War is inherently cinematic. The stark comparison between good and bad, the grey areas of moral or amoral behavior, the stripping away of the thin veneer of civilization and civilized behavior, and the historical replay — or reinvention — of heinous situations. It’s no wonder that for any given war there are dozens if not hundreds of films. No war has been covered more thoroughly than World War II, however, with its deep and profound impact on all peoples and all corners of the globe.
The grand sweep of the war has been covered effectively before, but it’s the ability to zero in on an individual, on one person’s journey through the horrors of war that makes a film most effective. It was our ability to experience the Normandy Invasion and subsequent tour of the battlefield through the eyes of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the superb, intense Saving Private Ryan that made that film so powerful.
Similarly, Fury is about the experiences of raw recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who is dumped into Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt)’s platoon as assistant driver for the big tank. But Ellison’s been trained to be a typist back at HQ and he’s not combat ready. Worse, he is a threat to the safety of the other men in the tank nicknamed “Fury”: if he can’t become as callous and aggressive towards the Germans as the rest of the crew, they could all end up dead.
The film takes place during the last weeks of the war in Germany. The tide is on the side of the Allies, and while the Germans know that they’ve lost, they haven’t stopped fighting, with the Nazis even dragooning small children to wear oversized uniforms and shoot from windows. In one stark scene, Wardaddy’s platoon makes their way into a small German town just to see bodies hanging from light posts. Their crime is explained in the signs hanging around their necks: they were asked to fight for the Reich and refused.
Also in Fury are gunner Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf, delivering a remarkable performance), loader Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal) and driver Trini Garcia (Michael Peña). Unlike an infantry corps, though, a tank is a tiny, confined space and each of the men absolutely relies on the others, a situation that creates quick comrades and quicker fights, often over the most mundane of things.
Early in the film a German soldier is captured and in a tense, shocking scene, Wardaddy forces Ellison to kill him, even as the soldier is showing a photo of his wife and child. In that moment, in the protests of Ellison and the desperate insistence of Wardaddy to have him realize that there is no veneer of civilization, that war is all about “you, or them”, the entire film is summed up and the story is brought out in stark relief.
Later in the film, Ellison and Wardaddy befriend two German girls who are offering what they can to survive the war and now, the invasion of the American servicemen who have one thing on their mind when they see a pretty fraulein. There’s a period of mock domestic tranquility in the midst of the Allied celebration over conquering the village during which Ellison becomes close, in that immediate wartime way, with young Irma (Anamaria Marinca). But wartime romances end quickly and unexpectedly in another step towards Ellison losing his humanity and becoming a part of the Fury squadron, ready to kill the hated Nazis and smile the rictus grin of death as he does so.
The film’s final scenes revolve around the tank squad protecting a group of civilians from incoming German troops, defending them even when everything goes wrong, even when their tank gets stuck on the road without hope of repair. Is the comeuppance of that wartime loss of humanity the death of everyone involved? In war, sometimes, tragically, the answer is yes.
Just as Saving Private Ryan is not for the faint of heart but stands as an important reminder of the horrors, the cruelty and the viciousness of war, and how even the calmest of men can — and must — become a cold-blooded killer, so does Fury offer that same message as we experience the appalling world of the men in the armored divisions. A tank is tough and powerful, but it’s also a deathtrap if the enemy gets too close. War too is a deathtrap and the price of getting too close is equally horrific.
Fury is a powerful film with excellent performances and a story that has an inevitable, if dark finalé. I recommend it, if nothing else than just to remind us all of the truth that war is hell. It’s not a video game, it’s not surgical strikes, it’s not long distance via computer. It’s death.