“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” the war-hardened Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) tells his tank crew’s young untested new forward gunner Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma) early in David Ayer’s new devastatingly brutal World War II combat film Fury. The film, which Ayer wrote as well as directed, goes on to illustrate that concept in scene after scene, until it is pretty convincingly driven home. History itself may not be exclusively violent, but war certainly is, and what Saving Private Ryan did to undercut the naïve pretensions of films like The Longest Day, Fury does while undermining chauvinistic Hollywood productions like 1949’s Sand of Iwo Jima. Indeed John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker is the spiritual forerunner of Pitt’s Sergeant Collier: the tough, no-nonsense veteran whose harsh tactics are resented by new recruits but who proves in the end to be right all along. But by the end of Fury, it’s hard for moviegoers to view Collier’s methods uncritically, and it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that these soldiers are motivated by the chance to make the world a better place.
They are motivated by two things: First, they have been given an assignment and they are going to complete it. “Do your job,” the crew members of the M4 Sherman tank (nicknamed “Fury”) tell Norman again and again. Second, they are fighting for each other—to stay alive and to keep one another alive—to make it through this war. These are realistic motivations, not the motivations of celluloid heroes in propaganda movies. Collier has been with three of his crew since northern Africa ca. 1943: Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña, who was in Ayer’s End of Watch), the blunt, hard-drinking, but sympathetic driver; Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal, The; Walking Dead), the vulgar, ill-tempered mechanic; and Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), the born-again, scripture-quoting gunner who moves through the film with moist eyes and a faith that God is directing him through all of this. Collier has sworn to get his crew through this war alive, and has managed to get them as far as April 1945, the final month of the war, as the allies pushing toward Berlin are fighting stubborn resistance from surviving SS troops, women, and Hitler youth who make American pay for every inch of the Fatherland they seek to gain. The Germans must eventually surrender, but when Collier’s commander asks rhetorically “Why don’t they just give up?” Pitt’s character answers, “Would you?”
Norman becomes the fifth member of the tank’s crew, pulled from a clerk-typist job after eight weeks in the army to replace a gunner who has just been annihilated in one of these vicious last battles, and Norman (the “Normal-man”) becomes the character with whom the audience identifies: like Charlie Sheen in Platoon, Norman knows nothing when he arrives, and like the audience must be taught about tank warfare, and more importantly must have his “normal” morality driven from him so that he, like the rest of his crew, can survive this war—and help them survive it. When he fails to machine-gun a pile of apparently dead Germans as he is ordered to do, Sergeant Collier wrestles him to the ground, forces a gun into his hand, and makes him execute a German prisoner who is begging for his life and displaying pictures of his wife and children. Collier and Norman’s relationship is not unlike that of Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Ayer’s earlier screenplay for Training Day, and has some of the moral ambiguity of that film.
As the somewhat episodic plot moves on, Norman develops a healthy hatred of the “damn Nazis” and has little compulsion in blowing them away. He has become one of the crew, and he is baptized into their fellowship when they give him the “war name” of “machine”—as if he has been transformed into a Nazi-killing automaton. This aspect of the film is somewhat clichéd, but unlike other war films, in this one that transformation does not seem an unquestionably positive thing. It is difficult not to like the earlier Norman better than this one.
For one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking film concerns the changes that must occur in a man with a conventional moral sense when he witnesses and takes part in the atrocities of war. Do those changes make him better somehow? Do they “make a man” out of him, as Norman sarcastically asks after his forced murder of the prisoner? Or by hardening him to endure war’s brutality do they change him into someone unfit for normal society? Pitt’s character seems to feel this dehumanizing effect more keenly than others, and he can be seen in contemplative moments breaking down in private, when his shell-like veneer is momentarily let down. In one of the film’s most inventive and original scenes, Collier and Norman enter the apartment of two German women in a town they have just “liberated.” It is a surprisingly domestic scene—though there is some tension as the women are terrified by these Americans with guns and Norman is unsure what Collier has in mind for these women. Collier produces half a dozen eggs, takes the opportunity to have a wash, and encourages Norman to have sex with the younger woman: that proves a tender scene, though the shadow over it is the fact that these men have entered the room with guns and the whole American army at their back. But a peaceful, homey breakfast is interrupted by Bible, Gordo and Coon-Ass, who drunkenly disrupt the humane idyll and bring the brutality of the war, and the brutality of what war has made of men, into the scene.
That brutality is palpable in this film. Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasyanov have created a barren landscape of grays and browns, in which mud-colored vehicles and mud-colored infantry move through a landscape that is essentially mud. It’s a landscape in which the seed of life can find no purchase, like the surface of the moon or hell itself.
This atmosphere all leads up to the final shot of the film: a gray scene, photographed from above as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape strewn with hundreds of dead and intertwined gray German soldiers, surrounding the tank.
A number of reviewers have criticized the film’s final thirty minutes as a machismo display inconsistent with the weighty pounding of the “war is hell” message in the rest of the film. It’s as if Ayers decided that he wanted to put something into the film for everyone in the audience, and elected to end it with a hackneyed “last stand” of five brave Americans against hordes of evil but faceless bad guys, sure to appeal to action-movie fans who might have been bored up to this point. But such a criticism is, I think, unfounded for two reasons: First, it has been set up well in advance by Collier’s “wouldn’t you?” answer to the question of why men keep fighting when they know they cannot win. And secondly, the fight sets up what may be the most important, and ironic, incident in the film, for which I must declare a spoiler alert: Norman, having escaped from the tank, is hiding beneath it covered with the ubiquitous mud. He is spared by an SS trooper who finds him but decides neither to kill nor arrest him, gives him a suppressed half smile, and moves on. It is ultimately not the conditioned toughness of Sergeant Collier that gets Norman through the war, but rather the humanity of a German “Norman” who, at least momentarily, refuses to allow the brutality of the war to destroy his fundamental moral code.
These final scenes create a morass of ambiguities and ironies surrounding the American “rescuers” who collect Norman and call him a hero right before that final shot of the field of the dead. One is reminded of nothing more vividly that Tacitus’s description of the Roman army: “They created a wasteland, and they called it peace.”
This is a difficult film to watch, and an even more difficult one to enjoy. Ayer has gone to unprecedented lengths to recreate meticulously the precise details of tank combat and of the situation in Germany that last month of the war. So much has gone into this that one wonders if that is the extent of what Ayers wanted to do with the movie: present combat more realistically than it has ever been produced on film. But that hardly seems enough to carry a two hour movie. And there are so many ambiguities that it is difficult to be sure where the filmmakers stand, or where they want the audience to stand. The audience-surrogate, Norman, seems unsure just how to feel at the end. That may be what Ayer intends. In view of that uncertainly, I’m going to give the film three Tennysons.