Fury is a movie of remarkable power. It begins with the crew of an American tank, an M3 Sherman (actually a very late M4A3E8) contemplating their survival — or most of their survival, for one crewman lies dead at his station — through Africa, Italy, Normandy, the Falaise Gap, and finally, into Germany. The war is nearly over, but it’s not letting up.
This tightly bonded crew is joined by a new man, green as his spotless new uniform (a sharp contrast to the personalized but worn and dirty gear that adorns the old crewmen), who isn’t even trained as a tanker. We see and empathize with his terror as he’s pressed in, an outsider, to a crew that seems cold, distant, cruel and crude — and united, against him. Tank warfare is a portmanteau of Hobbes and Churchill — the “natural condition” of tanker-kind is “worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” but all “made more sinister, by the lights of perverted science.”
The parallel to Oliver Stone’s Platoon is inescapable, and you can almost hear a Hollywood pitch meeting: “Platoon, with tanks, in World War II!” But Fury transcends Platoon’s jejeune war-is-bad-and-makes-men-naughty message, in part because director David Ayer seems unclear as to what message he wants to send, or if he wants to send one at all, beyond, “Stuff like this happened. Watch and see. Amazing.”
Acting and Production
The actors are, to a man (and a woman) fantastic. The key fivesome are the crew of Fury itself:
- Brad Pitt as the complex, multifaceted tank commander and leader, “Wardaddy”;
- Michael Peña as the ethnic-chip-on-his-shoulder driver, Trinia Garcia aka “Gordo”;
- Shia LeBoeuf as the devout Christian tank gunner, Boyd Swan or “Bible”;
- Jon Bernthal (familiar to viewers of the first two Walking Dead seasons as “Shane”), as the coarse loader Grady “Coonass” Travis; and,
- Logan Lerman as Norman Ellison, a new replacement who is stuck in the bow gunner position.
Pitt in particular has to play a deep, complex character chock-full of contradictions. Some reviewers have compared his character to the one he played in the shallow, cartoonish Tarantino revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds. About the only possible explanation for that is that they reviewed the trailer, not the movie.
In addition, supporting actors in a variety of roles: the other tank crews, German captives, German refugees and civilians, etc., are uniformly good and complement their characters.
The production is well done, with the arguable exception of the sound design and sound effects which are over the top and interfere sometimes with one’s ability to follow the dialogue.
But some scenes are disturbing. Some graphic and gratuitous gore is included as an attempt, perhaps, by people who have never seen the face of war to describe their imagination of it. Others dwell at length at the cruelty and shallowness of the characters on the screen, as if the real purpose of the film is to “deglamorize” the WWII GI by the filthiest depiction that can be made. The characters are deeply flawed, apart, of course, for the Oliver Stone everyman/kid, and the point seems to be that in the skewed environment of war his lack of deep character flaws is, if not a flaw itself, at least a profound maladaptation.
Fury is superior to Platoon in this: there is not a member of the unit that is a renegade bad guy slavering to murder his own people, one of Stone’s paranoid fantasies brought to life in his epic. There are definitely characters in Fury that you are supposed to dislike, but you come to respect them.
The disturbing scenes, the persistent negativism and misanthropic message of much of the movie makes it, at times, hard to watch. It is not a movie for the family, for women, for kids who are not ready for Hollywood’s contempt of anything not tawdry, shallow and artificial, and Hollywood’s inability to distinguish depth from gratuitous grue. (“You can’t unsee that,” muttered Kid at one point, to which we reminded him that wasn’t a real human body part, but a latex prop molded and painted by skilled artists).
The runtime of the movie is about a half hour too long at 2h 14m; cutting some of the disturbing and maleficent scenes might have made a better film.
Accuracy and Weapons
There’s some imperfections in the details of the story, but they’re very small. News stories reported that an actual surviving Tiger tank was used, the only one in the world available for such duty (the handful of roadworthy Tigers are in museums). One gets the impression that the producers had a platoon of researchers; the uniforms are right, the weapons are right (on both sides). The weapons’ effects are at times overstated, with machine gun fire routinely removing entire heads (it can happen but is not the norm). This is as good a time as any to reiterate that the director follows Peckinpah and Tarantino in taking “graphic” into the lands beyond realism, the netherlands of disturbed imagination; at times there is no point to the bloodbath but the bloodbath.
