By Preston Wilder
For years we all assumed that every war movie was implicitly an anti-war movie, but now it’s not so clear. Islamic State make sadistic videos of prisoners being killed which you’d think would repel even those sympathetic to their aims, yet in fact they’re seen as a valuable recruiting tool. Meanwhile, out in Hollywood, Brad Pitt and $70 million gets you Fury – which is not exactly sadistic, and certainly not akin to an Islamic State video, but does deal in a similar kind of bloodlust. The message here is that some people are so evil they deserve to die, and their deaths should not be mourned. The people in this case are SS officers rather than heathens and apostates, but the point is the same.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” So says Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Pitt) to Norman (Logan Lerman), the young and innocent new addition to his five-man tank crew in the last days of WW2 – and that’s the film’s philosophy in a nutshell: ideals (pacifism, ‘thou shalt not kill’ and so on) are all very well in peacetime, but when you’re in a war – in the midst of History – you have to be ruthless, and you have to kill. Not kill indiscriminately, of course; that would be psychotic. German soldiers, however (and the SS in particular) are a good, and worthy, target.
Pitt isn’t just playing a soldier here. He’s playing a variation on his role in The Tree of Life, the stern but well-meaning father (‘Daddy’ is right there in Collier’s nickname) imparting necessary life lessons. Lesson No. 1 is learning to kill Germans in cold blood – a lesson taught in the film’s most jaw-dropping scene, in which Collier gives Norman a gun and orders him, in front of the whole platoon, to put a bullet in a German prisoner’s back. “I need you to perform,” he says bluntly as the young man hesitates, finally grabbing the gun and forcing the boy to pull the trigger. “Is this supposed to make a man of me?” asks Norman bitterly, as Collier wanders off to the side looking sad but resigned. He didn’t like to do it, but it had to be done.
To its credit, Fury is completely upfront about what it’s saying; writer-director David Ayer deals in no-nonsense machismo, celebrating the camaraderie of hard men in explosive situations (he did something similar for the LAPD in End of Watch). The film has the snarling belligerence and half-buried tenderness of a Sam Peckinpah movie (the misty, muddy look recalls Peckinpah’s own WW2 film, the 1977 Cross of Iron) – and it certainly wallows in the ‘History is violent’ side of the equation, often to powerful effect. The violence is graphic and pitiless here. A bulldozer buries corpses in a mass grave, a shell rips a man’s head clean off, another man gets burned alive but ends his suffering by taking out his revolver and shooting himself in the head. At one point, Norman is ordered to machine-gun a pile of dead Germans, just to make sure they’re dead. “It ain’t pretty,” admits another member of the tank crew, “but it’s what we do.”
The tank crew – our protagonists – are the most important element, of course. Shia LaBeouf is intense and surprisingly effective as ‘Bible’, who wants to know if Norman is “saved”; Michael Pena is solid (though he doesn’t get much to do) as Hispanic, semi-alcoholic ‘Gordo’ while Jon Bernthal from The Walking Dead is the crass redneck ‘Coon-Ass’ (“Why you always whoopin’ at me?” he whines; “Because you’re an animal,” replies Wardaddy). They’re not necessarily heroes; the film’s centre-piece is an interlude with a couple of German girls where Collier shows a sensitive side and the kid plays the piano before (presumably) losing his cherry. It’s idyllic, a memory of peacetime – but then the rest of the crew arrive, and spoil the mood with their nasty brutish ways. These are not nice guys – yet the film can’t quite bear to make them unsympathetic. Even ‘Coon-Ass’ gets his moment, apologising to Norman when the two are alone and telling him he’s “a good person”.
Fury is a great macho fantasy: hellish, handsomely mounted, hard to forget. It rubs your nose in squalor and man’s inhumanity to man. Yet there’s something missing. Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find a profile of Christos Kourtellaris, one of our last surviving WW2 veterans, where he mentions details like having to silence a fellow soldier who lost his head and started screaming, or Cypriot volunteers being secretly killed by Polish troops – supposedly our allies! – because they were Communists. The war, in short, was marked by cowardice and in-fighting, like any other human endeavour; the narrative of tough-guy camaraderie and uniquely evil SS troops is a simplification we impose now, when almost everyone who was actually there is dead. ‘Fury’ is the name of a tank – and another tank is called ‘Murder Inc.’ after the Mafia, blurring the line between war and criminality. Does Wardaddy teach his young charge how to be a criminal? Fury doesn’t go there.
DIRECTED BY David Ayer
STARRING Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf
US 2014 134 mins