“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”
1998 saw the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Prior to this most films depicted World War II as a noble endeavor that needed to be done to help rid the world of Hitler and the horror he was inflicting upon Europe (beyond if given the chance). It gave birth to the “Greatest Generation” that people still look up to even to this day. These were young men who volunteered for a conflict that would change history and for the millions involved. Yet, World War II films were always cut and dried. It was always the good guys (American, British, Canadian, etc…) fighting against the nameless and efficient Nazi war machine.
In time, so many of these films followed the same formula that character stereotypes came about. We always had the cynical, older veteran who becomes a sort of father figure to a hodge-podge group of young, untested soldiers. What these films also had in common was the fact that they remain bloodless despite the nature of the story being told. Some filmmakers would try to buck this time-tested formula (Sam Fuller being the most prominent), but it would take 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to set a shift in how we saw World War II.
Spielberg lifted the rose-colored glasses from the audience and dared to show that while noble, World War II was still war and it still had the horror and brutality that all wars have. 2014’s Fury by David Ayer would continue this exploration of the last “Good War” in it’s most gritty and blood-soaked detail.
The film shows the last gasp of the German war machine as Hitler gives one of his final orders for the German people to repel the invading Allies. It was to be a scorched earth defense. Whether by choice or forced into this desperate tactic, every man, woman and child was to take up arms to their last breath to defend the Fatherland. It’s in this nightmare scenario that we find the veteran Sherman tank crew led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier trying to survive these final days til war’s end. Their home for the last two and a half years since North Africa has been a modified Sherman tank they call Fury. It’s a crew that’s been battle tested from the sands of North Africa, the maze-like hedgerows of France’s bocage and now the countryside of Germany itself.
We can see right from the start that this crew has been through hell and back many times and already resigned to going through hell many more times before they can eveb think of getting back home. It’s a crew that’s already lost one of it’s own minutes into the film. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) looms over his crew like a weary father figure. This ragtag group consists of Bible (Shia LaBeouf) as the born-again Christian who sees their survival battle after battle as a sign that God’s grace is upon Fury and her crew. Then we have Gordo (Michael Peña) who has been so traumatized by the war and what he has had to do to survive that he has numbed himself from these memories by being in a constant state of drunkenness. Lastly, we have the tank’s loader Grady (Jon Bernthal) whose misanthropic attitude comes as a crude and brutish counterpoint to Bible’s religious fervor. Into this misanthropic soup of a crew comes in the replacement to their recently killed comrade.
Logan Lerman’s character, the young and naive clerk typist Norman Ellison, becomes the audience’s eyes in the brutal world of Fury and her crew. We’re meant to see the war’s brutality and horror not through the jaded and cynical eyes of Wardaddy and his men, but through a young man who has never killed an enemy or even fired a weapon in anger. Norman becomes the surrogate through which we determine and decide whether there is such a thing a nobility and honor in war.
Honor and nobility have always been used by those always willing to go to war to convince the young and impressionable to follow them into the breach. Fury takes these two words and what they represent and muddies them through the muck and gore left behind with each passing battle and tries to see if they remain unchanged on the other side. Norman is a literal babe in the woods as he must adapt or die in a war nearing it’s end but also becoming even more deadly and dangerous than ever. His very naivete quickly becomes a hindrance and a real danger to Wardaddy and his crew. He’s not meant for this world but has had it thrust upon him.
The film treats Norman’s humanity as a liability in a war that strips it from everyone given enough time. We see Wardaddy attempt to speed up the process during a tense sequence where Norman’s being forced to shoot a German prisoner. It’s a sequence of events that’s both unnerving and disturbing as we see the veteran soldiers encircling Norman and Wardaddy cheering or looking on with indifference in their eyes. They’ve all been in something similar and one can only imagine what they had to do to make it this far.
Fury straddles a fine line between showing and explaining it’s themes to the audience. It’s to David Ayer’s skill as a writer that the film’s able to use some finely choreographed scenes both violent and peaceful to make a point about war’s effect on it’s participants both physically and mentally. Whether it’s through several well-choreographed battle scenes to a sequence of tense and quiet serenity in the apartment of two German women that bring back the plantation segment from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, the film does a great job in showing how even when stripped down close to the bone, Wardaddy and his veteran crew still has semblance of humanity and the honor and nobility they all began the war with.
As a war film, Fury brings a type of combat to the bigscreen that has rarely been explored and never in such a realistic fashion as we watch tank warfare at it’s most tactical and most horrific. Ayer doesn’t fall for the jump cut style that many filmmakers nowadays sees as a way to convey the chaos of battle. Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasnayov have planned every sequence to allow the audience to keep track of the two opposing sides and their place in the battle’s geography. And just like Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan, Fury shows the very ugly and bloody side of World War II. There’s a lot of bodies being blown apart and torn to chunks of meat yet they never seem to come off as gratuitous. Every bloody moment makes a point on the horrors of war and the level of inhumanity that another man inflicts on another man.
If there’s something that Fury does lag behind on it would be some of the narrative choices dealing with Norman’s character. The film takes place literally over a day’s time and the quick change in Norman’s mentality about the war seem very sudden and abrupt. While this day in the life of Fury and her crew worked well in Ayer’s past films (both as writer or director) here it puts Ayer stuck in a corner that made it difficult to fully justify Norman’s sudden change of heart from babe in the woods to hardened Nazi-killer. We can see throughout the film that the war is affecting him in ways that could lead up to this change, but to have it happen in just under a day really stretches it’s believability to the breaking point.
Yet, despite this the film is able to stay on course and recover from this misstep on the strength of Ayer’s direction and the performances of the ensemble cast. Brad Pitt has been the focus of the media campaign leading up to the release of Fury, but every actor who comprises the crew of Fury leave their own mark in the film. Shia Labeouf has had a tough past year both professionally and personally, but one has to admit that performances like the one he had in Fury is a reminder that he’s a damn fine good actor. Whether this film has become the path to his redemption in the eyes of the public is irrelevant. One doesn’t need to like the man to respect the talent he’s able to put up on the screen.
Awards season is in full swing as Fall 2014 arrives and Fury makes it’s case known that genre films (and make no mistake this is a genre film) can more than hold it’s own with the more dramatic life-exploring films that critics tend to put on the pedestal as examples of great filmmaking. While Fury is not perfect it is a very good film full of great performances that just misses being great.