Towards the beginning director David Ayer’s gruesomely realistic war movie Fury, new recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) – a green Army typist who has never even seen the inside of a tank – is ordered to clean the titular Sherman after a battle in which the assistant driver was killed inside.
While scrubbing the controls, Ellison washes away the final remains of the man he is replacing, collecting bits of gore in a metal bucket. Casually strewn across the deck is about three inches of the man’s face, perfectly-preserved, eye included. Norman recoils in horror, and quickly makes his way out of the tank to vomit.
It’s a small but significant detail, and one that reminded me of a similar passage in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam memoir The Things They Carried; I’ll never forget O’Brien’s description of having to peel the remains of a fellow soldier killed by a mortar round off of a tree.
Modern war movies in the Saving Private Ryan vein have reproduced the kinetic, frenzied brutality of war during battle sequences: handheld camerawork and rapid editing, combined with quickly-glimpsed graphic bloodshed, disorient the viewer to create a sense of unrelenting warfare. The goal here is to place the viewer on the front lines.
But rarely do these films stop to explore the gory reality of the bloodshed: the grisly aftermath of the battle, the horrors long after the bullets have stopped flying. Well, here’s one that does. Fury isn’t as ambitious a film as something like Ryan – in the contemporary action film mold, it’s a more simplistic B-movie writ large – but it gets that one specific aspect very right: this is one of the most gruesomely effective war movies ever made.
It’s also the definitive WWII Tank Movie. During most of the film, the cast is confined to the titular Sherman: besides the new recruit, there’s non-nonsense Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), animalistic loader Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal), Catholic technician Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), and Latino driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña).
Wardaddy has led this battle-hardened crew since the North African Campaign; it’s now April, 1945, and US forces are making a final push into Nazi territory at the tail end of the war (“why don’t they just give up?” is a sentiment expressed throughout the film. The answer: “would you?”)
When Wardaddy and a platoon of tanks get orders to hold a vital route to ensure supplies can get to Allied troops, they embark on a potential suicide mission. But much of the film is devoted to the developing relationship between Norman and his brutal Commander: Wardaddy forces him to execute a German captive, but later they share a quiet (but tense) meal with a German woman and her niece. Pitt played this kind of thing a few years ago in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but he’s the standout here, ruggedly charismatic till the bitter end.
Fury features some of the most realistic tank battles ever portrayed on film – even if the climactic one stretches our credibility. But the mechanics of tank battle – with the commanders sticking their torsos out of the hatches and shouting orders to advance, reverse, and rotate the gun a few degrees – are immaculately recreated.
These things are huge, and their movements are slow – not the ideal vehicles to create an air of cinematic excitement (that Austin Powers steamroller sequence comes to mind). But the presentation is handled with such stark realism that these scenes become exhilarating: we’re on the edge of our seats to see which gun rotates into the correct position first. The filmmakers employed actual tanks for these scenes, including the only surviving German Tiger 131, on loan from The Tank Museum.
Writer-director David Ayer is best known for his contemporary police dramas like Harsh Times and End of Watch; while some of the characterizations and stylistic choices here can feel out of place, the logistics of tank battle – and the gory reality of warfare – are perfectly rendered. Fury is a must for war movie veterans.