Howard Adelman
Fury is a buddy war movie that is at once gritty and gripping, terrifying and tense. There are plenty of war movies – The Pianist is one – but war buddy movies are a special sub-genre. Like all buddy war movies – The Dirty Dozen, Inglorious Bastards, The Monuments Men – the issue is NOT individual survival, me versus them, but us versus them. Because the individual in war will not survive unless buddies are watching his back.
“Fury” is the name of the tank that becomes as much a character as any of the people portrayed by actors. In Fury, an American Sherman tank crew that has been together since North Africa are fighting their way into Germany against the final stubborn resistance of the Germans on their own soil. One of the crew has just been killed. He is being replaced by a totally inexperienced young soldier who has, until then, been a typist in the military command headquarters. The impact of this tale is enhanced by a subplot of this young soldier, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), maturing into manhood, defined as experienced in both sex and the art of cold blooded killing, and gradually being accepted by the rest of the crew. However, as the leader of the tank crew says at the beginning to the novice, “I had the best gunner in the entire United States Army in that seat. Now I have you.” The challenge is set at the very start of the movie.
This buddy war movie is at once a throwback to an older, purer expression of tough man masculinity as well as a very contemporary movie in its theme. There is no touchy-feely figure in the whole crew – except for the novice who has to lose both his virginity and his acute sensitivity. But he is a modern figure for he can openly say that he is afraid to die. The members of the crew learn to respect one another. They never learn to love one another even after the ordeal they go through. They care deeply but not so deeply that their ability to kill the enemy is compromised.
There is a reason which Bible (Shia LaBeouf as Boyd Swan) reveals near the end of the film when he quotes: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” In the end, they are all doing the Lord’s work and, hence, cannot love the things of this world. One is surprised how this gritty story of hard-headed battle-weary grunts turns into a metaphysical and religious treatise.
Nor is this a buddy movie that tries to communicate that it is colour blind by including one member of the crew who is black. Instead, every member of the crew is metaphorically black. This is a film that is muddy more than it is earthy, a real paean to the horrors of real war that is set in a time in America when four white guys would not share the close claustrophobic quarters of the inside of a tank with a fifth black man. They have a hard enough time sharing their quarters with a bookish innocent youth, Norman, who could be Jewish. After all, he shares his last name with Lawrence “Larry” Ellison, the third richest man in America who turned the software of relational databases into the brilliant success of Oracle. God may no longer speak directly to Jews now, but in assimilating into the American heritage of the more mathematical Greeks, Oracle became a portal through which the gods speak directly to people. This is Norman’s role in the film.
The Bible serves as this bridging role. For this is still a multicultural movie because the crew includes the religious soldier nicknamed Bible, a lapsed Christian, Don “Wardaddy” Collier played brilliantly by Brad Pitt who commands the crew, and a strident atheist, the foul-mouthed vicious Arkansas cracker (Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis played by Jon Bernthall) as both the literal and metaphorical loader of the heavy explosive missives that the Americans fire at the Germans. There is also a Mexican (Michael Peña as Trina “Gordo” Garcia) from the south-west. The regional as well as religious differences of America are respected, but are left uncooked and underdone to add to the emphasis on the need for unity and mutual support.
However, though the men come from different backgrounds, display different degrees of intelligence and sophistication, and though they have very different personalities, the development of the film does not arise from the clashes between and among them, but through the growing respect that the novice earns from his fellow crewmen. Contrast this with Full Metal Jacket where R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant training new marine recruits on Parris Island has to cope with the uncoordinated and clumsy fat dough boy, Gomer Pyle, who surprises everyone by becoming and expert marksman and sniper. Fury, instead, is a story of the UNITED States of America, where Americans, including the sergeant – who, incidentally, speaks German – fight together and to the death to vanquish the enemy. It is a throwback in its stark patriotism while, at the same time, discarding all the clichéd versions of patriotism into the dustbin of history,
This film does not belong to the patriotic fifties when what you mainly saw of Americans fighting in Germany was a portrait of US soldiers marching into Italian and German towns to be welcomed by flag waving locals joyous at being liberated by the Yanks. In Fury, the troops are met with booby traps, a sullen and defeated population, and disciplined SS troops determined to fight to the last man and enforcing that discipline by hanging corpses of German men and women on lampposts because they refused to fight for the fatherland in the dying days of the war.
