‘Fury’ Is an Excellent War Film—And a Shocking Horror Movie
David Ayer has directed the best World War II flick in years
In the first half hour of Fury, an American tank catches fire after taking a hit. A crewman—on fire and screaming—scrambles from the tank, raises a pistol to his head and ends his life.
German Hitler Youth soldiers fired the anti-tank weapon—children no more than 12 years old. The movie’s heroes kill all of them. At that point, I knew I was watching a different kind of war film.
Fury is set in the closing days of World War II. It follows a five-man tank crew fighting across Germany. The war is almost over, but not everyone is ready to give up on the Reich. Brad Pitt plays Sgt. Dan “Wardaddy” Collier, an American Sherman tank commander whose main concern is killing the Germans who still resist.
Writer-director David Ayer is best known for helming End of Watch and his screenplay for Training Day. He’s written war films before—like the unpleasant U-571—but Fury is a whole different animal. It’s a movie about war’s horrors, how it changes the people and what happens to a nation when it realizes it’s been beat.
It’s a psychological horror movie set on the battlefields of Europe.
Fury’s principal character arc belongs to Norman, played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a 19-year-old desk jockey, typist and clerk. The Army pulls him from a transport vehicle at the last moment to replace a fallen member of Collier’s tank crew.
Norman’s first job is to clean the blood and gore off the seat in the tank he’ll occupy for the rest of the war. He’s clean, green and passive. He doesn’t want to kill anyone. That’s a problem considering the circumstances.
Michael Pena, Shia LaBeouf and Jon Bernthal play the rest of Collier’s crew. These soldiers have been with Collier since the beginning of the war. They all started off fighting Nazis in Africa. They fought on D-Day, moved through France and now toward Berlin.
They’re tired, bloodied and crazy. War changes people, and Fury goes to great pains to show that. Combat has infected the men of the tank crew. They’ve lived to kill for so long, they’re barely clinging to their humanity.
The main conflict is the troops’ struggle to make Norman like them. To make him a killer. To infect him with their madness. If they don’t—as they’re well aware—he won’t survive the war … and he could get them all killed.
Movies often depict World War II as the good war. The bad guys wore black and had skulls on their hats. The good guys did what they had to do to win the war. Millions of people died, but in the end it was good. America was there to do a job—and it did it well.
The reality is somewhat different. “The choice before human beings, is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils,” George Orwell observed in the literary journal Adelphi in 1941. “You can let the Nazis rule the world: that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil.”
Orwell didn’t mean these two choices were equally evil. But this to say when facing the Nazis, the choices were to either submit or fight back. The latter choice was a lesser evil, as it included the possibility of building a better world. “Since one must inevitably help one side or the other, it is better to know what one is doing and count the cost,” he wrote.
Fury shows what the lesser evil looks like. There’s mud, blood, death and despair. People die—mostly people who don’t deserve it. Soldiers rape women. Monsters hang children. Civilians lose everything.
Mud covers the American soldiers. They sport visible wounds from too many battles. They laugh off their mental wounds to keep from crying. They forget to wipe the blood off their faces after battle and it dries, leaving a constant reminder of a kill.
Recent war and action movies have a tendency to film too close. In far too many movies, the camera pulls in tight on the action, the frame shaking, the audience unable to discern what’s going on.
But Ayer pulls the camera way back in Fury. He shows the audience everything. Tracers fly. Munitions explode. White phosphorus burns through uniforms and flesh.
Ayer’s screenplay for U-571 told an alternate history where an American submarine crew captured an Enigma cryptography device from a German U-boat. In reality, it was the British who captured the secret behind the Nazis’ communications.
At the time, many—including Prime Minister Tony Blair—criticized Ayer for playing fast and loose with history. He dishonored the memory of the fallen, some said.
Ayer took slavish pains to make Fury as authentic as possible. Three military consultants worked on the film. The actors went through a World War II-era boot camp. Pitt and company interviewed surviving members of America’s armored division. The crew used real Tiger and Sherman tanks.
The historical details are not perfect, by any means, but it’s much better than most of what Hollywood puts out.
The film isn’t perfect either. Some of the characters feel contrived. Bits of dialogue are hammy and only Pitt and his co-stars can save it. Some have said the film’s violence and dehumanizing portrayal of American troops will dishonor the memory of their struggle.
I disagree. Ayer shows us war at its most terrible. He shows us what soldiers must become to destroy a fanatical enemy. Fury pays respect to that sacrifice by displaying it and daring the audience to balk and turn away.
There are no good wars. But there are wars that are impossible to avoid. And there are good people who make beasts of themselves to keep the wolf from the door.