Ah World War Two. Now that is a slice of history that is well mined for entertainment options, with every other facet of it already immortalised on film, TV, video games and other historical fiction (and non-fiction). But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still things from that war worth adapting, that either have not been done before or were so long ago that another look is far past due. And one of those things is the tank, and one of those periods is the dying days of the western front.
April 1945: the Nazi regime exhorts the German people to one last suicidal effort against the invading forces. They include Sherman tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pit) who obsesses about getting his crew – the religious “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), the unhinged “Coon-Ass” (Jon Perenthal), and frequently drunk “Gordo” (Michael Pena) – through the last terrible act of the war safely, a task complicated by the sudden arrival of Norman (Logan Lerman), an out of his depth rookie driver.
Fury says nothing about war that has not been said before, and said better, and that stops it from being a great movie of its genre. The overriding theme and message is a dirt simple “war is hell”, mixed in with a fair dollop of “war corrupts the innocent” and “war changes you”. Director David Ayer brings much of his directional genius from End Of Watch, but in terms of story this is essentially just Saving Private Ryan with tanks, right down to the rookie soldier who should be miles away from the frontlines but ends up right in the thick of the fighting, finding out why everything is so horrible.
Norman’s story is at the centre of it all though, in a way that things weren’t for Pvt Upham. An audience surrogate if ever there was one, Norman is thrust into the grim and terrible world of World War Two tank combat, where the Allies have the numbers but the German’s have the Tiger. It is an environment – one of mud, blood, dirt and filth – that has turned Wardaddy’s crew into varying shades of unbalanced. They have been removed to a place so far from civility that the briefest glimpse of it does not just leave them confused, but genuinely enraged, exemplified in one of the film’s best non-action moments, an awkward dinner in the house of some conquered German women.
But Fury has no more of those moments, falling back on the action scene and plenty of casual violence to tell its story and make its points. As a male-centric film I would say it is a success, one that allows for some exploration of the bond created between varying personalities in war, in a conflict where traditional avenues of proving your manhood are vanishing into the red stained mud. There is a mixture here, between those who have the classic thousand yard stare and those who have allowed a more outwardly obvious mania take over.
There are no character arcs for most of the crew, but they get plenty of opportunity for both easy and strained banter. Collier and Norman get more, polar opposites. Collier seems to want to grasp any kind of hold he can find on civilisation even as he tries to drag Norman down to his real level, while Norman is forced to confront both the horrors and excitements that war can provide.
But too often you’re left rolling your eyes at the tropes employed, when you’re not raising an eyebrow at some questionable German battle tactics in the finale. Maybe it is a bit of nitpicking, but the third act, a gorefest beyond compare for this genre, really pushes the envelope when it comes to believability, and that’s a shame.
Visually is where Fury succeeds the most though. Ayer captures the horrible claustrophobia of the Sherman, where five terrified men are crammed into a machine that can deal death as easily as it can become a flaming coffin for the soldiers inside. The combat scenes, especially one around the mid-point involving a duel with a German Tiger, are among the most intense I have seen in a long time, and easily some of the best World War Two sequences put to film, capturing much of the fear, explosions of power and even colour of a battle in the 1940’s. Purple tracers light up the air even amid the smoke and the grime, dust clouds are mixed with the ghastly glow of red flares.
That visual feel is quite something. Perhaps we are too used to the seemingly standard narrative of the Western Allies overrunning western and central Germany with ease after the border was breached. Fury’s first scene punctures this myth a bit, as Wardaddy ambushes a horsed German officer as he rambles through an apocalyptic looking battlefield. April 1945, west of Berlin, was a messy, squalid operation, where combat exhausted men far beyond reliable supply lines faced enemy forces that contained children seeking to die for the “fatherland”.
Everywhere there is mud and despair, corpses get chewed up by tank threads and flaming bodies make more than one appearance. The destruction and cataclysm of war is all around, from the degrading corpses, the fleets of bombers overhead and the cities on fire over the horizon. It has been done before in striking visual terms, but I cannot fault Fury for the method in which it goes about depicting the trauma of war on screen. Simple, steady camerawork does the business, with a rapid cut style and focus on individual up-close facial shots adding a personal element to the action scenes.
Fury is also a success on the acting front too, which helps somewhat with the poorer parts of its storytelling. Pitt is, as usual, fairly excellent as the jaded but still relatable Collier, whose almost bi-polar changes in treatment of Norman help to keep the audience on their toes for his every action, but does fit. Lerman is similarly great, managing to capture extremely well the way that Norman is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the amoral abyss with the rest of his tank mates, his entire character and demeanour altering gradually throughout. Pena, LaBoeuf and Perenthal don’t have as much to do but are still very comfortable with the roles that have been cast in, bringing an array of emotions and presences to the screen, with Perenthal being perhaps the most notable as the deranged and not quite all there “Gordo”. Those five dominate the screen, though there is still space for the likes of Jason Isaacs and Alicia von Rittberg to make an important contribution.
Fury’s script is less good, mired in cliché and well worn dialogue choices. It feels best when the five crew members are just talking, even when in extreme peril, the easy back and forth between them helping to ground the audience in the environment of the Sherman. But when the time comes for drama and declarative statements, Fury just seems to falter, falling back on the predictable, the overblown and the unfortunate in its wordplay. It’s probably worse in the third act when Fury transcends a certain amount of reality, but it was only in a few instances when I felt that Fury’s script was a credit to Ayer’s apparent talents (incidentally, he also wrote, and essentially apologised for, U-571). The score will probably not ingrain itself in the consciousness like the work of John Williams in Saving Private Ryan, but was still quite effective, especially with the throbbing mix of heavy drums and German choir.