This is not a film that either glorifies the enemy or denigrates it as in the even worse anti-anti-Patriotic movies of the sixties did as the Vietnam War ramped up. The Patriotic movies portrayed heroes, like John Wayne in the 1968 The Green Berets, as a total artificial construct, an unbelievable fantasy of history that bore no relation to reality. That movie glorifies the US presence in Vietnam and portrayed the Viet Cong as sadistic sicko bastards while the Americans were compassionate humanitarian gum-chewing lovers of children. Contrast that film with Michael Cimino’s 1978 ambiguous but tremendous tale of war as a story of love and loss with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Cazale as the three Pennsylvania buddies in The Deer Hunter. The era of the anti-patriotic war movie culminated in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now, the remake of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness transformed into a vivid cynical hallucinatory and ultimate acid trip.
In Fury, defeating the enemy is just a job that has to be done and only the SS are caricatured as evil and worthy of being slaughtered even after they have surrendered. There is no sense that the Geneva laws of war were operational. Though there are moments of humanity, the most poignant by a German (I cannot disclose the scene without giving away a key emotional moment in the movie), but the overall sense is the sheer brutality of war.
Like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, David Ayer’s Fury is equally graphically violent. However, while this film resembles the former in miring the war in mud, it is not set in a period when courageous Americans, as well as Aussies, Brits, Canadians, and Kiwis, stormed ashore on the beaches of Normandy to finally free Europe from the iron grip of the Nazis. There, the heroism, as in Fury, is set in the very minor mundane tasks of war, but the question that hangs over the whole of Fury in the inglorious final days of the war is not the preservation of a very ordinary soldier as a precious individual, but the question: “Is the loss of even one other life worth it?”
As a buddy film, the crisis of masculinity is at the centre. And it revolves around courage – how archaic is that! Further, this courage in the face of death is not diluted by including clashes related to class and region, ethnicity and belief. These differences are mere peccadilloes, items of interest that allow the members of the tank crew to dis one another. In fact, that is how the movie starts – by getting you to believe that this may be a film that is loyal to its genre by placing the tension between alpha males at the centre of the movie. But this movie has only one alpha male, Wardaddy. And no one challenges him – except in minor skirmishes and asides.
Further, the message of the film is contemporary. Instead of “Thou shalt not kill,” the key value taught is, “Thou shall kill.” Further, instead of the film introducing compassion in the midst of violence and conflict, the compassion these fellows feel for one another is held in check. For if they feel too much – either for each other or for the enemy – they are through. They are finished.
But the film, true to its heritage, is still about heroism. Though the movie has only one alpha male, there are two heroes, Wardaddy, who holds a key crossroads against enormous odds, and, Norman, who is inducted into the ways of war and survives. The hero who lives and the hero who dies – that is what war is about in spite of these men initially being alien with and to one another. As Eversmann says in Black Hawk Down, the story of the 18 rangers from the American Elite Delta Force whose helicopter was brought down by a rocket fired by the Somali version of the Taliban in Mogadishu, “Nobody asks to be a hero, it just sometimes turns out that way.” As Bible quotes, “And I heard the voice of Lord saying: Whom shall I send and who will go for Us? And I said: Here am I, send me!” Then Wardaddy intones, Isaiah Chapter 6, clearly indicating he is very familiar with the Bible.
Brad Pitt plays a traditional hero – braver, tough and fairer – whose only goal is ensuring the survival of his men while he, willingly and without question, carries out the orders of his superiors. He refuses to get too close to them, though sensitive to their needs, but trumping that sensitivity with the greater demands of what is required to win a war. Wardaddy is a traditional hero played against the foil of a soldier who has to learn to become a warrior if not a Wardaddy. This process is set within the tension between loyalty to orders from above and loyalty to the soldiers below and under his command.
Contrast that with The Lone Survivor, a 2013 American war buddy movie starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Eric Bana. As in Fury, there is only one survivor after the ordeal the men go through when this Navy Seal team’s efforts to take out a senior Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah, in Afghanistan goes awry. Though both films are realistic, there is no effort of Fury to accurately represent an actual historical event. In contrast, The Lone Survivor is based on detailed eyewitness accounts and tries to be an accurate representation of what took place. Members of the Navy Seals even served as technical consultants on set. Compare that to Fury which is really a character more than an event movie.
The two movies are even more radically distinct in another respect. The Lone Survivor uses digital photography shooting with Red epic cameras with their detailed pixilation to allow the movie to more accurately represent a landscape or a human face. Fury uses old fashioned photography to give us a better sense of a WWII movie than the contemporary graphics of digital photography. Fury thus echoes film history more than real history. Black Hawk Down: Leave No Man Behind is another contemporary war movie in the vein of The Last Survivor rather than Fury.
