When I first saw Fury in 2014 when it came to theaters, I did not like it. I wish I could remember why. I re-watched it recently and did not have the same reaction. I wish I could recall my initial thoughts on it in order to compare it to how I now feel. I can come up with reasons. For one thing, it is terribly depressing. As a younger lad, I used to be fascinated by war. I thought that armed conflict was the end all, be all of history. My first goal in getting a terminal degree in history was for it to be in Military History. It was not until I met one of my professors as an undergrad, a person who was to become one of my mentors, that I learned there was more to the past than the movement of armies. He also said I would have to learn French, something I was not willing to do then, but have decided to do in the past year. Better late than never, I suppose. Anyway, as I matured I also learned how devastating is war. While I still find it an interesting subject, it is tempered by a more comprehensive understanding of its nature and my Faith. Today’s film gives a very real and up-close view of one of the more mythologized fights in recent history, World War II.
One thing I applaud Fury for is how early on it contextualizes its subject matter. Then again, many films that deal with the past also provide informational opening text. Still, it is important here in order to get a sense of the world of a tank crew, in this case led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), and its extreme dangers, particularly for Americans operating these “armored” vehicles. I put that word in parentheses because in the European theater of World War II, the ubiquitous American Sherman tanks were no match for the German Panzers. This is how we are introduced to Collier’s crew, their vehicle damaged and one of their drivers dead, following a tough battle with their enemy counterparts. They are eventually able to get moving again and make it back to base. Once there, they are given a replacement for their fallen comrade, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a situation with which none of them are pleased. Another thing to remember is that it is April of 1945, they are in German territory (the Fatherland, as they called it), and it is a crew that had miraculously survived together up to that point. They were battle weary and ready to be done with the fighting, and Norman is unexpectedly dropped into their company. On their first mission, Norman is brought face-to-face with the brutal nature of the war at that point. After overrunning a German position, Collier orders Norman to kill a German prisoner. This particular German is a member of the Schutzstaffel (known more familiarly as the SS), a fanatical wing of the German Army responsible for some of the worst Nazi atrocities of the war. Collier, and apparently most American soldiers, have a standing order to murder every last member of the SS they find. Because Norman is new to the war, and indeed the army, he does not understand these practices and refuses. Collier then manhandles the young man into gripping his pistol and pulling the trigger. So far, Norman is not endearing himself to Collier or the rest of the crew. Yet, Collier, despite his battle-hardened nature, can see that Norman needs some guidance. When they capture the next German town, Collier takes Norman into a German apartment. There lives two women, Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), a young lady who is Irma’s daughter. Given how Norman has seen Collier behave, anything is possible. Instead, Collier hands Irma some eggs to be cooked, asks for hot water, and allows Norman and Emma to be . . . alone, if you get my drift. Unfortunately, two things spoil a budding relationship between Emma and Norman. First, the rest of the crew, slightly drunk, burst into the apartment and behave boorishly. Secondly, a German artillery strike hits Irma and Emma’s building, killing them. This sequence of events forms a bond between Collier and Norman, and begins hardening the younger man to the realities of war. These lessons are also driven home as they head out on their next mission, to defend a crossroads. Along the way, three of the four tanks in their unit are destroyed by a single German tank, theirs being the only survivor. It is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable they are. Still, it is a tank, and while it is damaged when they arrive at the crossroads and rendered immobile by a landmine, it is able to protect itself from anything short of another German tank. This is to prove invaluable as they decide to stay and fight an entire German battalion by themselves. Unsurprisingly, everyone dies but Norman, but not before taking out many enemy combatants. The film closes with Norman being carted away by other advancing American soldiers.
When we first meet Norman in Fury, he protests to anyone who will listen that he is merely a typist. Still, he serves as a handy fish-out-of-water character through which we are introduced to the world of a Sherman tank crew. You can fairly ask how, if the Americans were so easily defeated, how did they win the war? There is no simple answer to this question without some extra historical background, and I will try to be as brief as possible. While German tanks were superior in almost every measurable way, they were not only fighting the Americans, but also the British, French, Canadians, Russians, Polish, Bolivians, Iroquois, Mesopotamians, and Martians. Okay, the last two I made up, but you get the idea: they were fighting a war on several fronts and thus had to stretch their resources, particularly as late in the war as April of 1945. Another factor to consider is the sheer weight of numbers the allies could throw at the Germans. Sure, a German Tiger tank could easily defeat one, two, or twelve Shermans at a time, but there was always twenty more to replace them. Finally, German tanks, though having better armor and guns, were not entirely invincible. They had a weakness, and while hard to get at, if hit in the rear they could be destroyed. You see this in the film. Yet, more often than not, in one-on-one, or four-on-one, the Panzer emerged victorious and many American tank crews died. You see the emotional toll this took on Collier and his men. Though they would ironically say that operating their tank is the best job they ever had, they also had a fatalistic attitude towards performing it, believing it is only a matter of time before they are killed in action.
There is a famous saying about war, and Fury does a good job of portraying it, that there are no atheists in the foxhole. What that simply means is that while in the thick of battle, even the most ardent non-believer turns to God. Collier’s crew has its resident Christian in Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), though he is just as intent on killing as many Germans as possible. He sees the Nazis as the embodiment of evil, which is understandable. By April of 1945, the Allied forces had uncovered many Concentration Camps where they were exterminating Jews by the millions. This is not referred to in the film, and Swan’s anger seems motivated by what the enemy has done to his comrades, but it can be inferred if you know your history. Thus, while he sights the tank’s main gun, he sees himself as an instrument of God’s punishment. You also see Christian symbols around the seat of the tank’s main driver, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña). Even Collier, the more controlled but probably most cynical character, is quoting scripture during the climactic moment before his death at the end. It is probably best that people have such conversion experiences before they are knocking on death’s door. At the same time, God will welcome you no matter when you turn to Him, just so long as you do it with a sincere heart.
After writing this review of Fury, I still cannot remember why I did not like it at first glance. Do not get me wrong, it remains a tough and brutal film to watch. It also does something that I wish more films would do. We all know what happens between Emma and Norman. The film all but says it. Or maybe they did not actually have sex. Who knows? Whatever it was that happened, they do more with what they do not show than what they do. For this, and how it is a warning for the awful nature of war, I give it a cautious recommendation.