Some Spoiler Thoughts:
-The comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, just in terms of characters and arcs, is so very striking. There’s the dishevelled and losing it leader, the religious one, the one who rebels against authority, the “foreign” one and then the rookie. The rookie learns the harsh aspects of war and comes to accept and perform them. The rest die in the process. Both films end with the rookie looking back on the last great action of the deceased squad that made him who he was. However, we can’t go too far: Saving Private Ryan didn’t shirk on showing the horrors or war, but it was not as grim as Fury.
-One of the things I really liked about Fury was the creation of the “culture” of the tank, and how opposite sides treated each other. No mutual respect or honourable combat here: Collier despises the people he fights, both sides shoot corpses just to make sure and one of the most searing lines of the last act is Wardaddy insisting Norman cannot surrender, since the enemy will just kill him anyway (and slow).
-The scene where Collier forces Norman to shoot the prisoner was a harsh one, and gave unfavourable impressions of “Wardaddy”. But Fury was no film to pull punches: Norman’s first significant action as a tank crew member was to hesitate and allow another soldier to burn to death. I appreciate a film that drops its characters in the deep end like that, especially in this setting.
–How good were the tank combat scenes in this film? The first showcased the awesome power of an infantry/armour advance against infantry, the second how armour can be both effective and neutralised in an urban environment and the third was a rip-roaring duel between three Sherman’s and a Tiger, that perfectly demonstrated the dichotomy between those two forces at the end of World War Two.
-Some varying opinions on the scene where Norman has sex (or so it is implied) with the German girl in the apartment. I saw it rather like Collier did, as a spontaneous reaction to the extreme surrounds both of them found themselves in: “They are young and they are alive”. Others see something far more unsettling, little less than sexual advantage being taken of someone vulnerable and in little position to refuse. There’s an ambiguity there, which I think fits the scene. Certainly, the scene had previously unfolded in a way that was very uncomfortable.
-How haunting is the description of the Allied breakout from Normandy? Fury depicts the reality of the Western Allies invasion of Germany itself, destroying some conventional perceptions. That monologue does the same for the Falaise pocket combat. It’s traditionally seen as an immense Allied trap closing shut on the Germans and as a resounding victory: it reality, plenty of it was grim and sordid, right down to the destruction of huge amounts of German cavalry. It’s somewhat fitting that the men so used to killing other men are so deeply affected by the memory of euthanizing screaming horses for three straight days.
-Loved that all too brief glimpse of an immense Allied air raid flying over the tank convoy, before it was engaged by a smattering of German fighters. Really captured the scale of such operations at that time.
-I didn’t really buy into Collier’s decision to stay after the tank was disabled and the approaching SS discovered. Some nearby units and their supply lines might be under threat, but surely the correct thing to do would have been to fall back, offer warning, and seek air support to deal with the advancing infantry?
-Strangely effective, as a piece of writing to explain the mass volunteerism and commitment of American soldiers in World War Two, that last great unambiguously righteous conflict: “When I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me’”.
-The German battle tactics employed in the final showdown were jaw-droppingly stupid for what was depicted as an elite SS unit. That really sucked you out of the scene, seeing the panic, the mindless swarming of the tank, the delay on using anti-tank weaponry or snipers for no clear reason. Ayers seemingly wanted a bloodfest where the stationary Sherman could inflict a huge level of damage, but for me it fell very flat.
-Good advancement of Norman’s character, merely through how he reacts to Germans troops. First he fails to really notice them. Then he won’t pull the trigger when he sees them. Then he expresses his frustrations through shooting burning German’s. And then suddenly he’s firing like he enjoys it. But by the end, he has reverted somewhat back into the man he was at the start, cowering and scared, but in a very different context.
-On the ending of that battle and the actions of German officer who leaves Norman be: There’s a large amount of ham-fisted symbolism there. The moment has a certain unreality to it, and I think it was included as a way of adding extra positivity to the end of Norman’s tale, reminding him and the audience that though the war is a moral abyss, there are still good people, like Norman was at the start of the film, around.
–Fury is one big blow against the idea of a “golden generation”. There is precious little of glory in this tale. It opens with Collier ambushing and brutally stabbing a German to death, continues through oceans of mud and gore, and ends with “Fury” itself surrounded by the corpses of an army long since defeated, dying for nothing. The crew members of the Sherman themselves die for very little gain in the larger scheme of things: the war was literally days away from ending in the time depicted.
I enjoyed Fury a lot, but that was after working through some serious deficiencies in the story it wanted to tell, which was a story which I have watched and read many times over. But the individual parts of Fury make up for that. The acting is superb, the visual and action moments are among the best of the year and the sense of brotherly camaraderie is effectively created. This isn’t Ayer’s best film, and it certainly isn’t the best World War Two film of recent times either. But, for what it wanted to do – throw a spotlight on tank combat and the fetid final days of World War Two – I would say that Fury is a resounding success, without doing enough to really ingratiate itself in the back catalogue of truly momentous war films.
Now, can someone go and make a proper World War Two navy combat film?
(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).