed to the present day, because the problems with humanity have never really changed. Our barber shop now lives on our phones, but the crowd of chickens clucking rumors at each other still exists and is still as dangerous as it has ever been. If anything, it’s worse now, because instead of a single town it’s the entire world.
Next time, it’s time for something French, with Pepe le Moko.