Day in and day out, surrounded by piles of animal viscera. The smell of decaying flesh, the convincing simulacra of human bodies subject to disfiguring misuse—it must have worn on you. Or at some point did you become indifferent to the mud-caked entrails? What was it like, knowing that your work spoke directly to the butchery humanity will engage in, often on the shallowest of pretenses?
War often comes down to a very straightforward choice: kill or be killed. That dilemma, and whether or not a third option exists in an operational theater of war, is the preoccupation of your film, Fury. Or as Brad Pitt's character, Sgt. Don (Wardaddy) Collier opines: "Ideals are peaceful, history is violent."
I would imagine you must have had mixed feelings about this particular job. On one hand, the job of set decorator can be somewhat mundane. For instance, your work on KAVANAGH QC is mostly dull, British, middle-class interiors and bare wooden benches. Bit of a yawner, I would guess.
Fury appears anything but dull. How often is set decoration a fundamental component of a film's aesthetic? Usually its value is in it melding seamlessly with the background. But your work was pivotal in setting a tone of bleak and relentless carnage. Everywhere the camera turned, there was a new vista of destroyed buildings, dead and looted animal corpses, and human beings crushed into paste.
Perhaps your work on Band of Brothers prepared you, but this piece is far more graphic. And it really is ever-present; except for one short interval, the whole 135-minute run time is backlit by your grisly landscape of total war.
That relentlessness was obviously intentional, designed to give us a sense of what it might have been like to wade through the mire day after day. The whole film seems designed to create a pall of moral ambivalence. An ambivalence that seems the only possible way to survive the daily horror.
You did your job, Malcolm, no matter how unsettling or grotesque it may have seemed. Fury is, in many ways, about how humans push through revulsion in order to perform a necessary task. The importance of overcoming the inherent human tendency to abhor violence and killing – not the fear of death but of taking another's life – has always been an underexplored aspect of war films. Yet it has always been the most complex part of creating useful soldiers. It's even more difficult to break the prohibition against killing than it is to suppress people's fear of their own death. In this sense, Fury is an effective study of how one man is broken down, incrementally, until he can operate efficiently in circumstances few of us could imagine.
Your filmis perhaps the most courageous English language production I have seen in its meticulous attention to the details of war. Never once did I feel the camera pull away simply because an image was unpalatable. Nor did it linger simply for prurient reasons. If the camera stayed fixed for a moment or two, it was only to give us a chance to absorb the profound wrongness of what we were seeing. That unflinching regard may cost this film the box office (and even some of the critical acclaim) it deserves.
Despite some clumsy narrative construction, Fury is a remarkable examination of the kind of moral quandary that otherwise good people must face when thrust into armed conflict. And while the story is told from an American point of view, it becomes clear, rather quickly, how little moral distance there is between soldiers when the shooting starts. Neither side escapes being dragged, both literally and metaphysically, through the mud.
The honesty, courage, and effectiveness of those details are due, in part, to your dedication to authenticity, Malcolm. I wish I could applaud you for that. But the best I can do is recommend that people see for themselves why this film, and your work in it, is worth watching. Even if it wears heavily.