War in cinema is often treated either as a crucible upon which manhood is tested and goodness defended (Saving Private Ryan) or as a portrait of irrational human cruelty (Come and See). There’s a tendency in the way we view war films to try to retrieve something valuable from the experience of the horrors of war, even if it’s only to be once again reminded that it is hell. David Ayer’s Fury, about the weary crew of an American Sherman tank behind German lines in the last few months of World War II, instead shifts its focus to something more pragmatic: the simultaneously chilling and exciting practicalities involved when one’s job is killing other men. That pragmatism is evident from the opening scene, wherein Staff Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) knocks a lone Nazi soldier off a horse in the middle of a devastated battlefield and stabs him right through the eyeball with his KA-BAR knife. Instead of anger, Collier exudes a sense of cold necessity: The dead man was an enemy who could have given away a U.S. position, and now the threat has been neutralized. Rather than mourn the desensitization it must require to be an effective soldier, Fury presents this as logical on-the-job training. And befitting the film’s approach to war, this is a cruel picture indeed. Heads and limbs are blown off, people are crushed or shot to pieces or impaled or rocketed into the air by mortar fire. Ayer never hesitates to graphically depict heinous violence, but it’s often presented matter-of-factly, almost placidly. There’s a bleak beauty, for instance, in a shot of a pancaked Nazi corpse, flattened helmet and all, being run over for probably the dozenth time by a passing tank tread, pushed deeper into a muddy road.
Beyond all the interpersonal drama, though, Fury is still, at heart, an action film.
That violence is what binds the unsurprisingly almost-entirely male cast together. Ayer portrays his tank crew as if they were an ad-hoc family drawn from decades of war-film archetypes: Pitt is the hardened father figure leading his wayward boys (Shia LeBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena) and dishing out the hard truth of war to new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman). There are long scenes of the men slinging jokes at each other or bickering over menial tasks as they sit in the cramped tank. That family bubble is notably pierced during a lengthy middle section in the apartment of a pair of German women, where Collier and Norman have taken shelter after a battle. For them, it’s a brief refuge and a reminder of some small goodness — but when the rest of the crew shows up there’s a sense of betrayal and anger. Any remotely pleasant experience belongs to the group, to be shared. Beyond all the interpersonal drama, though, Fury is still, at heart, an action film. Tank combat in movies is usually portrayed through stock shots of miniatures or CGI vehicles lined up on hillsides firing round after round; that, or it’s a lone soldier lobbing a well-placed grenade at a crucial moment. Here, though, Ayer filmed both real M4A2E8 Shermans and an actual Tiger 131, and we see these shuddering, lumbering beasts chase each other around a field trying to nail that one righteous shot as the crews inside frantically adjust their aim. All of this leads to a truly gorgeous final pitched battle, with tracer fire and a smoldering farmhouse illuminating a muddy crossroads as hundreds of German soldiers assault the stranded tank. In Ayer’s vision of war, that last stand proves to have no real strategic value in the end; it’s merely a part of the job. By contrast with many other, more traditional war films, in Fury, the sacrifice of death isn’t noble, a broken-down tank is just a roadblock, and a hero is just a guy who was lucky enough to not get blown away.