World War II films have captured the efforts of Rangers, paratroopers, fighter pilots, and the navy, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen tank combat depicted in the fashion that Fury captures it. Sure, Patton featured tank combat, but from a distance through the famous general’s binoculars. David Ayer puts the viewer inside the tank in the final push towards Berlin. Fury uses its novel vantage point extremely well, with the grit and brutality of the combat informing the characters that drive these war machines.
With only a few weeks to go before Hitler’s suicide and VE Day, the fighting remains intense as the Nazi war machine enters its child soldier, suicide party death throes. In the world of armored combat, the Nazi’s are still better equipped even at this late date, with their Tiger tanks vastly superior to the Allies’ Shermans. One of those Shermans, nicknamed Fury, is operated by a crew that has managed to stay intact since the North African campaign. Led by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), Fury has experienced its first casualty after a Pyrrhic victory against a German tank column. Ayer introduces the viewer to the crew of the Fury at this low moment. Resigned but religious Bible (Shia LeBeouf) says a prayer, angry Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) angrily does spot repairs, and morose Gordo (Michael Pena) holds his headless comrade’s hand. The writing is plainly on the wall that the war will soon be over, but it’s not over just yet.
Into the mix is added a completely inexperienced clerk as a replacement. Young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) hasn’t fired a gun in combat, but is now responsible for co-piloting and firing Fury’s machine gun. Wardaddy impresses on him the coldness and harsh decision-making necessary to sit in that spot, but it’s a lesson Ellison finds difficult to learn. Early mistakes result in terrible deaths, as hesitation leads to disaster. The journey from green rookie to hardened killer is one many films have trod, but Fury resists that trope. Ellison mostly retains his discomfort, and his fate revolves less around his deadly competence and more around the mercy of others. Wardaddy makes him an effective gunner, but not the deadened and broken shells that he and his crew have become.
It’s in that depiction of the tank crew that Fury distinguishes itself. These are not pleasant people or noble military heroes. Bernthal is straight out of Deliverance with his rotted teeth and intrusive demeanor. Gordo and Bible are game for his antics, enabling his worst impulses. These are soldiers that bed German women in questionable circumstances and have no compunction towards shooting prisoners. There is minimal to nonexistent talk of home, restricted to uncommented-upon pictures in the tank that Ayer’s camera only flashes past, which get equal time with the confiscated German medals dangling from the machinery. Wardaddy is unquestionably in command, so every action taken by the crew comes with his implicit permission. He retains a small sense of civilization, emboldened by Ellison’s naiveté, but his crew disabuses him of that pretension in their present environment. There’s no room for beauty in a place where women are hung by the roadside for collaboration and ill-equipped child soldiers charge at tanks. Characters are killed mid-sentence, and die badly. Fury is completely lacking in sentimentality, a stance that makes the film harder to connect to but also seems more true.
The other asset that Fury brings to the table is its thrilling and exhilarating depiction of tanks in action. Three major setpieces structure the film, with each decreasing the protagonists’ chances of survival. The first places an American tank squad against German infantry and the rout that takes place moves from fist-pumping to mouth-covering. The sheer power on display is a meat-grinder of death of destruction. The second is a German Tiger tank taking on four Shermans, and this sequence places the Americans at a severe disadvantage despite the greater numbers. Where the advance against the infantry was a bloody rout, this battle relies more on strategy and timing that is couched in military-speak but is plainly understandable to a civilian. The final setpiece and climax of the film finds the disabled Fury as a stationary gun against an advancing battalion of SS soldiers. Essentially a suicide mission, this one removes the mobile aspect in favor of a last-stand type battle, and is the least surprising and impressive of the three, though the certainty of failure brings out the most in the characters. While the crew contemplates their approaching demise, Ayer makes the excellent choice to not allow Ellison any lines of dialogue, as he is merely a bystander to his comrades’ years of experience. This was another choice that felt true in a film that completely won over this viewer for its presumed authenticity.
Fury rejects many war movie tropes, though that makes the ones that it does engage in stick out that much more. An inexperienced lieutenant doesn’t know his sergeants’ names, making Wardaddy that much more likable in relief. Ellison has a breakdown in the middle of a battle and the film stops to console him, forgetting that bullets are flying outside. An encounter with a German woman and her niece contains some character-informing palm-reading, one of my most hated tropes in cinema. After this punishing film that refuses to paint in stark colors, Ayer fills his credits with threatening Nazi imagery and a militaristic score, like a Wolfenstein video game just ended. Ayer doesn’t quite trust his better instincts and craftsmanship. The depth of the lows don’t approach the heights of the highs, but they detract from the complete package.
War films are becoming more flag-waving with American Sniper and Lone Survivor, but Fury sticks out as resolutely uninterested in glorification. For these characters, the world of the tank is all that exists, and the more brutal and ruthless they are, the sooner they can leave that world behind. Well-acted and directed with a keen eye for detail, Fury reverberates through its genre like a shell from a Tiger turret. B