There are war buddy movies intended to recapture a particular historical moment that are as tense and gripping as Fury, but others, such as The Monument Men, can be almost a total bore because history imprisons the film rather than releases it to do its wonders. The Monument Men is a pastiche of clichés about the works of art standing for the freedom for which the West has fought. In that movie, there is not even a tip of the hat to critical theorists like Walter Benjamin who viewed the cultural treasures of bourgeois Europe as spoils to be fought over by the retreating German army, the advancing Soviets and the small strange crew of Americans who recognized the value of art. The film portrays the competition, but, instead of seeing the event through cynical or critical eyeglasses, it glorifies the America victory and the heroes give the art works back to their rightful owners.
Fury enhances the tension with its rich echoes of cinematic and even religious history as it reaches for a much more monumental and prophetic goal. The prophecy comes in intimate moments when Norman reads the palm of the first love of his life, a beautiful German girl, Emma, played by Alicia von Rittberg, and tells her, “You see this right here? That is your heart line. You’re gonna have one great love in your life.” Though you can imagine them as spending the rest of their lives together, deep down, given the bleak tone of the movie, you know your romantic inclinations will be crushed. For ideals belong to peacetime. War is cruel and violent. Not only is it violent and cruel, but everything is determined by fate.
By the twenty-first century, realism replaced and displaced the self-indulgence of star movie directors with a new kind of buddy war movie like the 2008 release, The Hurt Locker, but the innovation actually began earlier on television in the serial, Band of Brothers and was continued in the mini-series, the intertwined story of three marines fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theatre and simply called Pacific. However, Fury is a better film than The Hurt Locker, and the latter earned a fistful of Academy Awards, including one for Kathryn Bigelow, its director.
Both movies are totally raw, immediate and extremely visceral and gut wrenching. Both films laud instinct and raw guts. Wardaddy has the same steely calm and strength, the same confidence and unpredictability as the IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) military defuser in The Hurt Locker. Both films were not shot digitally with special effects, but on real film, The Hurt Locker with Super 8s. This, along with the sound recordings of the echoes inside the tank or the breathing during the tense moments when a bomb is being disarmed, enhance the realism of each movie.

However, the two films are also quite different. The reasons are many. Fury sticks to realism, unlike the mysticism of Karen Shakhnazarov’s 2012 Russian film White Tiger that also takes place in the final stages of WWII when inferior allied tanks were sent to do battle with better armoured and better equipped German monstrosities. The Hurt Locker, with all its emphasis on realism in its sensibilities and perspectives and the omission of special effects, and through the use of hand-held cameras to create the feeling of disorientation, is an exercise in super-realism. The scenes in Fury are true to the way tank battles take place. The Hurt Locker has gut-wrenching immediacy and spell-binding suspense, but the narrative has little similarity with the way IED’s are actually disarmed – usually as remotely as possible and where the actual handling of an explosive device by a human is very rare indeed. IED disposal units do not operate as three-man autonomous units without radios. However, not only is the narrative manipulated to serve the emotional intensity of the movie, but so is the story. The Hurt Locker uses the sharp cuts and the jerkiness of the camera to evoke nausea in the viewer. In Fury, when Norman vomits, we experience his repulsion as any observer would, but we do not feel nauseous ourselves.

Finally, Fury has gravitas like Apocalypse Now, but a seriousness that arises from the mud of war rather than revealed by a super nova. The Hurt Locker rises above the microscopic perspectives, but only to offer a macroscopic physical perspective. The macroscopic viewpoint of Fury comes from verbal asides and biblical quotations that are metaphysical rather than just physical perspectives. Thus, though The Hurt Locker was lauded for its portrayal of the brutish and cruel realities of war, it does not take the actual route of authenticity.

In addition to harking back to the set pieces of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, The Hurt Locker is an adrenaline soaked movie in which war is just the other side of sex, a thesis that Norman Mailer first put forth in his WWII novel, The Naked and the Dead, but the unity evoked is not between a man and a woman but between a band who become brothers through butchery. In The Hurt Locker, men take enormous pleasure in the testosterone fuelling of battles. In Fury they get to accept it and even enjoy killing enemy soldiers but they never get their rocks off by killing, even though fellow soldiers may laugh at a novice forced to kill for the first time. Finally, the miniscule space of the insides of a tank evokes, not the greatness of humans, but the pitiful miniscule role they play in the universe. The tank is the real home for men and offers the best job anyone could ever want.

Would you take it?