As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, now is a time where our minds may ponder on those films that have displayed the conflict in both the First and Second World War. We may look back to the early genre pictures of the 60’s, where the likes of Lee Marvin and Richard Burton took on the Nazis in pure B-movie glory. The time did come for a more realistic take for the horrors of War, most vividly and harrowlingly conveyed in Elem Klimov’s Come and See, yet it is Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan which many hold as the trend-setter for ‘down and dirty’ war movies. Since then (1998), I struggle to think of any Western Front-based War movie which has truly made an impact since Hanks landed on the beaches of Normandy (bar, perhaps, Eastwood’s Flags and Letters double, but that wasn’t the Western Front). It seems the time was ripe for another truly great World War movie, and David Ayer may just have been the man worthy of the task.
The year is 1945, the Second World War is nearing its end as Allied troops begin to march across Germany. Fury follows a group of five men in a M4A3E8 Sherman Tank as they push across the Nazis homeland in the hope of ending the on-going, tiresome, and dangerous warfare in which they are engaged. Led by Staff Sergeant, ‘Wardaddy’ (Brad Pitt), the team take on a new young and in-experienced assistant driver, Norman (Logan Lerman). With the rest of the crew, ‘Bible’ (Shia LaBoeuf), ‘Coon-Ass’ (Jon Berenthal) and ‘Gordo’ (Michael Pena) unwilling to give Norman a warm welcome, he must do what he can to prove his worth in a theatre of death and destruction, in which everyman’s soul and morality is put on the front-line.
What is initially very intriguing about Ayer’s War film is when and where the conflict takes place; that being Germany in the dying months of the War. There is no grand battle at the focus, neither does it end with the surrender of the German forces. The fact that the War is nearing its end is a fact known by every troop on both sides, which establishes some incredibly interesting psychological stakes. For the German troops, the dilemma lies in whether it is worth laying down their lives for a doomed regime. For the Allies, they must question what it is they have done, and what it is that they are still prepared to do in the final push towards victory.
The German perspective of this dilemma is somewhat closed off to us in favour of a focus on the American troops which occupy the Tank that goes by the name of Fury. While this does seem thematically limited, there are enough gazes and reflections on the German soldiers themselves which allow the spectator to question the actions of not only the Nazis’, but also the American troops we should supposedly be rooting for. This ‘Anti-War’ stance is not necessarily unique, and doesn’t take the focus of the film. Ayer’s agenda is arguably a lot simpler than that; he wants to depict war in all its blood-soaked, mud-clad, horror, leaving us with enough questions of morality to engage with on a more intellectual and philosophical level, should we feel the need to.
Ayer’s visceral style, so impressively displayed in the cop thriller End of Watch, takes on a new element in his war zone. While there is only one tank-on-tank conflict in the proceedings, Ayer’s warfare has a great deal of impact, due to its un-relenting brutality and unique features (this has to be the first war film that I can think of that has featured tracers in tank fire). Limbs are severed, heads explode, and men are reduced to pieces in seconds. The final third pushes the film into more B-movie territory than its quieter, more morally ambiguous, two thirds, which does somewhat dilute Ayer’s brave decision to have much of the second act situated in one location.
What drives both the more frantic and quieter moments is the truly impressive ensemble cast. Pitt exudes his usual charisma, albeit with a much meaner streak as he desperately tries to figure out the character of Wardaddy. Lerman aptly exudes the naivety and helplessness needed in the Fury’s new recruit, providing the tank some much needed soul. LaBoeuf particularly impresses as the religious member of the group, standing out as the most convincing in regards to the camaraderie between the five-man team. Jon Berenthal and Michael Pena, while dependable, do not receive as much characterisation (particularly Pena) leaving their characters somewhat more two-dimensional than the more drawn out characters of Norman, Wardaddy, and Bible.
Ayer’s vision of the war feels one made with the utmost commitment; this is a director craving to make a war movie that demands your attention from its atmospheric opening to its blood-soaked finale. The claustrophobic environment within the tank, the warfare on display, and some of the imagery may evoke memories of war films past (and better), but what we have here is a film worthy of high praise due to its uncompromising nature, devoted performances and impressively staged action.