Fury (1936)

Directed by Fritz Lang

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The main character of Fury, at least for the first half of the film, is Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man almost unbearably wholesome.  He’s a blue collar worker struggling to make enough money to marry the love of his life, Katherine (Silvia Sydney) and who chastises his brother for his illegal ‘get rich quick’ schemes.  Just to really drive the point home there is a scene later in which Joe adopts a dog running around on the streets (the same dog who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz).

So Joe is wonderful, positive and unmistakably the good guy, which makes his arrest for allegedly kidnapping a young woman all the more absurd.  He will spend much of the rest of the film behind bars, and the antagonist of the film quickly becomes the mob of people who presume Joe’s guilt and want him lynched.  It’s disturbing and quick, like the most extreme wildfire, and it connects back to a consistent theme in Fritz Lang’s work.

In two of his most well-known films, Metropolis (1929) and M (1931) there are sequences involving one person’s persecution at the hands of many.  The sheer difference in size between the persecuted and the persecutors connects back to mob mentality and groupthink.  For the director, Jewish and born in Germany before the turn of the century,  it seems a consequence of his witnessing the frightening rise of the Nazi party.  Fury was the first film he made in the Hollywood system, following his flight from Germany in 1933.

So through works like these aforementioned films Lang examines the disturbing underside of a society, taking perfectly ordinary people and grouping them together to perpetuate the worst sides of ourselves.  As individuals we may be empathetic but as a group all our worst qualities run rampant.

Joe is on the wrong end of all this, the subject of this massive fury.  When the mob descends upon the prison, eventually burning it down, he will appear to die, leading to the courtroom-centric second half of the film.  Joe, then, shows up in the shadows, eager to watch the mob be punished, and he seems like a suddenly believable movie villain.

The events of the film, from what I can tell, are actually based on a 1933 incident in San Jose, CA wherein the two suspects in the murder of 22 year-old Brooke Hart were pulled from the jail by a mob believed to be anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 people and then lynched.  The attack played out with media reporting in real time and even gained controversial support from the California governor.  So yeah, an ugly moment in my home town’s history.

The way Fritz Lang frames all this doesn’t just critique the mob mentality but ruthlessly mocks it.  He makes these characters out to be uniquely horrid individuals within a group.  There is a lot of attention given to otherwise unnamed characters cheering on the horrid destruction and bloodlust, and even before this he undercuts their self-seriousness when the rumors first start floating around.  In one moment we cut from shot to shot of people spreading the gossip and then a dissolve makes us associate them with clucking hens, seemingly walking cluelessly in circles, driven not by purpose or morality but unchecked impulses.

And this film, I’d say, suggests that this whole groupthink thing comes from impulses within all of us.  One barber, in the funniest scene of the film, theorizes that we all have impulses to do bad things but that only the insane fail to resist these impulses.  The means of our own destruction, then, sits readily available within all of us.  What these characters mistake for revenge, justice or something else is instead just a flaw in our own makeup, an itch we all must scratch.

I suppose it’s the same thing that drives people to check out true crime media, to dive deep into assassinations and widespread tragedies on wikipedia or to develop what seems to be an increasingly common tendency to hate athletes on an opposing team.

But for Fritz Lang it was painfully visible in the Nazi party, surely the worst possible scenario involving such tangled impulses, groupthink and hate speech.  It’s like an inverse funnel that draws out these terrifying qualities, not to say that we are all secretly horrible people but that in certain situations, bred through historical hardship, pride, fear and enough people shouting louder than the rest, such qualities keep popping up.

Up Next: Freaks (1932), Tomorrowland (2015), Triumph of the Will (1935)

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