Note the remarkable realism of this scene-setting, with the cartridge casings (as you can see, from live, not blank, rounds) and metal links lying across the turret, and marks from rounds spalling off the armor.
In at least one case — the effects of flame on a tank and its crewmen — the film goes for gross-out over realism, when realism would be plenty gross enough for even the most malicious 5th grader (who comes to mind because it seems his sensibility underlies some of Ayer’s artistic decisions).
Small arms are often considered an afterthought in tank warfare, but any tanker will tell you that, for most targets, the tanks co-ax and TC/loader guns are vital, and every tanker needs personal weapons when dismounted. These weapons are all right on target, with Brad Pitt’s character having idiosyncratic, but plausible, personal weapons: a captured MP44 and a personalized M1917 revolver.
Certainly Fury, the tank, is all but a character in the story. The Sherman was the product of an American concept of tank warfare that saw tanks primarily as vehicles for engaging enemy infantry, artillery and positions. It was second-best when put against any of the German armor of the day, especially on two of the three key tank axes of power: armament and armor. The Sherman was superior in mobility, and its systems were in some ways more sophisticated than those in foreign tanks, notably in its gyro-stabilized shoot-on-the-move capability. But American crews weren’t always trained to get the maximum out of their tanks. As a result, casualties were staggering; the 3rd Armored Division lost 580 percent of its tanks in Europe.
Rather well, the movie and the characters say little about the tank and its brethren, but show you what it can do and what it cannot. You can tell they have taken on a task beyond little Fury’s iron capabilities when the crew themselves show their fear.
One thing the movie does fairly well is get across the idea of the claustrophobia inside one of these steel coffins.
An accurate detail we don’t recall seeing in a movie before is the telltale marks of bullet splashes on armor. These are done, done well, and done in continuity, with more showing as the battle wears on — just keeping continuity on the enemy effects on the tank must have been a huge job for someone on the set. Whoever that anonymous crewperson was, their efforts bore fruit.
The most glaring goof is that the rounds in the turret are all color-coded inert blue. At another point, a grenade’s delay is stretched out to a seeming eleventeen seconds to allow plot developments to move along.
The Germans are less suicidal than the mooks in most American war films, like the death-seeking human drones in Saving Private Ryan. For most of the show, they’re bold, cunning and take considerable killing; in the climactic battle at a crossroads, they finally indulge in a most un-Teutonic human wave attack.
The bitterness of the US troops to Germans in general and the SS in particular may seem out of place if your frame of reference is other war movies, but it is not actually out of place, based on primary sources. Some of the Americans are not-Geneva-cricket cruel to enemy POWs, but there’s a strong implication that this is tit-for-tat retaliation, and certainly such events did occur. The men-lose-their-veneer-of-civilization-in-war theme is straight outa Platoon, and it’s one of the weakest parts of a complicated, multilayered movie.
The bottom line
Fury is a powerful film. It took us quite some time to get to this review because we came out of the theater knowing we’d had a powerful experience, but extremely ambivalent about the experience we’d had. There are not many good movies about the armor branch, and none that focus on the interactions of a single crew, with the weak exception of The Beast, a 1980s B-movie depicting Russians in a lost tank in Afghanistan, that was itself an adaptation of a stage play.
We don’t think Fury will become a perennial classic, beloved of viewers like Saving Private Ryan. It may do better in the esteem of film professionals. It’s a film the average viewer should approach with some caution, and it will indeed give you food for thought, something rare in a war actioner.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page (unreleased, it’s still in theaters at this writing; for pre-order at this time) :
- Rotten Tomatoes review page: critics 78, top critics 70, audience 88, all on a scale of 100.
- Metacritic review page: it has a score of 64 on a scale of 100 based on critical reviews, and 7.5 of 10 based on audience reviews. (Metacritic is new with this review).