You could say that Fritz Lang was fascinated, even preoccupied with issues of justice. M, Fury, and You Only Live Once all take a particular interest in crime in relation to systems of justice while still functioning as tense thrillers. Although Fury was his first film across the pond in Hollywood, Lang maintained his fine form in a potent debut.
Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), is an average stiff. He’s got his name for a reason. He’s got a lovely girl (Sylvia Sidney) and they’re madly in love but he’s also hardly scraping by and the same goes for his two brothers. Still, he believes in his country and the fact that if he goes about his life honestly, he will ultimately be rewarded. But in truth, his idealistic convictions are soon put into question when he finds himself caught up in some unfortunate circumstances.
He’s arrested for the kidnapping of a small child, a crime that he’s innocent of no thanks to some circumstantial evidence and the suspicious local law enforcement. Soon a chain of “Telephone” spreads the juicy gossip like wildfire through the town of Strand. Everyone’s writing his confession of guilt for him and they rather enjoy it.
In the meantime, the excitable, uneducated masses aren’t about to wait for the district attorney and when the higher ups in the state government balk at sending in the national guard, the locals take justice into their own hands. It’s a bit like the storming of the Bastille — a tumultuous revolution of sorts — and yet this is Middle American in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Still, the sheriff’s jail is soon seized. It’s a barrage of brawling fists, chaos, and general mayhem that adds a noticeable edge to the drama. This is no joke. They want Joe’s hide and they’re willing to raze the jail to the ground if they have to.
The ensuing court case puts 22 men on trial for the senseless murder of Joe Wilson. But from the grave, he looks to get his sweet revenge as his killers get their due. Newsreel footage is brought in as evidence when the entire line of witnesses are all conveniently town locals not wanting to cause a stir. But there’s very little disputing images. They hardly lie. On the other hand, man is very prone to deceit and that’s a great deal of what Fury hinges on. Lies from defendants and witness, even from our protagonists. A couple of Joe’s personal traits serve an important purpose to the plot including his love for peanuts and a penchant for misspelling the word ‘memento.’ And it’s when the truth is finally settled on that real justice is able to be enacted.
I am not sure if I quite buy Tracy’s progression towards a raging vendetta completely but either way, it sets up a troublesome moral dilemma. The kindly and bright-eyed Sylvia Sidney as his girl ultimately acts as his compass. He is looking at trading justice, what is fair with what is not. That’s what he expects and not what he gets. The American justice system was and still is a flawed system but there’s still so much to it that champions justice for all (and liberty for that matter). That’s what Fury is really about — both sides of the coin.
The ending is obviously a Hollywood cop-out but if nothing else it highlights what we are called to do as citizens and more universally as human beings. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the world is not always fair nor will it ever be completely so. All we can hope to do is keep short accounts and forgive others with graciousness (God forgive him and our trespasses, as we forgive them who trespass against us). It’s at its most difficult in a situation such as this with such a horrendous wrong being committed.
But then, grace is a scandalous thing. When someone’s actions result in others obviously in the wrong getting what they do not deserve that rubs us the wrong way. That’s why justice, as well as grace, are so powerful when paired with wisdom. Everyone under the sun is at fault at one time or another. Joe lets vengeance guide his decisions rather than righteous anger. Fury envelops him. But he turns from that — however reluctantly — he still does.
-Let them know what it means to be lynched.
-Don’t you think they know by now?
-What you’ve felt for a few hours, they’ve had to face for days and weeks! Wishing, with all their souls, they could have that one day to live over again. Joe…don’t you see?
~ Joe and Katherine