Fury is a second world war drama that plays with us viscerally and unsparingly — I think I saw a head being blown off; I think I saw a sliced-off face, flopping about — but is still just another second world war drama. That is, Americans good, Nazis bad, and a man doesn’t become a man until he has abandoned all mercy and learned how to kill. ‘It’s Saving Private Ryan, but with tanks,’ I heard someone say as I left the screening, and although I would never steal someone else’s opinion, it is Saving Private Ryan, but with tanks, and also sliced off faces. I added that last bit myself.
Written and directed by David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch), this stars Brad Pitt as battle-hardened Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier who commands a Sherman tank. He is an interesting character at the outset — unsympathetic; falls apart when his men aren’t looking — but ultimately conforms as a regular hero by the end. Courage against all the odds. The glorious nature of macho self-sacrifice. This is what he believes in, ultimately (his tank has ‘Fury’ graffitied in white paint on its thrusting gun barrel which probably says it all, most phallically). He leads a five-man crew. The men are Shia LaBeouf as ‘Bible’, who is a committed Christian, and Michael Pena as ‘Gordo’, the obligatory non-white, Jon Bernthal as ‘Coon-Ass’, the southern redneck with bad teeth, and new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), who has been seconded by mistake (he is a typist). Norman is the archetypal new recruit: young, innocent, fearful. He has yet even to fire a gun. He doesn’t know about abandoning all mercy and learning how to kill, but he will, obviously. It’ll be a steep learning curve, but he’ll get there. (In this regard, I had faith in Norman, right from the off.)
These are men who would never encounter each other in civilian life but, hunkered down in the sweaty, dirty, claustrophobic tank decorated with appropriated Nazi memorabilia — I’ve never seen this look in Elle Decoration, but it sort of works — they tightly bond. You thought they wouldn’t tightly bond? Have you seen any war films at all? Start with Where Eagles Dare and work your way up. It may even be that all war films are Where Eagles Dare, now served with mighty dollops of gore. Just putting that out there.
This is set in the waning days of the war, when the Allied troops have effectively won, but are still pushing though Germany as Germany throws everything at them, including child soldiers, and the SS are stringing up anyone who refuses to fight. At no point do any of the men question what they are being asked to do, or reflect on the idiocy of possibly having to die for a war that is over. It is resolutely non-ironic. The battle scenes are extremely well-mounted, technically impressive, and wholly unforgiving. There is mud and blood. A Nazi is stabbed through the eye. There’s the rat-at-at-at-at of machine guns. There are tanks running over bodies. There are explosions lighting the night sky, but otherwise it illuminates nothing. I couldn’t even figure out what it might be trying to illuminate, or even if it was trying to illuminate anything at all.
There is only one scene of any complexity. It occurs when the Allied forces take a small German town, and Collier and his crew impose themselves on a German woman and her pretty young cousin in their apartment. The men are abusive but also not abusive, they terrorise but also don’t terrorise. It was more tense than any of the fighting, and also introduced an unsettling ambiguity. The brutality of war may cost those who fight in it their humanity, but to what extent? Can you lose some of it, but not all? Can you ever retrieve that which has been lost? But this scene is self-contained; the film carries on afterwards as if it never happened, and the men simply return to blowing stuff up, although not before Pitt has taken his top off. You thought he wouldn’t take his top off? Have you seen any Brad Pitt films at all?
It is well-performed, and the script is spare, for which we should probably be thankful, as some of the lines are truly awful. ‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,’ says Pitt, who doesn’t say much, and then says something meaningless meaningfully. (He is quite Zen-like in this way.) But the characters are underwritten, the score is overbearing. And the ‘true horror of war’ as a theme, has, dare I say it, been rather done to death. It is viscerally thrilling, if you are after visceral thrills, but otherwise you will be asking: and your point is?